Chromaticism And Swing Picking

By Kailash Pate May 05, 2015

Using chromaticism with swing picking

Hi Guys. I'm taking a break from interval-related theory, to show you some ideas for working with chromaticism and the technique of swing picking. This can really help open up a whole new world of sound and expression, building on the patterns you may know for scales and arpeggios. This lesson will demonstrate these two concepts by disguising the A minor pentatonic scale (1, b3, 4, 5, b7) with some very simple note-choice concepts. If you don’t have a good feel for the on- and off-beat, then this lesson should help with that. The examples are taken from an audio lesson I made for a buddy of mine on SoundCloud. Below I provide the times for finding each lick within that audio track, and you can download the track, if you need to slow it down, practise it, and so on.

Awareness of the on- and off-beat

This is one skill that cannot be over-estimated. Note placement in time (against a rhythmic background) is fundamental. If you are not sure about what on- and off-beats are, then take a listen to the beginning of the audio track (from 0:00 to 2:19).

Swing picking

I love this technique. Produces a very cool sound. I use this with rock, metal, jazz, and blues. Always pick the off-beat when playing notes on the same string. Sound the on-beat by hammer-on to it, pull-off to it, or slide to it. If the first note on a string is an on-beat, then either hammer-on to it or pick it as well. While picking on the same string, change direction each time you pick. When changing strings, use whatever approach you normally take with picking (for choice of up-stroke or down-stroke). I use economy picking (take the shortest route to the string). Finally, rather than playing each note for equal duration, experiment with shortening the duration of the pitch played on the on-beat, and start the off-beat slightly early, lengthening its duration. Ensure the on-beats occur on time.

Simple chromaticism

If you find yourself wanting some more colour or note choice to add to your existing toolkit of scales, arpeggios and so on, this may be just the job. If you've read any of previous lessons, you know I'm a big fan of pointing out that any note can be used against any chord, as far as today's music is concerned. For today, I don't want to get into discussions of which intervals sound edgy or not, and am just going to give you a few guidelines to let you make up your own examples. Hopefully you can adapt the licks below. All we are going to do is make use of pitches that are a semitone either side of a scale pitch. If either (or both) of these neighbours are missing from the scale, then that neighbour pitch is known as a chromatic pitch.

Upper neighbour versus lower neighbour

If the chromatic pitch is one semitone above a chord member, it will clash more compared to a chromatic pitch a semitone below that chord member. For example, if we use A minor pentatonic against an Am(7) chord, and then add the chromatic pitch C# (a maj 3rd against A) this will jar against the C in the chord. Yeah, but it can sound great. So, with awareness of the chord in the backing, you can bring out or soften the chromatic effect by using the upper or lower neighbour respectively. If you have a chord progression in the key of A minor, say, then the tonic is Am(7) , and you can treat the progression as though only the tonic is being played, and play upper and lower neighbour chromatic pitches against any of the tonic chord.

On-beat versus off-beat

When a pitch is played on the beat, it stands out more than a pitch played on the off-beat (assuming all pitches are of roughly the same duration). Therefore, to bring more attention to the chromatic pitch, play it on the on-beat. To soften the chromatic effect, play it on the off-beat.

Danger! Two things you don't want to do (mostly)

1. Don't end a lick on a chromatic pitch. The last note of a lick is very prominent as it is followed by silence, and hence you want to use a scale note. 2. Don't leap from a scale pitch by more than 2 semitones to a chromatic pitch, and then follow that by another chromatic pitch. This doesn't sound good. Instead, follow the first chromatic pitch by a scale note (preferably a chord member). Leaps draw attention themselves, even without chromatic pitches involved.


All the examples use the A minor pentatonic as the basis, and the chord progression is Am7CD. The first example just places neighbour chromatic pitches either side of each scale member in the A minor pentatonic scale. Most often, "correct" advice says "don't play a major 3rd against a minor 3rd" and "don't play a maj 7th against a b7". But this can be done to great effect. Listen from 3:54 to 4:28 on the audio track. Here's the tab. The next example (starts at 4:45 to 4:55) is again just adding neighbours, mainly around the 4 (D) and b3 (C). As a result, the 2 (B) got added (I didn’t consciously add the B by knowing it is present in the minor scale (A Dorian) that suits this chord progression). But then I re-approached the B chromatically, as it sounded good. Notice I started on a scale note on the beat and ended on a scale note. Also, notice the effect of using the b6 (F) in the 3rd bar, 3rd note in the bar (on the beat), to make it stand out more. The next example brings the maj7 interval (G#) into focus, on the on-beat (7th note in the first bar). This is a great sound, that is seriously underused by rock players. The choice of F# in the lick comes from A Dorian (F# is the 6 of Dorian, it's defining interval). Check out 5:01 to 5:06


Next (5:14 to 5:17) I'm pushing the chromaticism further, by playing both the b5 and the b6 on the beat at the 3rd and 5th notes in the first bar.

Next (5:25 - 5:35) is similar to the previous example, with the last bar of the lick reverting to just using A minor pentatonic. Next (5:54 - 6:06). The 7th note of the second bar is a chromatic note on the beat (F). Next (6:19 - 6:23). This pushes the boat out, really emphasing the chromatic maj 3rd (C#) by placing on the beat, especially at the start of the second bar. Finally (6:26 - ). This is a softer version of the previous example. The maj 3rd (C#) only appears once on the beat (7th note in the first bar). So, hope this gives you some ideas for using chromaticism, and swing picking. See you next time. Have fun! Cheers, Jerry

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