Chromaticism In Blues

Application of the chromatic leading and passing tone to the blues.

Ultimate Guitar
In the last lesson, I introduced the concepts of the chromatic leading and passing tone as a way to add interest to single-note lines (and largely in the context of targeting chord tones over a progression). I left off with some simple examples of lines constructed using some chromaticism, with a basic chord progression in C major as the structure. I'd like to demonstrate and talk about this more, in the context of the blues. Chromaticism In The Blues The 12 bar blues is an infectous, simple format that just so happens to inherently involve some chromaticism, since every chord but the V chord contains notes outside the key. For example, if we were to play a standard 12 bar blues in E (E7, A7, E7, E7, A7, A7, E7, E7, B7, A7, E7, E7), every time we play that E7 and A7 we're using notes outside the key of E major (the D and G naturals), and if we were to target chord tones for single-note lines we would likely make use of those notes to some extent. To the extent that we jazz up the blues changes, things only get more chromatic. Even putting aside consideration for the changes, there is quite a bit of chromaticism to be found in the single-note lines of many blues players. What is called "the blues scale" itself is really something emergent from chromaticism - the use of a chromatic passing tone between the 4th and 5th, I.E. "the blue note". There are also lots of little cliches such as a minor 3rd as a leading tone to a major 3rd or a chromatic walkdown from the 7th to the 5th. The common usage of bends in the blues also often involves some chromaticism in terms of the notes being bent to and from. Blues is often packed full of little chromatic cliches. Here's a cliche double stop thing for you, one you might hear in an E blues:
G and A# are not in the key of E major, yet such notes work wonderfully for things like this. It's subtle chromaticism. Or here's a cliche you will find as a turn-around leading to the V chord, again for an E blues (let the open high E ring out):
That walkdown from D to B passes through a C. Again, there is no such note in E major, but it's working as a passing tone here. Chromaticism With Pentatonics Even when using the minor pentatonic scale as our skeleton, we can make some chromatic manuevers. As has been noted, "the blues scale" is simply what happens when you add a particular chromatic passing tone (#4/b5) to the pentatonic. But there are other wholesteps that can potentially be filled as well. If we work with E minor pentatonic, the gap between D and E can be filled with a D#, as well as the gap between G and A with a G#. Thinking even more broadly, we could think of filling the gaps between the minor 3rds (I.E. there is F and F# between E and G, and there is a C and C# between B and D). One could concievably practise pentatonics with various kinds of chromatic passing tones used. Suppose I decided to add A#'s (between A and B) and D#'s (between D and E). I'd get this:
Armed with the possibility of incorporating chromatic passing tones, I could then create more interesting lines such as this (economy picked):
Application To A 12 Bar Format So lets take a look at a basic blues and see what kind of chromatic manuevers we can make out of it. Suppose another guitar player is playing the chords for a 12 bar blues in E, involving E7, A7, and B7. Just like we did with the chord progression in the last lesson, we can approach each of the chord tones by a half-step under as a manuever in our lines, and we can "fill in some gaps" when moving from on place to another. Over the first 4 bars, I might play something like this (using swinging 8th notes, and for most of this, I'm feeling the next chord on *the and of 4* a bar before its noted, which gives it a jazzy feel):
 E7                 A7                E7
There are lots of little chromatic manuevers in here. Over the 1st E7, I approach the 3rd (G#) with a leading tone (G), and fill in the gap between the root and 7th with a passing tone (D#). In anticipation of the A7, I approach its 3rd (C#) with a leading tone (C). On my way to the 7th of E7 (D), I walk up chromatically to it (B, C, C#). Over the E7, I target the 3rd (G#) with a leading tone (G) that is also functioning as a passing tone between F# and G#, and use D# between D and E, and at the end I descend from C# to B with C as a passing tone. Over the next 4 bars, I might play something like this:
 A7                Edim7             E7
For the A7, I use a D# as a chromatic passing tone and a leading tone to an E (the 5th of A7). For the 2nd bar (well, 6th in the whole scheme), I added an Edim7 chord, which I lead into from the A7 with an A#. I then outline the chord tones in a descending manner, approaching them from a half-step under (F# to G, D# to E, and C to C#). Over the E7, I target the 3rd again (G#) and approach it with a G, I approach the 5th (B) with an A#, and I move from F# to E (the root) with a chromatic passing tone (F). Then I move from the 5th to the 3rd, using an A# as a passing tone on the way down. I may continue like this for the last 4 bars:
 B7                A7                E7
For the B7 I imply passing through A#7 on the way down to the A7 - a pretty typical little manuever, and technically a tritone sub. I use G as a passing tone between F# and G# on my way to the E7. For the E7, I use a chromatic passing tone (C) to go from B to D. And that's it. I've invented a melodic part (or what could be the beginning of a solo) over a 12 bar blues using some chromaticism and paying attention to chord tones. Summary As should be clear, there is no reason why you have to be restricted to pentatonic or blues scale runs. Chord tones + chromaticism opens up a lot more possibilities. I think that this is a good route to go for those who are interested in playing blues or blues-based music but feel stuck in pentatonic boxes. I would suggest downloading some free blues backing/jam tracks and improv over them practising targeting chord tones and incorporating some chromaticism into it.

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    As far as "practise routines" to pull from this: (1) linear picking up/down and various patterns to a metronome with all your pentatonic boxes (and dominant 7th arpeggios) having chromatic passing tones added to them in each possible way and/or (2) targeting chord tones and using chromaticism over a 12 bar blues format, whether a backing or others playing in time.