The Chromatic Scale

The chromatic scale is Western music’s ABCs. It is a symmetrical scale built with twelve consecutive semitones ascending or descending. Most of the instruments we know and use such as the piano keyboard, guitar, bass, banjo, mandolin, flute, saxophone, trumpet, xylophone, etc. are equal temperament tuned instruments that utilize the chromatic scale as a basis.

Practicing The Chromatic Scale

Music has become increasingly chromatic over the centuries and that is a trend that doesn’t seem like it will be ending anytime soon. So if you want to keep up with this musical development, it is important to practice the chromatic scale in every way possible to be proficient on your instrument. If we compare music to language, being able to play your chromatic scale is like knowing how to pronounce all the syllables in English.

Chromatic Scale Exercises for the Guitar

If you play the guitar as I do, you should practice the chromatic scale in each position, on each string and in combinations thereof across the fretboard. First you should try playing the chromatic scale in the open position, like so.

Exercise #1

Exercise #2

This slightly modified chromatic scale in the open position doubles the “B” at one point by having it both on the 4th fret of the G string and on the open B string. This is done to continue the symmetry of the picking hand pattern.

The pattern for players that prefer the plectrum is down-up-down-up-down on every string when ascending the scale and up-down-up-down-up when descending the scale. For finger pickers, the right hand pattern is thumb, pinky, ring, middle, then index whether ascending or descending.

Exercise #3

This exercise starts in the fifth position (index on fifth fret) and shifts down a position on each new string as indicated (except for the switch to the B string). For this exercise, alternate pick (alternate down-up) with your right hand the entire time. Finger pickers should practice doing it with two fingers (thumb, index) and four fingers (thumb, ring, middle, index). Please pay attention to the indicated fretting-hand fingering.

Then try it with a triplet feel.


Then a 16th note feel.

Then try different combinations of those rhythms. Play 8th notes ascending then triplets descending, 16th notes ascending then triplets descending, 8th notes ascending then 16th notes descending and so on.

Exercise #4

I like practicing this single string exercise with two different fretting hand fingerings, here’s the first.

Here’s the other.

Make sure to run these on each string and from your lowest fret to your highest fret. You can also practice playing it in one position. This is an exercise that sounds great on any instrument.

Exercise #5

Here’s yet another chromatic exercise I do as part of my warm-up routine. This one is great for practicing string skipping with the picking hand.

Try coming up with your own chromatic scale exercises and patterns. The possibilities are endless. What chromatic exercises do you like to do? How do you practice the chromatic scale on your instrument?

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