Should You Practice the Chromatic Scale?

The chromatic scale is kind of strange. We call it a “scale” but anyone who uses it like a typical scale is going to be labeled “avant garde.”

The chromatic scale is essentially the musical alphabet. It’s no more muscial than the regular alphabet is literary. Chromaticism can be used to connect notes within a key, although tends to make guitar lines sound jazzy or like some kind of experimental music.

Does that mean it’s not useful? Of course it’s useful, and it’s absolutely worth practicing.

For the typical guitarist, the chromatic scale is worth practicing as a physical and mental exercise. An understanding of how the notes on the fretboard connect across all six strings is an invaluable skill.

Musicians tend to think about scales like a roadmap. Scales keep everyone on the road in an orderly fashion.

The chromatic scale is more like a compass. It points us in the right direction but it doesn’t indicate a destination. This article will hopefully demystify this strange scale and improve your understanding of chromatics on the guitar.

  1. What Are the 12 Notes of the Chromatic Scale?
  2. How Do You Play the Chromatic Scale?
    1. The Staircase
    2. Position-based Chromatics
    3. Up the Neck
  3. How to Practice the Chromatic Scale
  4. Conclusion

What Are the 12 Notes of the Chromatic Scale?

The chromatic scale consists of all 12 notes found in Western music. This includes the seven natural notes (A, B, C, D, E, F, G) and five notes known as either sharps or flats depending on the musical context (A#/Bb, C#/Db, D#/Eb, F#/Gb, G#/Ab).

The piano keyboard lays all 12 notes in a repeating pattern. Even most non-musicians can understand how the notes are laid out on a piano. Here is a single octave of the piano, starting and ending with C.

Piano Keyboard

The 12-note chromatic scale is a little less obvious on a guitar fretboard. If we lay it out on the high-E string of a guitar, starting at the open string and working up to the 12th fret, the chromatic scale would look like this:

The Chromatic Scale laid out on the high-E string of a guitar. The notes have been color coded to match the black and white keys of a piano.

Each of the notes has been color coded to match the piano. The only difference is that we’re starting on E instead of C. Notice the five black notes and the neighboring white notes that represent E-F and B-C.

But guitar doesn’t have white and black keys. Guitarists have to learn other ways to visualize the notes on the fretboard.

How Do You Play the Chromatic Scale?

There are several ways to play the chromatic scale on the guitar. As shown in the diagram below, the simplest way is by playing every fret of a single string.

The chromatic scale played on the high-E string. Shift your hand after each group of four.

Playing every note on a single string might be a fine way to warm up, but it doesn’t reveal anything about how the notes are laid out on the fretboard. The fingering is the same on all six strings because there is no key or scale pattern to worry about.


The Staircase

One of the most common ways of teaching the chromatic scale is a 4-note-per-string pattern. The pattern starts on the lowest string and works its way up (or back down), like this:

Every four notes, your hand shifts over to the next string and down one fret. The exception is the shift from the G string to the B string. Those two strings are tuned a major 3rd apart. Every other pair of strings is a perfect 4th apart.

We start to see how we can play every note across two full octaves. From this perspective, the guitar starts to work more like a piano where the notes are lined up one after the other.

Access to every note means we can play in every key from any position on the fretboard. The pattern above contains every note of every scale twice.

But this pattern is more useful as a warmup exercise than as a tool for making music. Building scales that require shifting strings AND fret positions isn’t particularly efficient.


Position-based Chromatics

This pattern is a little trickier to play. It starts by playing the first note of the sequence with the index finger and sliding up to the next note.

As you can see, within any block of five frets, you have access to the entire chromatic scale. That means you can also play in any key within any five-fret block. Some areas of the fretboard will be more effective in some keys than others, but the notes are all there.

Again, the B string is different from the others. Otherwise this pattern is pretty easy to follow. If you can learn this pattern, you will begin to understand position-based scales.

Position-based scales were made popular by the late William Leavitt, the longtime chair of the Berklee College of Music guitar department. Rather than learning fingering patterns for each key, with a fixed start and end point, Leavitt taught scales according to fretboard positions.

This system makes it easier to find the most effective area of the fretboard to play a given piece of music. It also makes reading sheet music a bit less daunting.

But what if you need to cover more than two octaves?


Up the Neck

We can cover a lot more ground in a block of six notes per string. Starting from F at the 1st fret, we can cover a full three octaves.

The direction of this pattern is almost the opposite of the staircase pattern. The above diagram starts on the first fret to illustrate how much range we can cover when shifting over one string and up one fret.

This pattern is pretty difficult to play on its own, but it illustrates the direction required for climbing the neck. Shredders and jazzers alike use scales that follow this path when they need a wide range, or just be extra flashy for the audience.

How to Practice the Chromatic Scale

Learning these four patterns is helpful for navigating the fretboard, especially in combination with learning the notes on the neck.

For most beginner to early-intermediate players, the chromatic scale is little more than a warmup exercise. All that’s required is a metronome and a few minutes.

  • Use the following example to ascend and descend the chromatic scale.
  • Set a metronome at 60 bpm
  • Play each note in the sequence with alternate picking (upstroke, downstroke)
  • If the exercise becomes easy, increase the metronome by 10 bpm and play the pattern again.
  • Remember, the goal is accuracy not speed. This works on your fretboard knowledge and your coordination. No one will be impressed by how fast you can play the chromatic scale.

This same exercise can be performed with any of the four patterns covered in this article.

More advanced players can practice building diatonic scales within each pattern. This will improve fretboard knowledge and help players break out of pattern-based scales.

Advanced players who like the way chromatic runs sound may also choose to study different methods of incorporating chromatics into melody lines.

Conclusion

Unlike the major and minor scales, most musicians don’t need to know the chromatic scale like the back of their hand. Outside of jazz, its primary function is a practice and visualization tool.

Practice it. Know it. But don’t spend too much of your practice time dwelling on it. Think of it more like a compass than a roadmap.

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