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Michael Casswell - Pro Concepts Season 1 - Part 7: 'Chromatics and Passing Tones'

Lesson Notes

** As featured in issue 7 **

Hi everyone. Here we are again talking about ways to think, play, and sound better. In this guitar lesson I would like to talk and demonstrate the beauty of passing notes and chromatics and how to use them in your guitar licks and phrases.

So what's a passing note? Well, in my world, it's a note that doesn't always belong to the key centre, chord, or scale, but you use it anyway to get to a note that does. I'm sure there are better definitions but hey, it's my column! What about 'Chromaticism'? I would say that is the use, or partial use, of all the notes you have at your disposal in a chromatic scale, of which there are 12 in one octave, and note 13 being the note you started on, so you could say that is note 1 again. Makes sense. If not, play your open E string, and play all the notes on that string, on every fret, until you reach the octave at the 12th fret. That will be 12 different notes until you reach your E octave, and that is a chromatic scale. Easy! What isn't so easy, is including some chromatic phrasing in your improvisations, licks and runs.

I can't count how many times I have had students say to me that their playing is 'stuck in rut', or how they always play the 'same old licks', and how they find it hard to actually feel like they are improving as players. Well, use of notes that shouldn't be there is a good road to explore and is a sure fire way of injecting some life into some tired improvisations and licks. There is a bit of an art to making it sound convincing, because you are always in danger of sounding like you have got lost, or are simply playing wrong notes, but unless you dive in and try, you will never develop your own little route planners that take you in and out (and hopefully back in) of the key centre.

There is an old muso saying that states that the best way to disguise a wrong note, is to play it again, and then again. As long as you are always aware of the root, thirds and sevenths of what you are playing over, then to a certain extent, you can play any combination of notes anywhere on the fretboard, as long as you start and end the run on notes that really belong, such as your root, third, fifth and seventh. The Jazz term for this is 'playing out'. The Blues term would be 'tension and release'. It really does get back to what I was talking about in my first bunch of columns for Guitar Interactive, which was 'creative thinking'. Being creative with the knowledge you already have and taking some risks, exploring, pushing yourself to make things sweeter, more exciting, more expressive, more interesting. It really doesn't follow that the more scales, theory, and technique you get under your belt, the better you sound. There are plenty of players out there who know everything there is to know about music theory and technique, but when they play, it lacks excitement, passion, soul and falls into the category of 'generic' at best. Unfortunately there is no 'excitement' arpeggio, 'soul' scale, or 'passion' mode for us to learn, that all has to come from somewhere inside you!

So with my big motivational speech over with, I have tried to put four runs together for you, using an Aminor pentatonic as a framework, but sort of throwing the rule book out of the window (I hate rule books), and getting some passing tones and chromatics in there to spice it all up.  The Pentatonic is the framework, but you can link a lot of these notes to the modes, or even the Melodic Minor, but for a simple framework and getting the idea across, the Aminor pentatonic is easiest to see.

You may get what I'm going for straight away, and already be a master of it, or you may simply not understand it or like it, which is OK too. That is the beauty of guitar, everyone has their own viewpoint of what's cool and what's not. One thing is for sure though, simply copying note for note solos of your favourite player may not be the quickest way to mature as a potential professional . It has it's place, but you need to back it up with your own ideas and creativity.

Masters of this technique would be Larry Carlton, Steve Lukather, Scott Henderson, John Petrucci, Pat Metheny, Mike Landau, Brent Mason  to name a tiny few.

See you next time!


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