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chromatic scale classical guitar

The Chromatic Scale on Classical Guitar (What and Why)

What do you get when you through all the other scales in a pile on the floor?

What do you get when you include everyone, and leave no one out?

And what do you get when you take every step?

Chromaticism: A Fancy Name for Simple Concept

The chromatic scale includes all the notes. If we play up each fret of a string, we’ve played a chromatic scale.

It’s from the chromatic scale that all other scales emerge. We choose what to omit, and that creates new scales.

In layman’s terms, a chromatic scale is all the notes.

Officially, the chromatic scale is a twelve-tone scale starting on a root note and moving by half-steps only. In layman’s terms, this means all the notes.

How to Play a Chromatic Scale

Like any other scale, we can play chromatic scales in different ways on the guitar.

We can play in one position (using 5 frets).

A chromatic scale in the open position, using all the notes.

And we can play up one string, playing each fret in turn.

A chromatic scale up one string – great for shifting practice.

Or, we could play in some combination of these two.

How to Notate Chromatic Scales

Chromatic scales use sharps and flats (accidentals) to cover all the notes. (With only eight letter-names, and twelve tones, some notes do double-duty.)

“Accidentals” are sharp, flat and natural symbols not in the key of the piece. They’re notated in-line on the sheet music, instead of at the beginning of each line.

chromatic scale guitar

A high concentration of sharps and flats may signal a chromatic scale.

When we see a cluster of accidentals, we can guess that there’s a chromatic scale at work.

On tablature (TABs), we’ll see consecutive numbers, such as 2345.

How Chromatic Scales are Used in Music

More times than not, chromaticism uses snippets of the chromatic scale. While we do sometimes find examples of entire twelve-note scales, we more often see a few notes that move through adjacent frets.

Chromatic scales can emphasize an arrival point. Approaching a musical arrival point by moving step by step “pulls” the ear toward that note.

Chromatic notes can also give the music a certain style, such as blues, tango, or Brazilian choro. Different styles of music often use chromaticism in characteristic ways. This is one of the elements that create recognizable styles of music.

What to Do with the Chromatic Scale

We can practice the chromatic scale as a technical exercise. Because it’s easy to remember, we can focus our attention on other aspects of technique. We can use chromatic scales to practice shifting, speed, tone quality, or anything else we can think of.

We can also recognize when the chromatic scale crops up in our music. This can help us memorize the music.

Other than that, chromatic scales are just a fun way to move the fingers!


12 Responses to The Chromatic Scale on Classical Guitar (What and Why)

  1. Bonita Majonis December 2, 2017 at 5:34 pm #

    Hi Allen, I have been using first position chromatic scales for years as part of my warm up, five times every practice–rest stroke i&m and m&a, the same for free stroke, and then my thumb. Since the scales are kind of mindless, I can concentrate on my hands. It was nice to read some theory about chromaticism.

    • Allen December 2, 2017 at 5:35 pm #

      Hi Bonita!
      I warm up on them as well some days.


  2. Susan Cunningham December 2, 2017 at 4:01 pm #

    Hi Allen: Your post today just cracked me up! You are funny and inspiring! Love getting all your messages. Susan

    • Allen December 2, 2017 at 5:33 pm #

      Thanks, Susan!
      All the best,

  3. Joe Niski December 2, 2017 at 2:20 pm #

    My favorite chromatic scale (thus far) is exercize 98 from Frederic Noad’s “Solo Guitar Playing” – it’s a nice warmup for both hands.

    • Allen December 2, 2017 at 2:45 pm #

      Thanks, Joe!

  4. Philip December 2, 2017 at 12:27 pm #

    Warm up on classical or flamenco guitar will almost always include chromaticism. There are several unique patterns other than the obvious on the guitar which should be explored also ie..horizontally up the low E to its 12th fret octave then… diagonally zig zag left across all strings to the fifth fret A on the high E string….. then on the high E to the 12th fret octave E… then descending to open E into open chromatic position descending to low open E where we started..
    I also use harmonic,musical variations of the venerable Chromatic Octave exercise with my students such as playing open position major scales and/ or specific modes in octaves or in specific sequences/intervals in octaves…without a written guide. Can be quite challenging. Perhaps, you could post an article on that
    As you may occasionally experience, the verbosity involved sometimes in describing guitaristic movement is ridiculous!
    Anyway, good and important topic

    • Allen December 2, 2017 at 2:47 pm #

      Thanks, Philip!
      Great exercise! And skilled verbosity!

  5. Ken December 2, 2017 at 7:13 am #

    Mr. Allen Matthews

    I finally heard you play some music in the chromatic scales and you move around on the guitar quite well. 1st requirement for a teacher. You make a whole lot of sense 2nd requirement, and third you inspire me. Now it’s up to me to commit.


    • Allen December 2, 2017 at 10:07 am #

      Thanks, Ken!
      Good luck!


  6. Reinaldo Ramos December 2, 2017 at 6:42 am #

    Great! I’ve used the chromatic scale for years to warm up and I think this is the first time I’ve ever actually heard the theory behind the scale! Enjoyed it and learned a few new items today. Thanks, Alan.

    • Allen December 2, 2017 at 10:08 am #

      Hey Reinaldo,
      That’s wonderful!
      Thanks much,

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