“Music was my refuge. I could crawl into the space between the notes and curl my back to loneliness.” ~ Maya Angelou
I often mention guitar intervals in my writing and find myself wanting to link to a kind of info-hub to explain them. That hub should be simple. Because intervals are simple, useful and wonderfully helpful bits of knowledge.
Priceless to the guitar player.
But until now, I didn’t have one such resource to link to, nor was I able to find one elsewhere. At least not one that was straightforward and easy to understand. So this article is that simple info hub, written for me, as much as for anyone else who might find this information helpful.
For other guitar concepts and topics, checkout our primer on how to play guitar from the ground up.
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What I’ll Cover
We’ll cover the definition of an interval, the basic music theory behind it, the 12 common intervals you’ll find on the guitar and some practical guidelines for using them.
Let’s jump in.
Definition: What is an interval?
In Music Theory: The space between any two pitches or notes (according to Harmony: Its Theory and Practice by Ebenezer Prout). You can download the PDF version of Prout’s book if you’d like to read further.
On the Guitar: The space between any two notes or points on the fretboard.
For example, the following tab is an interval:
These two notes are separated by two semitones (which is also called a “half step” or one-fret jump) which is equal to a whole tone or a “whole step.”
However, guitar intervals don’t always fall on the same string, as the following is also an interval:
Instead of falling on the sixth string - like the previous example - the second note falls on the fifth string at the third fret.
How does this work?
We’ll touch on this more later, but realize that even on different strings there is still a linear line of frets separating any two notes on the guitar.
What are the parts of an interval?
A musical interval is made up of two parts:
- The Root Note: Represents the key of the particular pattern.
- The Interval(s): Any note(s) that correspond to a particular root are intervals of that root.
For example, a guitar chord is simply a collection of intervals attached to a specific root note.
Take the following C major chord:
The root C is the root note at the beginning of the interval sequence (on the third fret), while the other three notes are all intervals of the root C.
Intervals are always understood in relation to the root note or the lowest note in a given key.
For instance, the open G in the C chord example is not the interval of the note that falls on the second or first fret. Rather it’s the interval of the C that falls on the fifth string at the third fret.
Because that C is the root of the pattern.
Does an interval always involve only two notes?
Because any one interval can have only one root note and one interval note.
Now, there can be more than one set of intervals within a given pattern or chord (depending on how you might break it up), but you can’t really have a single interval with more than two parts. It’s always just one note added to a root note.
It’ll make a little more sense once we look at some interval examples.
A Guitar Intervals Chart
There are a total of 11 different intervals before you get to your first octave, which double the frequency of the original note.
Therefore each interval should have a “Number of Frets” and an “Interval Quality.”
You’ll identify intervals by associating the number of frets with the corresponding interval quality and vice-versa. Here’s a chart that displays that information for all 12 intervals:
How do we read this and translate it to the fretboard?
Let’s start with something easy.
Say you were in music class and the teacher wanted you to go up and draw a minor second on the chalkboard in guitar tab form.
What would you do?
First, you know from the above chart that a minor second is one semitone or one fret space from the root. That means you’ll have a root note plus a note that falls one semitone from that particular spot.
So you’ve got plenty of options.
In this example, the root note is at the third fret (G) and the interval falls at the fourth fret, creating one semitone of separation and giving us a minor second interval.
What about a major second?
To create a major second, we simply go back to our interval chart and figure out how many semitones we need to have separating our interval from our root note.
In this case, it’s just two.
You’re probably ahead of me by now.
Here’s our major second:
You can continue on down through the chart in the same fashion.
But what about when you get intervals on other other strings?
So how do we get situations where intervals land on other strings?
It’s harder to visualize, but what’s happening is the exact same process.
Let’s use the major third interval as our example, since it’s one of the easiest to illustrate. Draw one up on a tab sheet with the two notes on separate strings.
What do we do first?
As usual, we look to our chart (or memorize the chart - either way is fine) and we see that there are four semitones (or frets) that will separate our interval from the root note.
So right away we could come up with this tab:
This is a major third interval.
But there’s a problem. It’s a really long jump from the root note to the seventh fret, thus an inefficient movement.
And there’s a better way to play it.
If we know our fretboard notes, we can see that the note at the seventh fret is a B. To get a more optimal interval, all we have to do is find the same B on the fifth string.
Highlighted in red, that B falls on the fifth string at the second fret, much closer to the root G at the third fret.
That means you can identify any B note on any other string as a major third interval of the root G.
For example, the following note is also a B:
Technically it’s an octave higher, but you can still refer to this as a major third, with or without regard to the octave difference.
Do I need to memorize that chart?
Personally, I would.
Now that’s not to say you won’t have to refer back to it here and there.
I have a more difficult time remembering the intervals that are higher (seven, eight, nine semitones, etc.). But after enough use and enough time spent getting to know these patterns, you’ll remember most of them naturally and won’t have to refer to the chart.
Either way, I’d make it a point to memorize what you can, especially the first five intervals, up to the tritone.
What about the Perfect Fifth?
You might have heard the term “perfect fifth” before and noticed it on the interval chart.
This is one of the most important intervals you can learn, as it forms one of the most basic power chord shapes in existence.
You’re almost certain to recognize it.
In this case we have our root G and the interval note D falling seven semitones above the root.
That seven semitone spread is what gives us our perfect fifth, making it an extremely common shape. And why is it called perfect? Music theorists have long used the term “perfect” to denote two intervals that sounded, and were considered to be, perfectly consonant.
For this reason, a perfect fifth can also be referred to as the “consonant interval” or “highly consonant.”
And what exactly does consonant mean?
In music, consonant is a word that’s used to describe two notes that agree or sound complimentary when played together.
That’s a paraphrase, but also an adequate explanation, if you don’t want to Guitar Tricks Fretboard Trainer.
You can memorize, understand and use the perfect fifth without fully comprehending the idea of a consonant interval. So I suppose you could think of that topic as extra credit, and not crucial for real-world application.
How will this be useful to me?
Music theory, especially to the guitar player, can feel a bit like math at times.
And I say that, not simply because theory is heavily based in mathematics in many cases, but rather because it can be difficult to see how the material might be useful to you in the real world. I can’t tell you how many times I sat in calculus classes (to get a degree in computer science) and said to myself, “When will I ever actually use this?”
You’re probably wondering something similar, like, “How will intervals help me when I’m playing guitar?”
You can play a lot of good guitar while simultaneously being clueless about intervals, the benefits of knowing them are fairly tangible.
They include, but are not limited to, the following:
- Clearer understanding of fretboard movement.
- More confidence and certainty while improvising lead guitar patterns.
- Added structure and definition to your playing.
- Tools to break down scales into smaller increments.
- Greater understanding of what makes a major or minor sound.
There are other ways that guitar intervals can benefit you, but these are some of the most notable.
And while the topic is largely theoretical, it’ll provide a lot of tangible structure that will really help you make sense of the fretboard.
Knowing what you’re playing and why can be the difference between a confident musician and a nervous beginner.
All this to say, I believe - and will always contend - that having guitar intervals explained and taking the time to listen, is well worth the effort.
You can print this lesson out via the button below or download the Guitar Intervals PDF Outline for teaching it yourself or quick review. If you want some additional help, I’d also recommend Guitar Tricks Fretboard Trainer, which you can use for free.
If you have questions or thoughts to share, feel free to shoot me an email.
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Flickr Commons Image Courtesy of Kmeron