Basics of Passing Chords in Blues and Funk Guitar

Blues and funk guitar players often use chromatic half step motion to move into the main chords of a 12-bar chord progression on the guitar. For example, many blues players approach a I chord or IV chord from either a half step above or below.

Here is an example in the key of G. In the first line, you see the IV chord, C9, approached by the Df9 chord that’s one half step above it. In the second line, the I chord, G7, is approached by Gf7, which is one half step below it.

[Credit:     Illustration courtesy of Desi Serna]
Credit:     Illustration courtesy of Desi Serna

You can see this in the Blues Progression with Chromatic Passing Chords video.

A passing chord can connect the V chord to the IV chord, as well, as you see at the beginning of the third line with the progression from D9 (the V chord) to C9 (the IV chord) via Df9, the passing chord. A common ending to a blues song is to play the I chord, move up a fret, and then move back down again.

You see an example of this at the end of the third line with the progression from the I chord, G7, to Af7 and back down again. Sometimes blues players reverse this ending, moving from I down a fret and back up again.

The chromatic passing chord technique appears in rock ’n’ roll, too. Both “Jailhouse Rock” by Elvis Presley and “Heartache Tonight” by the Eagles have progressions in which the main chords are approached by a half step.

Here is another example of a 12-bar blues in G with a more complex and jazzy progression that touches on chords ii (Am7) and iii (Bm7) from the major scale plus a fVI chord (Ef9). The chromatic movement is seen on all the flattened chords.

[Credit:     Illustration courtesy of Desi Serna]
Credit:     Illustration courtesy of Desi Serna

“Stormy Monday” by the Allman Brothers Band, a blues in G song, uses chromatic passing chords in a similar manner. Both a sI chord and a sII chord appear in this song. Several versions of this song exist, but the IV and V chords are often approached chromatically from above by one fret.

Chromatic passing chords in blues guitar

Funk is another style of music that uses a lot of chromatic passing chords in its chord changes. For example, it’s very common for composers to move a tonic chord up or down a fret, as shown here.

[Credit:     Illustration courtesy of Desi Serna]
Credit:     Illustration courtesy of Desi Serna

Sometimes guitar players move tonic chords up or down more than one fret with a couple of chromatic steps. For example, “Play That Funky Music” by Wild Cherry has an E9 chord played with Fs9 and F9. Similarly, Stevie Ray Vaughan plays an E9 together with an Ef9 and F9 in “Wall of Denial.”

Chromatic chord changes

Here is a chromatic example in C that features a passing chord in between the Em7 and Dm7 chords. “Changes” by David Bowie does something similar with the changes (no pun intended) C-Dm7-Em7-Efm7-Dm7-G7 in C major when he sings, “So I turned myself to face me.” The Efm7chord is a nice chromatic passing chord between iii (Em7) and ii (Dm7). The song’s introduction also features half step movement.

[Credit:     Illustration courtesy of Desi Serna]
Credit:     Illustration courtesy of Desi Serna

For a well-known, more traditional song that uses chromatic passing chords moving through the C major scale, consider the popular Christmas song “White Christmas.” The beginning of each verse contains the progression Cmaj7-Dm7-Cmaj7-Bmaj7-Cmaj7-Dm7-Dsm7-Em7. This progression includes a half step into the I chord (from Bmaj7 to Cmaj7) and another one in between the ii (Dm7) and iii (Em7) chords.

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