Chromatic Passing Chords

Chromatic passing chords follow the same basic rules as single chromatic passing tones. In Chapter 5, you learned about the dominant scale, which uses chromatic movement between the tonic and the flatted seventh. You also learned that nonscale tones — also called altered tones — should only be played on upbeats or ands.

Since chords rarely move in eighth notes, you will play chromatic passing chords on the downbeats two and four. These are the weak beats in 4/4 time.

In a traditional blues setting, passing chromatic chords will most likely be played in a descending order from V to IV or from flat II to I. When used properly, passing chromatics give a distinct “falling” effect. They allow for a smooth transition between diatonic chords, and they also add a velvety sheen to the music.

As you learn about chromatic passing chords, you may want to refer to Chapter 9, which includes crucial information on blues structure. You cannot use passing chords until you first understand the basic chord and bar structure of the blues.

FIGURE 7-19 shows you a chromatic passing chord between V and IV chords in C major. Only triads in root position have been used here; you will see that the passing chord is nothing more than a flat V chord. In other words, in this example, the V chord contains the notes G, B, and D. The passing chord contains the notes G-flat, B-flat, and D-flat. Also notice how this chord is played on beat four: a weak beat.

FIGURE 7-19: Moving Chromatically Between V and IV

Next, try moving chromatically between V and IV using thirteen chords. See FIGURE 7-20. These chords are very effective in a jazz blues setting. Notice how each thirteen chord contains a third, seventh, and ninth. Additionally, the root is played only in the bass.

FIGURE 7-20: Moving Chromatically Between V and IV Using Thirteen Chords

You can also move chromatically between flat II and I. See FIGURE 7-21. When this occurs, you will be at the end of the blues form. In other words, you'll be coming off a V chord and moving into the start of a new chorus. (For a definition of chorus, see Chapter 9.) In this situation, the flat II chromatic passing chord merely acts as a transition between the V and the I chord. Here, chromatic movement is used between the top notes or highest pitches in each chord.

FIGURE 7-21: Moving Chromatically Between V, Flat II, and I

The movement from V to flat II to I is a little smoother and more interesting when you add extensions and altered tones. Make sure the top notes of each chord move chromatically. FIGURE 7-22 invokes this kind of chromatic movement in the top voice. As you will see, E (thirteenth), E-flat (ninth), and D (ninth) create this desired chromatic effect.

FIGURE 7-22: Moving Chromatically Between V, Flat II, and I Using Extensions and Altered Tones

Last, you can leave the V chord out altogether. On the last measure of the blues, musicians often will play a V chord, creating an authentic cadence between I and V. However, you may leave this out entirely and play a flat II chord on either beat three or beat four of the measure. This works best when using inverted chords or harmonic extensions since chromatic movement is desired between the top notes of each chord.

FIGURE 7-23: Moving Chromatically Between I and Flat II

Once you become more acquainted with the blues in Chapters 9, 10, and 11, you may want to return to this chapter to review some of the chord varieties described here. Always use your ear when experimenting with fancy chords. Sometimes, notes in the melody clash with notes in the chords, so you must be careful and judicious in your use of dissonant chord types.

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