Using Neighbor Tones to Unlock New Melodic Possibilities

The use of neighbor tones in music can be traced back hundreds of years, to early classical compositions.
By David Brewster ,

The use of neighbor tones in music can be traced back hundreds of years, to early classical compositions. Neighbor tones are chromatic passing tones performed by approaching a melody, scale, or arpeggio using chromatic half-step movements from below (known as lower neighbor tones), or chromatic half-step movements from above (known as upper neighbor tones).

Well, what’s old is new again. You can find this cool performance technique in plenty of guitar music, as numerous guitarists have adapted this idea to the fretboard, including such diverse players as Django Reinhardt, Randy Rhoads, Pat Metheny, and Marty Friedman.

The unique sound that neighbor tones deliver, in combination with the fretting-hand fingering challenge they pose, makes them an interesting and useful concept to explore. A great place to start involves outlining the basic Dm arpeggio shown in Ex. 1a, and then expanding on it using lower neighbor tones in Ex. 1b, and upper neighbor tones in Ex. 1c.

You should visualize the arpeggio fingering shown in Ex. 1a as you play through Examples 1b and 1c, each demonstrating a different neighbor tone approach. Keep the concept in mind as you get used to what these tones sound like and look like: Lower neighbor tones target chromatic passing tones a half-step below each note, upper neighbor tones target from a half-step above each note of the arpeggio.

Moving on, notice that the basic melodic idea shown in Ex. 2a is transformed using a lower neighbor tone approach in Ex. 2b. Dig how adding a passing tone before each note of this melodic phrase modifies the melody in an unusual and ear-catching way. As you start to become comfortable with this technique, experiment with additional half-step movements to uncover even more licks and phrases.

The next example [Ex. 3] features a finger-twisting phrase that produces a cool sound that you can employ during a fill or solo, but it also serves as a great workout and warm-up exercise.

Ex. 4 is the reverse version of Ex. 3 and presents new challenges for your fretting-hand fingers. Take it slow and steady as you ascend through the pattern and complete the phrase.

Plenty of great guitarists routinely use this concept in their music. One guitar hero who pioneered neighbor-tone licks was the late, great Randy Rhoads. His inspired use of trilling melodic phrases is well documented in his brief recording career, and Ex. 5 features a trilled neighbor-tone idea, similar to a lick in his guitar solo on the classic Ozzy anthem, “Mr. Crowley.”

Another player who prominently uses neighbor-tone ideas is exotic shred-metal legend Marty Friedman. Friedman has built a style based on unusual techniques, exotic scales, unique phrasing, and the use of neighbor tones, especially during his glory days with Megadeth in the 1990s. Check out Ex. 6 for a taste of how he might incorporate this technique.

Now that you’ve seen how to perform a number of ideas based around the one-octave arpeggio fingering from Ex. 1, you should expand your neighbor-tone ideas into two-octave fingerings to see what develops. To help you get started, play through Ex. 7, a two-octave Dm arpeggio transformed using lower neighbor tones, which instantly expands the sound.

The final example in this lesson features a challenging twist to the two-octave Dm arpeggio, featuring an assortment of alternating lower and upper neighbors. As you work through Ex. 8, pay attention to the shifting chromatic sounds as the lick moves across the strings.

Now that you’ve become comfortable with these ideas, you can uncover a totally new world of melodic possibilities, with plenty of interesting licks to add to your repertoire. Good luck!

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