Easy Music Theory! The Chromatic Scale
Updated: Apr 27, 2022
Hello! Welcome to what I hope will be the first of many weekly blog posts! The idea behind this is to deliver bitesize lessons/tips on all the things that I wish I’d known earlier on in my guitar career, as well as other handy things I’ve learnt over my 15 years playing. I’m going to start with music theory (with some guitar maintenance tips to break the monotony) as honestly, it makes learning our instrument so much easier! Now, before I start I should mention that this blog will be mainly guitar (and bass) focused, although the general idea will still apply to other instruments, but you may need to take an extra step or two to apply it to your instrument.
This series does somewhat take for granted that you’ll already have the basics of the guitar – tuning, reading tab etc. – down to some degree, however if not, check out the lessons section of the site! By the time you’re reading this I’ll have uploaded some resources there to help you out!
So, the question I always get asked is “why should I learn theory? There’s plenty of musicians who don’t learn this kind of thing and go on to be great players”. While that’s true, just a little bit of theory can make our lives so much easier. Having even a small amount of theory knowledge will take a lot of the guesswork out of guitar playing, we can learn chords more easily and know how they fit together to write/play songs, learn scales to help us play guitar solos and even just learn what notes we’re playing on the guitar! With that said, let’s move onto today’s lesson!
So! What on earth is the chromatic scale? Put simply, the chromatic scale (see diagram above) is all 12 notes that we use in western music in one place. It’s the building blocks that lets us build scales, chords and intervals, which we can then turn into music! The scale is made up of semi-tone (1 fret on the guitar) intervals (the gap between each note), the smallest interval in western theory, and covers every pitch within one octave, so unlike major or minor scales there is only one chromatic scale. The eagle eyed amongst you may have noticed that not all notes have a corresponding sharp. This is thanks to how we tune our notes in western music (a whole different blog post!), and how our scales work, but if you can remember that B and E (think your highest strings) don’t have sharps you’ll be set!
I mentioned that we can use the chromatic scale to create scales – watch out for next weeks lesson! – but it does have another use. Modern guitarists are in a kind of interesting position thanks to guitar tabs. As we don’t need to be able to read sheet music to learn material, we can learn a full song without actually being able to name any notes or chords. It’s kind of like being able to speak a different language, but not understand what any of the words mean! As the chromatic scale outlines all pitches within western music, we can use this to map out all of the notes on our guitar fretboard, and then we can begin to understand what we’re playing!
So how do we do this? Well, let’s take a string on the guitar as an example, for the sake of ease I’ll choose the A string. I mentioned before that a semi-tone interval is one fret on the guitar, and that the chromatic scale covers all of the notes within one octave. If we play our A string open (no frets) and then play all frets on the A string from 1 – 12 we’ve covered the full chromatic scale! We can then begin to use this to place a note to each fret on the guitar. Use the diagrams below to help with this next exercise. As you play each note (from open string to 12th fret), say each note of the chromatic scale, A, A#, B, C etc. It’s a little boring, but trust me, it’ll be worth it! Do this a couple of times until the notes seem to stick in memory, and then move onto your next string until all 6 have been covered. Do this for 5-10 mins every day when you start practising, and you’ll be a master of the fretboard in no time! If you’re wondering why I’ve only mentioned 12 frets, and left out anything above, that’s because once we hit the 12th fret, we just start the sequence over again! Your 12th fret is the same note as the open string, just in a new octave (higher pitch of the same note), this sequence would complete again if you have a 24 fret guitar. If you want to keep developing this skill, either choose random notes yourself, or ask a family member/friend to shout out random notes from the chromatic scale, find the note somewhere on your guitar and use the diagram to see if you were right!
Before I finish, it’s worth mentioning that the guitar fretboard is full of shortcuts to help make finding our notes easier! If you’ve already tried tuning a guitar by ear using the 5th fret (or 4th from G to B) trick, you’ll probably already know what I mean here. In standard tuning the string below will have the same pitched note 5 frets higher than the one we are playing, the exception here being the B string to G string which is 4 frets, that’s all down to how the guitar is tuned. So for example, if you play a C on the 3rd fret of the A string, you can find the exact same note on the 8th fret of the low E string. If we play an E note on the 5th fret of the B string, we can find that note on the 9th fret of the G string. The diagram below should help to make this a little bit clearer, and remember, this works for all notes across the fretboard!
A similar trick also works with finding any note in the next Octave. Take for example an A note on the 5th fret of our low E string. To find the higher octave, skip the A string and move to the D string, then move two frets higher to the 7th fret. This will be the same note in our higher octave! From here we can use the same trick again, skip a string and go to the B string, but thanks to how the guitar is tuned, we need to move three frets instead of two to the 10th fret. This again, gives us a higher pitched A note! This trick works across all the strings, but again, thanks to how the guitar is tuned, moving from both the D to B strings, and G to E strings will need a 3 fret gap, whilst moving from the E to D and A to G only need two. The diagrams below should help make this more clear! The final diagram shows the locations of all of the A notes on a guitar, try and see how many patterns you can find! These tricks again will work for any of the notes on the fretboard, just pay attention to the relationship between strings and how many frets are spaced between them!
So, hopefully you found this post useful! Keep applying these exercises and shortcuts to the fretboard, and you'll never be guessing again! Next week I’ll be tackling the major scale! Thank you for reading, I hope you all have an amazing week!