The Chromatic Scale

Hello, music lovers. Callouses nice and hard? Been practicing? No one has to remind you that practice is everything. Practice is what you do so you can forget the facts and figures.

I recently received a letter with the question — How do I mix scales? (Thanks Andreas)

This, with a few additions, is the answer I sent him:

How do you mix scales?

By forgetting about scales completely.

I have hated the idea of scales all my playing life. I never use them (consciously), and never think them. I think melody. I don’t know, or care to know, the names of the various scales and modes. I know the major scale and see all others as being distortions of it. I am also aware that there is the chromatic scale (all twelve notes) to use at all times. You can link any interval with semitones if you so choose, any scale note to any other scale note, from any scale you care to name. It becomes a question of timing, to get to the note you want in the time left to do so, if you follow. All twelve notes are there for the asking.

But seriously, do yourself a favor, stop thinking about scales and concentrate on melody and viewing notes simply as Ones, or flat Threes, or sharp Fives or whatever. You can name all twelve notes like that.

i.e., in ascending order (major scale notes are in bold):

  • One (or Tonic, or Root note)
  • Flat Nine
  • Two / Nine
  • Minor Three
  • Major Three
  • Four / Eleven (often referred to as Sus Four)
  • Flat Five
  • Five
  • Sharp Five (the augmented note)
  • Six / Thirteen
  • Dominant Seven (or plain old “seventh”, or minor seventh)
  • Seven (usually referred to as “major seventh”)
  • and One again.

All scales and modes that ever were fit into the chromatic scale.

I have often likened improvised lines to little trips away from home, with “home” being the 1-3-5 of the “chord of the moment”. These are usually, and I stress ‘usually’, your starting notes and finishing notes. The other notes used to link home notes can be any of the twelve notes of the chromatic scale. Naturally, the 2, 4, 6, and 7 (which are the other scale notes) will be favorites, but any of the others (non-scale notes) can be seen as linking notes – notes not to linger on, but notes to fill the gaps. Basically, any fret will do. However, timing becomes paramount. “Phrasing” might be a better word. You must mold your line so that you wind up passing through the home notes at the right time, and most importantly, resolving them on time. By that, I mean get home on time. How do you do that?

Another way of looking at it: you create a simple melodic line, one that fits the changes, and then you fill in a few gaps (in space and time) with notes from the chromatic scale. Before long, you know what every one of those twelve notes sounds like in context. You’ll know where each one leads, and which tensions are set up and resolved with which notes.

A good example is the blues. Again, I never think “blues scale”, but I know that (in a major key) the 3 hovers between the minor and major versions. It never settles, so I avoid it as a resolve note. I know that the seven is the dominant 7th, the flat 7. So I make sure it winds up in my lines, not the major seven. The flat 7 really is a blue note, and can be used as another home note. All intervals can be linked with semitones. Strictly major music never uses the flat three and only uses the flat 7 for the V chord.

Major key music which isn’t the blues never uses the flat 3 and uses the major seven, except for the V chord, which uses the flat seventh. (Why? Because it’s one of the scale notes.)

Minor music is minor music. I was asked that question in another letter.

What is a minor key?

I’ll answer that next time.

Kirk Lorange is one of Australia’s best know slide guitarists. He is also the author of PlaneTalk guitar method. Check out his sites: and