Examples of using intervals in guitar playing, part 1: thirds, sixths and tenths

Single line lead guitar playing is great. But when you have six strings and four fingers to hold them down, why limit your playing to one note at a time? Throughout the history of guitar, players have used two notes (or more) at once, resulting in something halfway between a single note line and a full guitar chord. We do this for a few reasons:

  • It adds depth (useful in trio settings, for example)
  • To create a certain feel (which we will touch upon below)
  • To imply a chord through highlighting certain scale tones
  • To make certain phrases stand out

What is an interval?

An interval is he distance between two notes, in terms of pitch. Thinking of the C major scale (visualize the white keys on a piano), the root note (C) is 1, and the next note (D) is therefore 2, so the interval between C and D is known as a 2nd. More specifically, it is called a major 2nd because it is a whole tone away from C (whereas Db, only a semitone higher, is known as a minor 2nd). The next note in the C major scale would be E, which is called a major third (and Eb is the minor 3rd). I won’t bog us down in theory for this article, but if you need a more in-depth explanation, check out this video from Victoria Williams of mymusictheory.com.

It’s possible to use any interval when playing, especially lead lines. However, some are more effective than others. In this article, I’m going to stick to three types of interval: thirds, sixths and tenths, along with a few well-known examples in music. Go give some of these a listen and see if you can spot the intervals in use.

Thirds

Common in any music with a Spanish in Latin twist, particularly on acoustic guitar. Try going up and down a major scale by playing each note with another note ‘two places higher’ in the scale on the next string up. For example, starting with a C by fretting the G string at the fifth fret, you ‘think up two notes’, skipping D, and playing E by fretting the B string at the fifth fret. The next note in the scale (D) would be played at the same time as F. Going up the fret board/scale, the notes should match up above each other like this:

  • EFGABCDE (thirds)
  • CDEFGABC (base notes of the C major scale)
Picture Credit: GUITARHABITS.com

Check out this useful video by Pete Farrugia, which covers thirds and sixths in greater detail (see below).

It is also the most commonly used interval for twin guitar harmonies, such as:

  • Thin Lizzy – The Boys Are Back In Town (recurring twin lead line after the choruses)
  • The Eagles – Hotel California (harmony lines at the very end, during fade-out)

Sixths

One of my personal favourites, which I use a lot in my guitar playing. Sixths are essentially an inverted third, where the base note (eg, C) is played highest (such as one the E string at the 8th fret), while the harmony note (E or Eb) is played two strings lower (in this case, the G string, at the 9th fret for E, or the 8th fret for Eb).

Picture Credit: NZMusician.com

They can highlight major and minor chords, and sound great when you slide into them up and down the scales you’re using, as well as chromatically (think of the stereotypical blues ‘ending’). They’re great for soul playing too, implying a chord or scale with only two notes (as with tenths – see below). I’m not alone in this – examples exist across the various genres that the guitar is used for, including:

  • Steve Cropper’s guitar intro to the classic Sam & Dave song Soul Man
  • Chuck Berry on the intro to You Never Can Tell

Steve Cropper’s guitar playing uses this time and time again, on many classic recordings from Otis Redding to The Blues Brothers. He had a knack for finding the right guitar line that complimented the songs he played on, without overpowering them, and rightly deserves his own article looking into his style in greater detail (watch this space)!

Tenths

Tenths are essentially thirds, but with an additional octave between the two notes. This has the interesting effect of creating the impression of a chord, while still leaving a sense of space. It is the interval used in the opening phrase of the well-known classical guitar standard Lagrima. Here’s a chart to demonstrate where the tenth harmony for Bb (played alongside a D, two notes then one additional octave higher) across the guitar fretboard:

Picture Credit: PlayTheAxe.com

There has been a few examples of this in big singles recently. In each case, t tenths are used for the main guitar park in the songs:

  • Scar Tissue by The Red Hot Chilli Peppers
  • Love Yourself by Justin Bieber
  • Hold Back The River by James Bay

Tenths are also used in jazz. They provide a nice open-sounding stretch which is easy to play on guitar; they implied the chordal harmony while still leaving space for other instruments.

In summary

One thing that all three of these interval types have in common is their ability to reflect a major or minor chord. I think of them as the same interval, using a base note of C as an example again:

  • Third: C, played with an E (2 tones higher)
  • Sixth: An inverted third; C is played with an E a sixth lower (4 tones)
  • Tenth: A third, plus one additional octave between both notes; C, plus E (8 tones higher)

Each has it’s own feel and characteristic, and they are not always as interchangeable as you might think. Try playing around with them, across major and minor scales, then in your solos, and let me know how you get on!

Coming next: Part two of this subject will focus on intervals which can utilised over major and minor chords – fourths and fifths.

Published by timguitar

Guitarist, composer, music therapist and avid bibliophile. Providing an insight into my life as a professional musician, lessons learned as an allied health practitioner, as well as various musings on the world of music in general. Expect plenty of articles about music & wellbeing, classical guitar, jazz, world/roots genres, and all sorts of guitar-related chat.

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