Chromatic scales aren't terribly musical, but they do make for good exercises or speed drills. They can help you build your finger strength and dexterity, coordination, speed, and so on.
As you probably know, there are 12 notes in the 12-tone western scale. A chromatic scale is merely a scale with all 12 pitches in it, often played in a linear fashion (F, F#, G, G#, etc.).
But this doesn't mean that there's any one way to play a chromatic scale – unlike other scales, you can start and end anywhere on the fretboard, on any note. This means that it's relatively easy to come up with exercise ideas to help you identify your weak spots and improve on them.
Here are five chromatic scale exercises for guitar with examples. If you aren't sure how to read tabs, make sure to refer to an earlier lesson.
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Chromatic Scale Exercise #1 – Finger Exercise
This is a basic “finger exercise” or “warm up” in which the goal is to use each of your fingers in a sequential manner.
So, you would play the first fret with your index finger, the second fret with your middle, the third fret with your ring, and the fourth fret with your pinky.
Then you would simply maintain the same fingering/fretting pattern on each of the strings as you move down.
After repeating the same pattern on each of the six strings, it's time to work your way back up in reverse. Start with your pinky on the fourth fret on the first string, and end with your index on the first fret. Move to the next string and repeat.
This is an exercise every beginner should know and be able to play, but in case there's anyone out there that hasn't tackled it yet, now is the time.
If you want to challenge yourself, you can also attempt to keep all of your fingers on the fretboard until you move to the next string. So, for example, after playing the first, second and third frets, your index, middle and ring fingers would stay on (until you play the final note with your pinky).
Guitar Exercise #2 – Lateral Chromatic Pattern
This chromatic scale exercise is more laterally focused compared to the first. We'll still be using the same index-middle-ring-pinky pattern, but we're gradually going to work our way up the fretboard, towards the body of the guitar.
This pattern can mess with you a bit at first. After playing the third, fourth, fifth and sixth fret on the second string, you shift your hand back to the second fret of the first string, and play second, third, fourth, and fifth. Then you shift your hand up to the third fret on the first string, execute the same pattern in reverse, then move back to the second string a fret higher, and play seven, six, five, four. This is the entire pattern that you need to repeat up the entire fretboard. It's basically a forwards-forwards-backwards-backwards pattern.
These exercises can be a little hard to explain, so if you're lost, just look at the tab. Just remember to pay close attention to each note, as it's easy to get lost.
Chromatic Scale Practice Exercise #3 – Shifting Positions
With this exercise, you'll be shifting back a fret every time you complete the pattern on a string.
It begins at the sixth fret of the sixth string. After playing six-seven-eight-nine, you would move to the fifth string and play five-six-seven-eight. Then you would simply repeat that pattern all the way down to the first string, remembering to shift back a fret each time you move to the next string. If you did it right, you should have played one-two-three-four on the first string.
Other than that, this exercise is very similar to the first. The main thing it teaches you is how to shift positions efficiently.
It's altogether too easy to get locked into a single-position box pattern as a guitarist. The sooner you can familiarize yourself with the notes at other positions, the sooner you can break out of the same tired pattern.
Exercise #4 – All-In-One Finger Pattern
Have you ever wanted to practice all of your typical scale movements in one fell swoop? Well, this exercise does just that.
This doesn't necessarily mean that you'll never have to learn another scale again, or that you won't encounter some challenging passages when learning your favorite guitar solo, but you'll at least develop a pretty good feel for each of the common movements involved in playing linear scales.
This is how it's done. First, place your index finger at the fifth fret of the sixth string. Then, play five-six-seven-eight. Stay on the same string, and play five-six-eight, leaving out your ring finger. Then play five-seven-eight leaving out your middle finger, and finally, a stretch – five-seven-nine. This entire pattern gets repeated on each string.
Every time you do the stretch part, alternate playing the middle fret with your ring finger or middle finger. This adds a nice challenge to the whole thing.
Exercise #5 – Figure-Eight
This is what they call a “figure-eight” pattern. The reason for this should be fairly obvious once you start playing it.
Start by placing your pinky at the tenth fret on the first string. Then play the tenth fret, and then the ninth fret with your ring finger. Shift to the second string, and play the eighth fret and seventh fret with your middle and index finger. Now play the tenth fret and the ninth fret, on the same string, with your pinky and ring finger. Then, to complete the pattern, play the eighth and seventh fret on the first string with your middle and index fingers. This is the descending pattern.
To play the ascending pattern, begin at the fifth string seventh fret. Index-middle, shift to the sixth string and play ring-pinky, then index-middle, shift to the fifth string and play pinky-ring.
Chromatic scales sure don't sound pretty. Let's try to be respectful of our family members, roommates and neighbors, and keep the volume down when we're working on these.
But the manner in which these exercises train your fingers is quite extraordinary. The more familiar you become with your instrument, the more comfortable you will feel playing it, and chromatic scale exercises can really make a difference.
Even then, it's still a good idea to try to keep things varied when you're practicing. There are other aspects of guitar playing that should be practiced, so I would suggest making chromatic scales a smaller part of your overall routine.