Thinking Out – Chromatic Notes by Joe Bigham

Have you ever been at a concert or a jam session and wondered how certain players can play all the “wrong” notes, yet sound like they are in total control of the notes they are playing? Many times, by using notes outside of the key or mode you are playing in, you can create a greater sense of movement by carefully choosing these “wrong” notes. There are many ways to use chromaticism (any of the twelve notes as opposed to those within the scale) to add new flavors to your playing

Pass it on to your Neighbor

The easiest way to use chromaticism is through “passing notes” and “neighbor notes”: notes that either fill the spaces between two notes (passing) or lie right above or below one note (neighbor). You may have used either type before.

One typical phrase for passing notes would be such: in playing a phrase using a D note moving down to a C, add a C# (same as a Db) in between. By doing so, a stronger sense of downward movement is created between the notes. Passing chromatic notes lend a “jazzier” feel to lines, and avoid sounding locked in to a particular scale.

Neighbor notes can be just a easy to use. By starting a semitone below your destination note and then moving up to that note, you can create a blues like line: over an A chord play a C note (a “wrong” note for an A major chord) and then move directly up to the C#. The opposite motion (starting a semitone above and moving downward) can imply an exotic mood to an otherwise regular melody. A third example would use a neighbor note as part of a trill (an ornamentation that oscillates between two adjacent notes). Guitarists use this particular technique for bluesy phrasing, particularly over an E chord: while playing the E chord hammer on and pull off the 1st fret note on the G string, creating a trill between G# (in the chord) and G (out of the chord).

Just get Out!

A more advance use of chromatic tones involves playing “out”, in other words completely disregarding the chords or appropriate scales to create tension. Most music revolves around the idea of tension and release: our main chord always feels like the destination point and all of the other chords create a tension that pulls us back to the main chord. By disregarding the appropriate notes, we can create a tension that will be resolved once we return to the proper scale or chord. This is the key to playing out: if you do not resolve your chromatic notes it will sound like you do not know which notes to hit in the first place.

A basic example of playing out would be such: over any chord (including your tonic, or main chord) play a simple three note lick. Now repeat that lick again half a step higher. Continue raising the lick up by half steps; this will create a big sense of tension that will resolve if once you stop on a note or chord within the scale. You can achieve the same results through downward motion.

Many jazz players use this technique at its most extreme: playing whole melodies, chords, or phrases that do not fit within the given key of the song, only to resolve these ideas back to the original key. For an idea of such playing, check out almost anything by John Coltrane, Herbie Hancock, or Ornette Coleman. In addition you can here such techniques in Newgrass music (considering the strong jazz influence). Bela Fleck, Chris Thiele, Sam Bush, and Tony Rice have used this technique on almost all of their recordings.

Sometimes you just need to play the wrong notes to see what happens. By temporarily escaping from the confines of the key you are in, a whole new vocabulary will be open to you. You can also see the corollary in playing “out of time” by completely avoiding any preexisting rhythmic pulse for a short time. Again you would need to return back to the main meter and rhythm to resolve the tension created by playing out. By playing out for a short bit, you can create a stronger impression when you do return home.

If you have any more questions regarding playing out, chromaticism, or other techniques covered here, email us.

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