Chromatic notes are often the most over looked aspect of playing music. So often, we are focused on playing scales and chords and the chord tones associated with them and playing the “right” notes while avoiding the “wrong” notes. But sometimes, there’s a time and a place for the “wrong” notes in music and those notes serve a particular purpose. In jazz, they add interest and get that “jazzy sound” out of a solo and for bassists, they add a whole new sound to walking bass lines in particular.
What are Chromatic Notes?
When you choose to play a scale, the chromatic notes are the notes NOT in that scale. Say for example, you are in the key of C major, no sharps and flats. As a result, your key scale is C major: CDEFGABC. Of the 12 notes in Western music, C C# D D# E F F# G G# A A# B C, there are 7 notes in that major scale. Therefore there are 5 notes that ARE NOT in that scale. Those notes are the chromatic notes in this example.
Let’s try another…
Say I’m in the key of D major, where there are 2 sharps, C# and F#. The key scale is D E F# G A B C# D. There are 7 notes here in this major scale, too, meaning there are 5 notes NOT in the D major scale and they are D# F G# A# and C. THOSE are the chromatic notes in this example.
Let’s try a pentatonic…
A C major pentatonic scale has 5 notes in it. Using the same key scale of C major (CDEFGABC) from above, our C pentatonic looks like: C D E G A C. Of the 12 musical notes, these 5 are part of the scale and the other 7 are chromatic.
Can You Play Too Many Chromatic Notes on Bass?
Depends where you play them, is the big answer. If you’re playing walking bass lines, chromatic notes have a pretty distinct purpose and that is to build tension in certain areas of your lines. In addition, well placed chromatic notes help to “introduce” upcoming or outgoing chords and help to direct the ear of the listener, whether they’re the soloist trying to keep tab on where they are in the song, or the audience member trying to understand the song amidst the “freeness” of the soloist, band and drummer.
Overdoing it when walking, from my experience, can be done pretty easily. The main crux of walking lines is to provide harmony and compliment to the rest of the band. Too many chromatic notes right after each other or not spaced far enough apart can sound messy very “un-complimentary” to the chords that are being played. This is particularly so if the part of the song is very slow and melodic and the sounds of each note ring out and last much longer than if you were playing fast.
If you’re soloing, however, it gets a little more interesting. Chromatic runs help to break up very “scalar” sounding runs and adds color and interests to your solo. In addition, the use of chromatic notes act well as passing notes from one particular hand position to another.
In this setting, overdoing chromatic notes is less so, from my experience, a concern. Jazz soloing has always been a relatively liberal thing that has allowed tremendous leeway in terms of what can and cannot be done. What more, jazz soloing has a strong accent on sensory qualities such as tone, mood and shape, rather than verbatim note qualities and sounds like, say, classical or even rock music might have to it.
Check out this cool video of Ray Brown‘s master class for more insight on walking and soloing: