One question I get asked about from time to time from beginner jazz students is “how do I get my solos to have that jazz sound?” What they really want to know is how jazz language works and how to get those sounds into their lines.

Of course, to learn the jazz language, you have to be listening to the music, learning jazz repertoire, and learning jazz solos and licks by ear. But I think it can be incredibly helpful, especially for those at the beginning of their jazz journey, to look at some core elements and break them down.

One characteristic often found in jazz language is chromaticism. There are many characteristics of the “jazz sound,” but this is one that plays a prominent role in bebop and the wide open borders of jazz improvisation.

Let’s start with a definition to get us on the right track.

What is a chromatic note?

A chromatic note is a note not belonging to the diatonic scale of the key in which a passage is written.

An example of this would be a C# in the key of concert C. This note is obviously not diatonic to the key center.

But when we speak of chromaticism, we are talking about adding chromatic notes into a passage or line to create a sense of flow and movement. When we do this, we create chromatic passages.

Here’s an example of a chromatic passage:

We have a D natural, D#, and an E natural. Considering this example is in the key of concert C, the D# is the chromatic note in the sequence. We are essentially connecting D natural to E natural with a chromatic note. This is the basic idea of how chromaticism works.

The best way to understand how we can add chromaticism to our jazz lines is to use actual musical examples and then apply them for ourselves.

I’m going to demonstrate four examples of chromaticism in a line. For these examples, I will be using a ii-V-I chord progression (Ex. Dmin7-G7-Cmaj7), which is very common in jazz repertoire. I’ll have notated examples, and also a short recording of me playing the examples on my guitar to a backing track. Let’s dig in!

Starting With No Chromaticism

Let’s start by checking out a line with no chromaticism, meaning the line is entirely diatonic. I’ll loosely base each proceeding example on this one.

This line is essentially running up and down a C major scale. It’s not very musical, but we can probably all agree it doesn’t sound bad. It just needs a little bit of work.

Adding Chromaticism

Let’s add just a little bit of chromaticism to this line to start. Let’s see what effect it will have. Take a look and take a listen.

I have the chromatic passage circled in blue on the treble clef line so you can see how I add the chromaticism.

Mind you, outside of the chromatic note, I added a diatonic pick-up note to start with some more flow and added some chord tone movement rather than walking up the scale in the first measure.

But take a close listen and play through this line yourself. Do you hear how that C# chromatic note gives the resolution of the line more character?

Now that we’ve dipped our toes in a little bit let’s see what happen if we add even more chromaticism to this line.

Now this line is starting to sound more interesting. I’ve left in the chromatic passage from the last example and added two others.

This first chromatic passage is the C-C#-D. This passage has an ascending movement and connects the C to the D. The second passage is E-Eb-D, which has a descending movement.

Keep in mind; this line still has the same essence and overall ascending-descending movement of the original line with no chromaticism. But by adding these chromatic notes, we’re starting to develop some flavor.

This next example is what I would call an exaggeration of chromaticism. I’m going to try to add as much as possible for the sake of demonstration.

Pay special attention to the 2nd and 3rd chromatic passages. They are quite long, and though there are diatonic notes mixed in, the chromatic notes force them to descend in half steps. Again, this is an exaggeration of what you can do, but it can be helpful to understand that chromatic passages can be more than two or three notes long.

Let’s look at one more. This time we are going to stray a bit from the original line. The previous examples are lines over a long ii-V-I (each chord gets one bar). This time lets do a shorter line over a short ii-V-I (ii-V gets two beats each).

There is actually another jazz technique being put to play here called enclosure. But I don’t want to go into that in this particular lesson.

The main takeaway from this example is that chromaticism can be used on shorter chord progressions as well. It’s also important to note that each chromatic passage resolves to the 3rd of each chord (B is 3rd of G7, E is 3rd of Cmaj7). That’s a little clue for you, but you can explore that more when you learn about guide tones.

The Challenge:

Create your own diatonic line over any chord progression you choose. Then create at least three different variations of that line by adding chromaticism.

While there are many different techniques and concepts you can apply to your jazz improvisation, chromaticism is a powerful one. Go out there and give it a try!

30 Days to Better Jazz Playing