Blues You Can Use: Chromatic Lines

March 9, 2012

THIS MONTH, WE’LL TAKE A LOOK AT chromatic lines in blues. The word chromatic means descending or ascending in semitones (half-steps). This kind of motion in the bass creates a strong pull when it is properly directed at your target note. Chromatic movement can give blues music a jazzier feel, or it can take it back to church, as one of the most popular chromatic bass lines comes from the classic “Shout” groove of gospel music, as shown in Ex. 1. Starting on the root, the line drops down to the 3rd below and walks its way back up to the 5th of the chord on beat one of the second bar, then moves chromatically back up to the root. The 5th gives you a solid chord tone on beat one to start the return to the root.

In blues, it’s very important to have your target notes (most often the root on beat one) well defined and set up in advance. You want the line to arrive at the destination at the appointed beat, or you’ll risk obscuring the chord progression. Example 2 is a variation on the Shout groove that moves up to the higher 3rd, walks up to the 5th, and then drops back down to walk back to the root. A great example of chromatic motion being used to its best advantage is Tommy Shannon’s jazz-like approach on the Stevie Ray Vaughan track “Stan’s Swang,” where Shannon’s chromatic lines leave no doubt as to where they’re headed. The result is a perfect, swinging line that propels the tune forward.

Example 3 is a simple chromatic pattern that can be played through a 12-bar blues progression—it’s a one-bar phrase that jumps from the root down to the 6th and chromatically walks back up to the root. The line creates a feeling of destiny as it returns to the root. Another blues classic that uses chromaticism in the main riff is Howlin’ Wolf’s immortal “Killing Floor,” a tune that was commandeered by Led Zeppelin as “The Lemon Song.” The motif in Ex. 4 starts on the root, jumps to the third, and then works its way up chromatically to the 5th and then back to the root. The chromatic movement between the 3rd and 5th gives the line a sense of movement. Arriving at the 5th of the chord is a perfect opportunity to jump back to the root.

Example 5 is a full 12-bar example of a chromatic line with a strong jazz influence that will still work for a blues gig. Notice how the chromatic movement always takes you to the root or another chord tone (3rd or 5th) on beat one of a new bar. There are many ways to explore chromatic movement in your lines. Just make sure you keep your date with destiny—the root on one! Until next time, stay low and in the groove.

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