In my experience, the best way to learn to use chromatic passing notes in your solos is using Barry Harris Chromatic Scale. But, you have to watch out that you get it to where it becomes really amazing because there is A LOT more in there that goes far beyond chromatic notes and deep into some amazing Bebop phrasing, and you DON’T want to miss that.
The Basic Exercise
What makes this a beautiful strategy is probably that it is actually incredibly simple but also very complete, let me show you what I mean.
If you take a C major scale:
The goal is to add a chromatic note between all the notes in the scale, and for the most part, that is super easy, barely an inconvenience, but there are a few “trouble spots”.
Between C & D, and D & E you can just add a chromatic note:
But between theE and The F it is a bit more tricky
Here you can take the scale note above F, G as shown above:
From F to G, G to A, A to B, it is easy:and
again since there is no room between B and C
So you can add the B D C:
Giving you this exercise:
And you can do exactly the same going down, adding a scale note whenever there isn’t a natural chromatic leading note.
This already sounds great, and a lot more interesting than just moving in half steps, but there is a lot more to get from this, especially with those exception spots.
It works for any scale!
You should also realize that this system will work with any scale so if you take A harmonic minor that could give you this:
The Advantage – Modular Bebop
“But what is so great about a bunch of chromatic notes?”
The first advantage is having a way to insert chromatic notes before every note in a scale. This is incredibly powerful because that means that you can come up with a short lick and move it around the scale and it will work for a lot of chords.
Check out this line with 2 half-steps and an arpeggio:
And now that you have this chromatic scale, it is possible to move the line to other chords and still keep the rhythm the same.
This is the original:
on Dm7 you get:
And for Em7:
Of course, you can take this through the entire scale, but you can hear how these all work.
And notice that the Em7 line also sounds great over a Cmaj7 so you are developing solid material for several chords working like this.
Rhythm = Phrasing!
The important thing here is that Barry’s chromatic scale keeps the rhythm intact when you move around phrases, because that means that it stays solid vocabulary, if it works on one chord it will work on the others as well, but this is just the basic system, and I see quite a few students get stuck with just using only this small part of is, which is actually a pity since it can create so many other beautiful things, even chords.
Taking It Up A Level
Until now the phrases have been pretty simple, but they work well and are easy to create:
And often the emphasis is on using Barry’s chromatic scale to create lines where chord tones are on the downbeat and chromatic notes or half-steps are on the offbeat, in fact, similar to the thinking in Bebop scales, just a lot more open so that you don’t only play scale melodies all the time.
You probably know I am not a huge fan of Bebop scales.
This example isn’t wrong, but you don’t want to stop here, if you listen to Bebop lines then they are not only changing direction on the heavy beat like this one does.
Parker did it like this
A typical Bebop Line like this Parker Lick changes direction in less predictable places and that is a huge part of why it sounds good: It is more surprising and exciting.
There are different ways to describe what is going on in a lick like this, but this exercise actually can help you get more of that sound in there.
On a side note, You also want to notice that Parker doesn’t mind having a leading note on the downbeat at the beginning of the phrase, that is NOT a rule!
And whenever I say that there are people in the comments who start complaining that I say that it IS a rule. It will be interesting if they now stopped the video to start typing angrily and didn’t see this part.
It’s All About That Exception
The secret weapon you have for making stronger melodies is primarily the exceptions in the exercise, which are an incredible tool, and much more powerful than you might think!
You might wonder “why is this useful?”, but it is actually difficult to get the melodies to have a natural flow and still move around in a surprising way without sounding like a scientific experiment, and in the Barry Harris Chromatic Scale that is already there, and you can get the melody to skip around without having to do any extra work.
Take this super simple melody
You can add a half step between the B and the A:
But if you add the half step between the C and the B then you need to skip up to a higher scale note and you get a much nicer melody:
And of course, you can use this together with other half-steps and get:
There is a lot more available! I will get to the crazy chords later, but let’s first create some really great Bop lines.
The Hidden Bonus
Whenever Barry talks about this exercise in the masterclasses, he also talks about how any note can be a half-step, and I want to show you how you can use that as a method for creating some really great bop lines.
And It is easy to get to work, but also has an odd side-effect. If you start with a basic descending line like this:
Then the version you already know sounds great like this:
But you can also turn it into an amazing melody with a large 6th interval by using the 3rd as a half step, so skipping down to a lower E.
And you can of course also just choose to add the leading note below the target:
While I don’t think that chromatic leading notes have to be on an offbeat then 99% of the time these types of lines sound better if the “half step” is not on a downbeat, but you can work around that by adding a leading note to the low-leading note:
And working on this, coming up with licks where you insert these melodic skips into your solos will really make your lines go up a few levels on the scale of Bebop goodness.
Going Too Far
These first examples were all based around the “exception” spots in the lines but maybe it also works in other places.
If you start with this:
and usually, you would just add a half-step between E and D
But here taking a lower chord tone also sound great:
And again adding leading notes to the leading note and a few other half steps you have a great line like this:
Which is a line that you can move around in the scale and turn into a Dm7-G7 lick and create this II V I:
I will go over some more examples on how to write lines using Barry’s Chromatic scale in this week’s Patreon video, but maybe that is anyway a topic for another video. Let me know in the comments
Going WAY Too Far
One thing that I remember from the 1st year I went to the piano classes in the Hague was how Barry talked about harmonizing this chromatic scale. He had gotten this idea from one of the piano players in the Hague, Erik Doelman, who sadly passed away a few years ago.
At the time, I took that exercise and tried to move it to guitar with drop2 voicings, and it was pretty much unplayable, but again, the idea is simple and you can sometimes find some nice things in there with some VERY dissonant chords.
Essentially you take a chord voicing and then just move each note through Barry’s chromatic scale.
For a Cmaj7 that looks and sounds like this:
I suspect that I did the same thing but started with a C6 voicing which complicates it a bit more, but as I said I don’t remember.
And this is a great exercise for your fretboard overview, exploring this exercise and you can find some pretty crazy chord sounds that can be fun to throw in there as passing chords.
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