It’s the mother of all scales, the crown jewel of melodic movement, the WD-40 of logical bass lines—the chromatic scale. The major, pentatonic, and blues scales get more bass love, but the chromatic scale also deserves careful consideration and practice. Master this scale and you’ll never be stuck anywhere on the fingerboard.
The chromatic scale contains all 12 notes of our Western musical system. Grab your bass and play every note up or down 12 frets on any string—that’s the chromatic scale. The sound is both nebulous and all-encompassing—it doesn’t sound major or minor, because there’s no tonal center, only a starting note. This month, let’s look at ways to practice the chromatic scale. We’ll also dig into two chromatic classical themes that you’ve heard a million times.
Example 1 shows the chromatic scale from low D to high D. Note that there are 12 notes in the scale. On electric bass, the fingering creates a pleasant, spider-like crawl up and down the neck (see tablature). On double bass, start with the open D string, and be sure to use the fewest number of left-hand shifts possible.
The chromatic scale in Ex. 1 is written using flats and natural signs. The scale in Ex. 2 uses the exact same pitches, but written with sharps and natural signs. Several notes in the two scales are enharmonic equivalents—notes that sound the same, but are notated differently: D# and Eb, F# and Gb, G# and Ab, A# and Bb, and C# and Db. You’ll often see flats and sharps mixed in chromatic lines, so you should be able to read both. For more on enharmonic equivalents, review my column in the June ’11 issue, “How to Spell Right ... er, Write Correctly.”
Example 3 creeps up and down the G string using a three-note chromatic pattern. When playing this exercise, don’t worry about listening for a harmonic landmark, but make sure you hit all of the notes, and keep the pattern grooving in time. Examples 4 is a rhythmic variation of Ex. 3; come up with your own variations by adding rests in different places.
Example 5 is a useful exercise to move from point A to point B on the fingerboard—or in this case, from low C to high C. Once you have this scale under your fingers, move to other starting notes in various registers of the bass. You’ll find that when you change to a new fingering, you might get hung up. Focus on shifting efficiently and smoothly.
Chromatic melodies abound in classical music, and Examples 6 and 7 show two of the most famous. In 1875, composer Georges Bizet gave the world a lasting gift with the memorable, sexy, kitschy tune “Habanera” from his opera Carmen (Ex. 6). When you play this melody, watch out for the spots that are not chromatic (the whole-step between A and G). Try to channel the passion of the lovely gypsy Carmen, who leads the poor soldier Don José to ruin with her siren song.
Example 7 is one of Ron Carter’s favorite solo quotes. Composed by Julius Fučík in 1897, “Entrance of the Gladiators” is better known today as the “Circus Song.” The first four bars move down chromatically from the high F. Mind the gap! There’s a whole-step interval in bars 2 and 3 between the notes C and D. Bars 4 and 5 imply a C7 chord, and add the comedic-sounding #4 (the note F#). Bar 7 moves up the chromatic scale from E to C, outlining the C7 function. The last bar has whole-step intervals between the notes E, D, and C. Next month, we’ll further explore the beauty and mystery of the chromatic scale with some cool endings, hot licks, and another classical hit.