Using Chromatic Passing Tones In Your Lead Playing

Using Chromatic Passing Tones In Your Lead Playing

By Matt Chanway

Playing lead guitar is one of the most fun things out there. Especially as you begin to get a handle on some scales and some common lead techniques, you can really start to wow people with the music that you create through lead improvisation. People say that the time of the guitar hero has come and gone, but there are few people that are not impressed by a well-played guitar solo.

A common question students have once they’ve cut their teeth a bit playing lead guitar, is that their solos still sound a lot like scales, and less like actual music. Now, I could write a book on this subject, and that may happen in the future, but there are many, many ways we can liven up our lead playing and make it dynamic and interesting. I’m going to focus on one technique for today though – chromatic passing tones. ‘Chromatic’ means “add colour,” and that is exactly what chromatic passing tones do. By definition, when we add an extra note to a passage that is not a part of the scale or mode we are using to improvise, we are adding a chromatic passing tone. They are commonplace in jazz music, but great guitar players in all genres use these to add some variety and, well, colour to their playing. Since this is just a short article, I’m going to outline three scenarios where chromatic passing tones can have a very cool sound, and give some specific accompanying examples as well.


Example 1 – Using The Flattened 5th As A Passing Tone

The flattened 5th, when played on its own in relation to a root note, can have almost a cartoonishly evil sound to it. But when used properly, it gives us a very cool, bluesy type of sound. A lot of guitarists are familiar with the flattened 5th in the context of the blues scale, but we can also use it in a lot of modal contexts as well. For example, here are some fingerings of the E Dorian and E Aeolian modes, with the flattened 5th added – you can create some very cool licks with these…



Example 2 – Using Chromatic Notes To Connect Arpeggio Tones

This approach to passing tones is a little less targeted than adding a specific passing tone to a scale (such as the flat 5th), but is very cool in its own right. If we take any arpeggio, we can use chromatic passing tones to connect two tones of the arpeggio, such as the 3rd and 5th, or 5th to 7th, and such and so forth. In this example, I am showing a Cmaj7 arpeggio with chromatic passing tones connecting the 5th and 7th intervals of the chord.



Example 3 – Connecting the Minor 7th and Root Notes of a Minor Scale

This is a great trick to add some unpredictability to your solos. Here we are going to add a chromatic passing tone just before the root note, which will add a little bit of suspense before resolving a phrase, or you can use it to create faster licks as well. Here, it’s shown in a short A Blues scale phrase. However, this passing tone can be tactfully used with any scale that has a minor 7th interval within it.



Example 4 – Approach A Chord Tone With Chromatic Passing Tones

If you’ve studied with me in the past, you’ll know I tend to go on a lot about stable and unstable notes to resolve phrases on when soloing. If you have a note that you know you want to end a phrase on, playing some chromatic passing tones (regardless of what the actual intervals of the passing tones end up as) can be a great way to add some tension and release to your lines. This example ascends up an E natural minor scale pattern, and uses chromatic passing tones to reach the flat 3rd, G.



There you have it. By no means a comprehensive look at the topic, but some licks and ideas to get you playing some more colourful phrases. Have fun!

Matt Chanway is a professional guitarist and teaches guitar lessons in Langley, British Columbia.