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

Advice & Tips

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.

Warm up & practice recommendations

Advice & Tips

This week, I’ve had the rare luxury of free time. Free time to pick up my guitar whenever I like and play. Not specifically for any particular goal, just to PLAY for the love of playing. It then occurred to me just how little I get to do this. Usually I pick up my guitars to practice or prepare for an upcoming show, or to learn new material. The rest of the time, I’m actually at a gig playing.

Using it as a great opportunity to go over my classical repertoire, I found it almost scary how much my discipline had slipped. Don’t get me wrong, I still play well and in a musically pleasing manner (in my opinion, anyway!) but there are ways of performing on guitar (with classical pieces in particular) which enhances the music and makes playing easier (not to mention lessening any strain and preventing injuries long term).

So this week, I have been delving into my old practice and warm up notes and dug out my old favourite, Pumping Nylon by Scott Tennant. For the classical guitarists out there who do not have this book, I strongly recommend you purchase it as soon as possible.

91or8zjkZOL.jpg

This book focuses solely on technique improvement for both hands (including thumb for the right hand). After the initial basics and starters, it progresses into joint techniques (working exercises for both hands together) and demonstrates a closer look into flamenco techniques. These not only go to strengthen your right hand, but to widen your overall playing ability. It also includes specially written study pieces to incorporate all the techniques it has taught.

Around fifteen years ago, I suffered a broken ring finger on my right hand. This has never fully regained it’s original strength (and as a result my days of regular classical guitar recitals are mostly behind me). The exercises in this book went a long way in helping my rebuild the muscle and bring my ability back, something I feared would never happen. Because of this, the right hand techniques and exercises int his book are of particular importance to me.

That’s the basic warm ups covered, but what about actually rehearsal starters? For me, as with many classical guitar players, the studies (or ‘Etudes’) of Francisco Tarrega and Fernando Sor provide plenty of examples for rehearsal focus, especially with right hand technique. It’s absolutely amazing the depth of ground these two teacher-composers (not to mention pioneering players) covered in advancing the technical study of the guitar. I cannot recommend them highly enough.

Alongside these, there are also the studies of Mauro Giuliani. Although his concert and recital pieces are widely known (in fact the staple of most player’s repertoire), his studies are often neglected. However, I would definitely suggest investing in a transcription of his complete studies. While not as technique-practice heavy as Sor (who, in contrast, is remembered historically more for his studies than his concert pieces), they present a more musically varying set and some new colour into your practice routine.

My standard practice routine (looking at my old notes from my true classical playing days) went roughly as follows:

  • 5-10 mins warm ups (both hands, featuring exercises from Pumping Nylon and scale practice
  • Selected studies from Sor, Tarrega and Giuliani (2 or 3 from each, focusing on specific improvement areas)
  • Looking at any new pieces to learn; slow play-through; focus on tricky areas; attempt to play through without stopping (I would try not to spend more than 20-25 minutes on this to prevent fatigue or frustration – the piece can be returned to on the next day)
  • A better known piece which also requires mastering. Ideally play-through should be reached far more quickly
  • Another piece (already known) to ‘refresh’ the fingers (ideally this will also be an upcoming concert piece)
  • Free playing – At this point, I could have been rehearsing for up to an hour and a half, so this should be an old favourite or two which you know well, to act as a cool down. Be careful, though, to remain watchful on technique and accuracy, as this is more likely to slip on pieces you are over familiar with.

These, of course, are my tips only. I would however be delighted to hear from other guitarists and their tips/routines for warm-ups and rehearsals. You can contact me via the  contact page on this site, or my social media (see links).

Good luck and happy practicing!