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Learning Intervals For Guitar

Time, notes and intervals are the most basic elements of all music. Today's lesson is entirely about unveiling the mystery behind intervals. This lesson is long with tons of information. Be sure to set aside enough time to study it. By the time you finish this lesson, you will know all there is to know about intervals. Grab some coffee and dive in!


What is an interval?

An interval is the distance between two tones (notes). The distance between any two notes has a name assigned to it to make it easy to reference it. It's as simple as that.


Skip to the bottom of the post for an animated example of intervals on the guitar fretboard.

Why do we need intervals?

* We need intervals to make and use scales.
* We need intervals to build and understand chords.
* We need intervals to make music!

Intervals also help us to communicate when talking about music. All 12 tones in modern music make up the chromatic scale. Remember when we talked about the chromatic scale while learning the notes of the fretboard? If not, it simply looks like this" C C# D D# E F F# G G# A A# B C. Intervals give us a way to put a name to the distance between any two notes of the chromatic scale (or any other scale for that matter).

The Generic intervals W and H

The distance between each of the notes of the chromatic scale can be described generically as Half or Whole steps. A Half step is the space between the note that is directly next to the previous one. For example from C to C# is a Half step.

A Whole step is two half steps. C to D is an example of a Whole Step.

W is shorthand for Whole step and H is shorthand for Half step.

The chromatic scale C C# D D# E F F# G G# A A# B C starting from C can be thought of as having all Half steps from each note to the next.

The chromatic scale is built entirely using the intervals: H H H H H H H H H H H H

Take notice that in the chromatic scale, B and C and E and F are the only naturally occurring notes that do not have a note name between them. A Half step up from B is C. A Half step up from E is F.

On guitar a Whole step in a linear direction is 2 frets away while a Half step is only one. Here is what a whole step and half step look like on guitar:

whole and half steps on guitar

Names of the Intervals

W and H can be used to describe things quickly. Like saying "Go up a half step or down a Half step. Or "hey, just move 2 whole steps away". But we need another way to describe intervals with more precision. We need precise names so we can use them to build chords! Chords get their names based off of the interval names.

The Interval names are derived from their numeric position in a scale. Given the scale of C Major, which has the notes CDEFGAB - D is the 2nd, E 3rd, F 4th, G 5th, A 6th and B is 7th.

Along with their position, the intervals also have a quality. The quality is determined by the distance. For example C to Db is a minor second. And C to D is a Major second. Major and minor are examples of the type of qualities an interval can have while "2nd" is the numeric position.

Here is a list of the most common interval names along with their Whole and Half step distances.

interval names for guitar

The shorthand symbol is usually used on paper. Some shorthand is also represented as smaller symbols.
dim = - or °
aug = +

Altering intervals

You can alter intervals by widening the space between them. After altering an inverval it will have a new name. Here are the rules to do just that:

* Turn any Major interval into a minor by lowering it a half step.

* Turn any Major interval into an augmented interval by raising it a half step.

* Turn any Perfect interval into a augmented interval by raising it a half step.

* Turn any Perfect interval into a diminished by lowering it a half step.

* Turn any minor interval into a diminished interval by lowering it a half step.

Compound Intervals

Why the need for compound intervals? Compound intervals are integral to building and naming chords.

Intervals that span further than the octave are called Compound intervals. Octaves have the same note names but one of the tones is magnitude higher in pitch. For instance B to the next higher pitched B is an octave.

A compound interval example:
The compound interval of a Major 9th is the same as an interval of a Major 2nd where the higher pitched note spans past the octave.

TODO Animated IMG of all intervals

Compound interval names

An interval of a 2nd is compounded to a 9th.
An interval of a 3rd is compounded to a 10th -- but still called the 3rd.
An interval of a 4th is compounded to an 11th.
An interval of a 5th is compounded to an 12th -- but still called a 5th.
An interval of a 6th is compounded to a 13th.
An interval of a 7th is compounded to a 15th -- but still called a 7th.

The Interval qualities Major, minor etc. are the same as their non compounded counterparts. However when people use compound interval names to talk about guitar chords, you will rarely hear it's quality called something like "minor 13" or "minor 11th" even though that is what they are. Instead, they are usually referred to as "Flat 13" or "Flat 11". Which means the interval was altered and lowered by a half step. You see this with regular intervals too like "Flat 5" for a diminished 5th.

Interval inversions

Inverting an interval means to turn it upside down.

Inversion example: C to D is an interval of a Major second (M2). Invert it by moving C up an octave and now you have D to C which is an interval of a minor seventh (m7).

Interval examples on the guitar fretboard

Finally, here is an animated example of what intervals look like on the guitar. While watching the animation, keep in mind that the interval is between/from red to blue. Keep in mind also that these are not the only locations of these examples. Each of the intervals exist in many other locations.

animation of guitar intervals


Wow, you have come a long way. I bet you never thought the small space between two notes could hold so much information! If you made it through with a better understanding of intervals congratulate yourself. Now all you need to do is put your knowledge of intervals to good use and use them to build chords!

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learning intervals for guitar

Posted July 24, 2015, 2:17 pm in: Beginner guitar lessons

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