Drastically Cut Learning Time With Intervals (1)

guitar fretboard diagram showing major 3rd shapes using strings 6&5


Many are unaware of the huge simplification that a mastery of intervals offers, not to mention they are critical to controlling the emotional content of music. Here we start looking at these benefits. They can cut your learning time to at least 1/12th compared to using pitch names or tab.

When soloing it’s easy to think about an interval you want to end a lick on that you know will sound good against the chord of the moment. When writing melodies, certain intervals get much more attention.

Let’s get started!

I’ve seen way too many musicians, guitarist or otherwise, give themselves way too hard a time when it comes to soloing (and learning scales and chords). There are two approaches that can push the effort levels way up:

1. Learning the guitar neck primarily via pitch names, and learning chords and scales using pitch names.
2. Learning from guitar-tab, mimicing others.

This often can lead to uncertainty on choice of landing notes, not knowing where to move next in a solo, not knowing what notes to avoid and how to get out of trouble from a bad choice, not knowing how to catch the ear, not knowing how to create excitement and edginess, not knowing how to drop that edginess, and missing out on the use of chromaticism for infinite variety and expressiveness.

By way of example of (the pain of learning via pitch names), try this.

How many frets are there from G to Bb on the bass E string? And from C# to E? The answer is 3 frets for both. Name the note 3 semitones above Eb? My point being: it’s not an immediate answer.

How many frets are there from the 3rd fret to the 6th fret on the bass E string? From the 9th fret to the 12th? Answer: 3 frets for both questions (3 + 3 = 6; 9 + 3 = 12). Which fret creates a pitch 3 semitones higher than the 11th fret? Answer: the 14th fret. That hopefully required minimal effort?

How about this? Imagine the A minor pentatonic, or A minor blues scale, starting from the 5th fret on the bass E string. Look at what you fingers are doing as you play the first two notes of the scale shape (the 5th and 8th fret). You are making a visual/mechanical shape that creates two notes that are 3 semitones apart. You can move that simple shape anywhere (assuming you can locate both notes on the fretboard or using open string). It always produce this sound of 3 semitones, just higher or lower in pitch. This sound is given the name of “minor third,” and written as “b3.”

Let’s try the question “Which fret creates a pitch 3 semitones higher than the 11th fret?” again. This time, just lay down that visual shape for 3 semitones, starting at the 11th fret. Job done.

If someone plays a G minor chord, a guaranteed very stable sound is produced by a b3 starting from G. What? Find G (e.g. 3rd fret on 1st string). Play the visual shape starting at that fret. (So, fret 3 and fret 6). The b3 is located at fret 6.  Job done. So long as you can find your starting place (string/fret) to match whatever choice of minor chord (Em, Ab m, C#m and so on), that’s all you’ve got to do.

Hopefully you agree that this requires no thought beyond finding the starting note.


Next time

Next time, I’ll cover the octave shapes (there are only 5 to learn to cover a 12 fret region of the neck, which then repeats in the next 12 frets). By knowing these (roughly 1 week’s practice, 5 minutes a day), you can initially just learn the pitch names on the 6th or 1st string, and very quickly find the other octaves of that same pitch (same name).

An interval always involves a pair of pitches, as we’ve just done. An interval is named according to the number of semitones between the two pitches. Different intervals (e.g. 4 semitones rather than 3) have different sounds, and create very different effects in the ears of the listeners, in terms of what they EXPECT TO HEAR NEXT.

This is incredibly important, and mastery of this makes the difference between soloists and great soloists… you can literally play with the listener’s emotions.

I’ll explore this in a later blog.

Finally, because the guitar lets us play the same pitch in more than one location (string/fret), the above mentioned b3 can also be played as follows:

If the lower pitch of the b3 is anywhere on the 6th, 5th, 4th or 2nd string, then the upper pitch is found two frets lower (towards the nut) on the adjacent string. For example, 5th fret on 6th string, and 5-3 = 3rd fret on the 5th string. Visually, this is a diagonal shape, two frets apart. You can move it anywhere, keeping the same shape, on any of these strings, to always produce a b3 interval.

If the lower pitch is on the 3rd string, then the upper pitch is located one fret lower on the 2nd string. Again, this shape can move anywhere along the 3rd string and 2nd string.

Now look at any minor chord shapes you know. See if you see either of the above two shapes for the b3 present.

Did I mention many note names? You get the idea. Next time we’ll look, at the octave and the shape for 7 semitones (called the 5th). Why? Because they are present in the vast majority of chords and scales, and give you very safe landing note choices.

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