Top 10 Chromatic Riffs

One of my favorite musical devices is the chromatic scale:

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You’ve heard this sound before. It’s the 12 Western subdivisions of the octave played consecutively. On guitar, that would be each note on a string from the first fret up to the 12th. On piano, that would be all the white and black keys in a row. Chromatic comes from chroma, Greek for “color”. Chromatic riffs have color. Once you start peppering white keys with black ones, you start getting some spice. Some of the spiciest riffs ever written have used the chromatic scale. 10 follow below. (I’ve cued up the audio clips to start at the chromatic riffs.) Can you think of more?

— Cosmo Lee

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10. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov – “Flight of the Bumblebee”

“Flight of the Bumblebee” is one of the OG’s of the chromatic riff. It is basically one long chromatic riff. It is also one of the most annoying pieces of music ever written. Naturally, I went on YouTube to find the most annoying versions ever recorded of it. (Yes, I am single.) Think of any instrument where high, fast notes would be annoying – that instrument has played “Flight of the Bumblebee”. See, e.g., tuba, trombone, trumpet (that one’s actually pretty cool), even accordion (that one’s actually insanely shredding – it looks like a cash register on fast forward). But no one, and I mean no one, wants to hear “Flight of the Bumblebee” on 7-string electric bass. So cheers to this guy for having the chops to play this song – and jeers for letting the rest of us know.

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9. Led Zeppelin – “Dazed and Confused”

Yes, this is not Led Zeppelin’s song. It’s Jake Holmes’, whose original version makes me want to drink. But Led Zeppelin’s version is the one I (and most people) know best – and it makes me want to drink and fuck. So Led Zeppelin gets the nod here, especially for extracting the song’s chromatic essence and flogging the hell out of it. “Hell” is the operative word. Three octaves of chroma snake downwards, giving hips to the line “soul of a woman was created below”.

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8. Unearthly Trance – “God Is a Beast”

Speaking of diabolical creatures, Unearthly Trance’s “God Is a Beast” descends directly from Led Zeppelin’s left hand path. The magick moment comes at 3:27 (note: 27 = 3×3x3). It is not a riff. It is an automated-neck-mover-in-a-vertical-plane. If my head banged any harder, it would start spinning around.

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7. Megadeth – “Five Magics”

Speaking of magick… Megadeth’s catalogue is filled to the brim with chromatic riffs. The textbook example is “Holy Wars…The Punishment Due”, but we’ve discussed that song about 10,000 times already (and we’ll probably do so 10,000 more). So let’s talk about “Five Magics” instead. At 2:49, it unveils a crazy chromatic segment that goes up and down and around and around – and somehow that becomes a progression over which Marty Friedman solos. At 3:16, it goes up an octave to ratchet up the tension. Four seconds later, it starts falling – all the while using chromatics – down to yet another mighty chromatic riff, the one underlying the chant “Give me alchemy / Give me wizardry / Give me sorcery / Thermatology / Electricity”. That then morphs into yet another chromatic riff, a crisp jog that sets up the end of the song. It’s an incredible exercise in theme and variation.

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6. Cave In – “Juggernaut”

For a less deft and but no less effective dispersal of chromatics across octaves, see Cave In’s “Juggernaut”. Aside from the Slayer riff that started “Moral Eclipse”, this was Cave In’s finest moment. These chromatics don’t make sense next to the rest of the song – this was the “kitchen sink era” of metalcore, after all – but they’re so great that I want to loop them forever and have that be my only memory of Cave In. (OK, I’d keep Perfect Pitch Black, too.) Listen in headphones and dig how the notes alternate from left to right. Bonus points for this song: I have witnessed J. Bennett shake his little white heinie with complete abandon to it.

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5. Black Flag – “Rise Above”

Lots of little white heinies have been shaken to this one. I love how a song called “Rise Above” starts with a descending figure that do-si-dos with a two-note ascending riff. Greg Ginn was a clever fellow.

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4. Dom & Optical – “Rage Roll”

This is a strange choice, but it’s one of the first things that comes to my mind when I think of chromatics. “Rage Roll” was the B-side of the “Quadrant 6 (Fierce Remix)” 12″ on Moving Shadow. That heavyweight single epitomized a time when drum ‘n’ bass stripped down to a minimal style of hammering two-steps and grinding synths. People headbanged to this shit. “Rage Roll” wasn’t as overtly militant as its A-side, but it was more interesting. The chromatic part you hear below was its climax – which came after almost five minutes of buildup. The song grows and grows, slowly and evilly, until it drops this riff that’s like a dying person gasping for breath. It’s one of the most haunting sounds I’ve ever heard.

(Note: I’ve cropped this audio to start with the riff at 4:50. To hear the song build up to this climax, see here.)

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3. Converge – “You Fail Me”

I always think of “Rage Roll” and “You Fail Me” together because of the ambience around their chromatics. If one were scoring a film, and the scene were “someone slowly skinned alive while being crushed by a heavy object”, this would be the soundtrack.

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2. Georges Bizet – Aria (“La Habanera”) from Carmen

This is another OG of chromatic riffs. You’ve heard it before. Let’s hear the incomparable Maria Callas rip our guts out with it.

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1. Metallica – “Master of Puppets”

This is the king of all chromatic riffs. It’s as perfect as a metal riff can be. Don’t even think about playing it without using all downstrokes!

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