Simply put, a chord tone is any note that is part of the chord. Obviously, these notes would be considered in the key but I want you to think of them as the strongest, most consonant and most agreeable notes to play against a given chord. Chord tones always sound right and they always work. Many musical clichés, melodic hooks and well-known phrases are comprised entirely of chord tones. The most skillful guitarists I know rely heavily on chord shapes and arpeggios. Although chord shapes and arpeggios are similar and are very closely related, they are not the same thing.
Next, let’s use our guitars to explore some familiar sounding music based entirely on chord tones. To this end I have guitar transcriptions of some bugle calls which I’m sure you have heard before. As you listen to and play these melodies you should take special notice of, and be aware of that every note is a member of the chord.
Now that we have played our way through this material go back and review each one of the three examples and approach them purely as a listener. Those melodies are interesting, they are bright, tuneful, memorable and obviously, they are real attention getters. Stop reading and think about that sentence from a moment. I will bet you that the thought you had went something like this: “if I learn to play and create leads and melodies based on chord tones my playing will sound bright, tuneful and memorable, and my solos will be real attention getters”. I certainly am not suggesting you show up at your next jam session and start playing bugle calls, which would be ridiculous. But learning to play and understand melodies based purely on chord tones is an important part of the process. Now, because of the bugle calls you get the idea behind this type of playing and writing.
Chromatic Approach Notes
The chromatic scale is the scale that contains every note in the musical alphabet including all the flats and sharps. When you play a chromatic scale you are moving fret by fret, key by key, from one note to the very next.
An approach is any note that is one half step below the target tone, the chord tone. As we have learned, chord tones are strongly in the key, agreeable, consonant and powerful, so much so that chord tones accept and are embellished by chromatic approach notes. There are two ways to approach a chord tone using chromatic approach notes: a single chromatic approach and a double chromatic approach.
Single Chromatic Approach
The musical example below employs single chromatic approach notes and is intended to sound like the introduction of a rock and roll song. You may notice that the approach notes are very short in duration, usually an 8th note or 16th note but very rarely longer than a quarter note. Listen to this music a few times as you study the diagrams of the common knowledge G major chord found on fret three, the musical notation and the TAB. The approach notes, create an interesting kind of tension and are drawn to the target notes, the notes in the chord.
Double Chromatic Approach
The double chromatic approach use two notes that are connected by half steps to the target note, the chord tone, as I said earlier this can also be called chromatic movement because the notes move along the chromatic scale. I have a handy kittle rhyme t6o help yiou remember a little bit about chromatic approach notes.
In the musical example to follow we will continue working with a G major chord, because the previous example used the common knowledge root 6 G major chord, found on fret three, this example will use the G major bar chord found on fret 10, also called a root five chord. If you are studying my courses on scales and chords you know that these two types of chords, root 6 and root 5, represent my first line of thinking for any key.
Below is a musical example employing double chromatic approach notes, chromatic motion to a chord tone or target note. Before playing of course, listen to it once or twice as you study the TAB and diagrams.
What Would You Do ?
As I have said before, in order to be a lead player you must practice of being a lead player. The following backing track gives you a chance to apply these new skills and take them a bit further, because you will be soloing over two chords, not just one as in the examples, it’s a simple rock style vamp: two measures of G and two measures of C. The purpose of this exercise is to get you to shift from the G major shape, with all of its approach notes of course, to the C major shape, with all of its approach notes. It’s a challenge and is probably quite different from the “learn your scales and good luck” approach which is the way most of us have learned to play modern lead guitar. Because this technique, learning to think about chords in their shapes, is easy and it always works, I prefer that as my starting point as opposed to beginning with scales.