There’s an old musician’s adage that when you improvise, you only go a semitone away from the ‘right note’. While this is perfectly true, it doesn’t always feel like this when we get into trouble.
At one point or another, we’ve all found ourselves using a less than optimal blues scale shape or phrase over a complicated chord progression! There is no substitute for preparation, but we can minimize such problems by becoming more familiar with those ‘in-between’ notes and accessing more options, not only from blues scale shapes, but also from any favorite lick or pattern.
Using the b5 or ‘blue note’ as part of the pentatonic forms is one way many of us have already employed semitone movements to create tension and/or interest, whether in a riff or solo. Watch the introduction of Baby please don’t go from Van Morrison with Them for a bold example of this, or even from Deep Purple smoking in the water.
By adding more chromatic linking notes between the regular two-note-per-string pentatonic shapes, you’ll soon find yourself with familiar patterns and/or riffs, like those of Led Zeppelin. black dog either dazed and confused.
Turning our attention to the lead performance, you’ll notice that blues and jazz players often slide into notes and phrases a semitone/fret below. Chuck Berry is kidding Johnny B. Goode is an excellent example of this.
Also look at Steve Lukather. Although he’s a more modern type of musician, he manages to keep the blues instead of veering into fusion, while adding a lot of linking chromatic notes: he watches his solos on Toto. Rosana. And remember, these example sentences are designed to demonstrate concept rather than suggest style, so feel free to take the parts you like and put them into practice. Until next time!
Using B minor pentatonic shape 1, you’ll immediately see that I’ve added several chromatic link notes: first, I’ve added a link between the 7th and 9th frets on the 4th string in the opening phrase, then, shortly after, I’ve descended from Fret 10 to the 7 of the second string.
The b5 (F natural) also appears towards the end, highlighted by its repetition against the F# you’d normally expect to see in the B minor pentatonic.
Jumping straight in with a descending phrase of three semitones in a row from the top of a 3B minor pentatonic shape, this example jumps a bit between shapes, reusing the same chosen triplet idea, slowing the shape down a bit. 1 before descending to shape 5 just below.
In addition to demonstrating chromatic binding notes, phrases like this can help build confidence to jump into different shapes and registers on the fretboard. Nobody likes to feel trapped, right?
This example goes a bit more overboard, though I hope you can still see that all I’m doing is adding link notes between the two-note-per-string pentatonic shapes.
When the chord changes from F# to E major, I’ve mentioned it briefly with a four-note descending chromatic sequence to G# on the third string, before moving on to the lower reaches of the 3B minor pentatonic form. From here, slide between forms 2 and 3 for the final sentence.
Ending as we started using the 1 B minor pentatonic form, this example begins with some fast chromatic triplets before repeating the same rising chromatic phrase on the 3rd string.
Every time it ends on F# (2nd string), we jump back to the root note on the 4th string. You’ll see that the line four adjacent semitones in the middle features the b5 (F natural). Ideas like this can also be used at slower tempos for a more ‘trad-bluesy’ feel.
Led Zeppelin – Led Zeppelin II
As mentioned above, many Led Zeppelin riffs feature chromatic link notes. You’ll find examples of this on every Zep album, but for some reason this one came to mind first.
Check out the riffs on the lemon song, Living Loving Maid (She’s just a woman) and heartbreakerand the latter features quite a few examples of this in the solos as well, particularly in the last section of the solo, where Jimmy is using chromatic triplets in a way that might have influenced a couple of example phrases.
Deep Purple – Machine Head
A blues influence permeates this entire album and Ritchie Blackmore is in great shape. the riffs of smoking in the water and space trucks offer cool halftone shifts and/or color lines.
You’ll also hear Ritchie weaving some color lines into his solos on house photos, Lazy and road star. Sometimes we can be so used to hearing these things that we don’t always notice them, so it’s interesting what we find when we go looking for it, even in a familiar place.
Steve Lukather – Transition
Steve approaches color movements in a smart and interesting way. The changing semitones in creep motel they are very blues inspired. Elsewhere, Transition it begins as a Jeff Beck-inspired ballad before gearing into an aggressive riff with more chromatic shifts than you can shake off.
Last but not least, there is a bit of a ‘wild card’ in the form of correct the wrongwhich features a very unusual guitar figure with lots of semitone shifts, not ‘textbook’ chromatic but definitely from somewhere similar.