Major pentatonic. Minor pentatonic. Natural minor. Blues. The scales you can learn to play on guitar seem just about endless. But what about the chromatic scale?
The chromatic scale is sometimes considered to be a “basic” scale in the music world because it includes all notes in Western music. Since this scale contains so many notes, you won’t really hear someone say a song is in “chromatic mode.” Still, understanding the chromatic scale can make a big difference in your playing.
Let’s take a closer look at both the chromatic scale and some chromatic scale guitar exercises that can help you learn and use it.
Chromatic Scale for Guitar: a Guide
1. What Exactly Is A Chromatic Scale?
Let’s start with the basics: what is a chromatic scale? Simply put, a chromatic scale is an arrangement of all 12 notes found in Western music. The notes are arranged in ascending or descending order, and each is separated by a half step.
You can also start the chromatic scale on any note. You only need to keep going up or down in half-step intervals until you reach the starting note again. But it’s very important to remember that the distance between two notes is always a half step!
Here are the 12 notes of the scale:
A A# B C C# D D# E F F# G G#
You may already be familiar with the concept of enharmonic notes in music. But in case you aren’t, enharmonic notes are two notes that have exactly the same pitch (and sound exactly the same) but are written differently. The scale below sounds the exact same as the one above — the sharp notes have just been replaced with their flat-notated enharmonic counterparts.
A Bb B C Db D Eb E F Gb G Ab
Of course, those notes can be played at seemingly infinite frequencies.
Just like any other scale, the chromatic scale simply repeats an octave higher each time you reach its end. The chromatic scale is an easy one to remember, as it uses the same intervals throughout. Notes are separated by half steps. A half step (also called a semi-tone or semitone) is the smallest interval in Western music. On a guitar, a half step is a shift of one fret. This video link will show you an example of what the chromatic scale sounds like.
As a side note, the chromatic scale is also considered to be a symmetrical scale. That means that every one of its modes produces the same type of scale. Of course, each mode of the chromatic scale simply produces another chromatic scale.
2. Playing The Chromatic Scale On One String
This is probably the simplest way to play the scale, as you simply fret notes on consecutive frets. But the fact that it’s easy doesn’t mean it’s useless; playing through all the notes this way is probably the best way to really conceptualize the scale.
If you’ve spent any time on a typical guitar lesson website, you may have already been introduced to an exercise where you play the chromatic scale on just one string of the guitar.
The easiest starting note would be E major, with the first note as an open E on either the low E string or the high E string. Play the open note and then place your index finger on the first fret. This note is F.
After that, place your middle finger on the second fret (F#), your ring finger on the third fret (G), and your pinky on the fourth fret (G#). To continue down the string, move your hand quickly to place your index finger on the fifth fret. Play the next frets the same way you did the first ones.
Keep playing this way until you get to the 12th fret. You probably recall that the chromatic scale has 12 notes, so once you get to the 12th fret, you hear the first note (in this case, E) again.
Make sure to repeat this on the low E string, A string, D string, G string, B string, and high E string! Practice this with a different starting note each time for an extra challenge. And if you want to start working on note names, saying the name of each note as you play it will help. If you’d like a video tutorial introducing this helpful exercise, this video will talk you through it!
3. Playing The Chromatic Scale On All Strings
Whether you’re in a guitar lesson program or teaching yourself, playing the chromatic scale across all strings is a helpful exercise. And even if you’re an experienced player, it can be a great warmup.
To play the chromatic scale on all strings, we will just need the first four frets on the fretboard. Start out the same way you did above — with your first four fingers on the first four frets.
At this point, you could shift one fret and continue with your index finger on the fifth fret. That would give us an A.
However, if you move your hand down a string and play it open, you’ll also get an A. When you play the chromatic scale this way, you place your first four fingers on the first four frets on every string except the G string. On the G string, you place your first three fingers on the first three frets before playing the B string open.
This video will show you how to play the scale across all strings. To really get comfortable playing the scale, make sure to alternate starting on the low E string and high E string. Also make sure you play the scale in reverse, too! Practicing ascending and descending is arguably one of the best ways to really get familiar with the scale.
Playing chromatic scale patterns this way might seem boring. However, it’s a great exercise, especially if you’re just getting used to playing a given scale shape up and down the guitar neck.
4. Using Chromatic Scale: Learning Notes
The chromatic scale is especially helpful for training your fingers to move quickly over the fretboard. But it can also be an outstanding way to learn all notes on the fretboard.
