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Theory Numbers & Intervals on the Fretboard

The Theory of Major Scale Intervals

The major scale is used to measure the distance between notes. For example, the distance between the first and second notes of the major scale is two frets, one whole-step or a “second” interval. The distance between the first and third notes of the major scale is four frets, two whole-steps or a “third” interval. There are seven notes in the major scale and thus seven intervals. An eighth term, octave, refers to a higher or lower occurrence of the same note.

Harmonizing the Major Scale in Thirds

Guitar players map out interval shapes on the fretboard, then use these note combinations to play musical parts. One way this is accomplished is by playing entirely through a major scale pattern and adding a third interval to each note. In other words, playing through the major scale two notes at a time with the second note always a third a head. In order to do this correctly notes must be confined to the major scale being used. As a result, some third intervals are major while others are minor. Playing in this manner is one way to harmonize the major scale (and is similar to how guitar players learn chord progressions and playing by numbers but that’s another topic).

The famous guitar intro to Brown Eyed Girl by Van Morrison is a great song example of playing a major scale melody harmonized in thirds. “Walk on the Wild Side” by Lou Reed is a song that uses this same technique on the bass guitar. Many other famous songs have prominent guitar intros, riffs or solos that use third intervals. Some good examples are listed below.

Third Interval Songs

“Blackbird” The Beatles

“Heaven” Los Lonely Boys

“Patience” Guns and Roses

“Your Body is a Wonderland” John Mayer

“Have You Ever Really Loved a Woman?” Bryan Adams

“Scar Tissue” Red Hot Chili Peppers

“Rhiannon” Fleetwood Mac

“La Bamba” Los Lobos

“Peace Train” Cat Stevens

“Wanted Dead or Alive” Bon Jovi

“Two Step” Dave Matthews Band

“Tripping Billies” Dave Matthews Band

“Lover Lay Down” Dave Matthews Band

“Grey Street” Dave Matthews Band

“Brown Eyed Girl” Van Morrison

“Walk on the Wild Side” Lou Reed

Fifth Intervals & Guitar Power Chords

Playing in fifths is another way to harmonize the major scale using intervals. Fifth intervals are simply power chords and are usually written with a number 5. Full chords consist of a root, third and fifth interval, so power chords are theoretically not chords in the music world. They’re intervals. In fact, they are the most common type of interval played on the guitar. Any time power chords are used it may as well be called playing in fifths. The guitar riff in Iron Man by Black Sabbath is just one example of many that use power chords, or fifth intervals (songs can begin at any major scale degree or mode by the way). Intervals can also be inverted by putting the root above the interval. Inverted fifth intervals can be heard in the intro to Smoke On the Water by Deep Purple. (Some players mistake these shapes for fourths.)