There are a couple of very helpful ways to do this. One is starting the chromatic scale on random notes and saying the names of the notes as you go. Another is simply playing the same chromatic scale ascending and descending, but still saying the note names aloud as you play them.
Some guitar lesson programs, whether in-person or online, won’t really emphasize the importance of learning all the notes. But when you can name pretty much any note going up or down the guitar neck, your ability to both understand and improvise music will greatly improve.
Most guitar teachers and experienced guitarists will advise you to take your time as far as learning notes. If you push yourself to memorize every note on the fretboard right away, you’re very likely to get overwhelmed or confused.
Ultimately, that gets in the way of your guitar journey. Finding them on the fretboard will become second nature if you take time and get really familiar with the notes. That said, different people have found different methods that seem to help them. Check out this video for some useful tips on memorizing each note on your guitar fretboard!
5. Using Chromatic Scale: Improving Technique
Chromatic scale patterns are pretty simple to remember. That lets you focus on other aspects of playing guitar. As you drill these scales, focus on tone quality and technique. Ideally, you’ll want to play with a metronome. Plenty of guitar sites (like this one) offer free metronome tools!
Start the metronome at a comfortably slow tempo. You’ll want to make sure that you are playing buzz-free notes that sound good to your ear. Make sure you aren’t accidentally hitting other strings or otherwise creating any extraneous sound. You’ve probably heard this endless times, but be sure to focus on technique over speed!
You can also use the chromatic scale to develop your alternate picking skills. Alternate picking is a technique where you alternate upstrokes and downstrokes. Depending on the genre of music you play, it may be more essential — it’s especially prevalent in hard rock and metal.
Alternate picking gives you a sharper attack and a good bit of control over what you’re playing. It’s also the technique most guitarists use when speed picking. This video (above right) offers a helpful introduction.
6. Chromatic Scale Exercises: Speed
Some songs may occasionally involve a brief series of chromatic notes. But even if the music you play doesn’t include long chromatic runs (and most music doesn’t!), you can use the chromatic scale to create some serious speed exercises. (If you’re curious, this resource (video below left) introduces some songs that use the chromatic scale.)
Here’s an example exercise:
- Start at the fifth fret on the low E string.
- Using one finger per fret as we did above, play at frets 5-6-7-8.
- Do this on all other strings.
- Repeat going in the other direction.
Over time, work on doing this with increasing speed. Bringing in a metronome again might help here! It’s also a great exercise to use to work on palm muting, hammer-ons/pull-offs, string bends, or other techniques you want to master.
If you’re eager to build speed on guitar in general, check out this video (below right) for some helpful speed-building exercises.
7. Chromatic Scale Exercises: Note Recall
Learning a scale shape for the chromatic scale probably isn’t much of a challenge. But as we’ve seen, you can use the chromatic scale as a vehicle to build a number of other skills.
We mentioned earlier that practicing the chromatic scale will help you learn the notes on the fretboard. You can also use it to test note recall.
If you’re in a guitar lesson program, testing recall is pretty simple: your instructor can name a random note, which you can then locate on the fretboard. You can also then play out a chromatic scale (naming the notes as you go) starting from that random note.
If you have willing friends or family, you can also ask them to quiz you on notes. But depending on their level of guitar knowledge, they may not be able to correct you if you’re wrong.
Of course, you may not always be in a position where someone else can quiz you. But you can still test your note recall this way! You can pick a random note and play its chromatic scale. You can then check your recall against an image of the notes on the fretboard.
You can readily find plenty of images illustrating the notes on just about any guitar site, and we’ve also included an image of the notes on the fretboard above. Of course, the chromatic scale isn’t the only tool you can use to help you memorize notes on the fretboard! This video offers a number of tips to help you achieve that enviable goal.
Ready to Learn More?
Whether you want to learn some new chords, master the fretboard, or work on using other scales and patterns, online music or guitar lesson sites can prove to be an especially valuable resource.
Just about any guitar lesson website will offer both structured lesson programs and options to practice specific skills, including chromatic scale guitar exercises. But perhaps the best feature is the fact that these sites allow you to develop your guitar skills at your own pace and on your own schedule!
Hopefully, you now have a better idea of how to use the chromatic scale. It may not seem quite as useful as other scales at first, but the chromatic scale offers a great opportunity to refine your playing and get more comfortable with the fretboard.
What do you think? Do you know any useful chromatic scale exercises that we left out? Let us know in the comments, and don’t forget to like and share if you found it useful!