Scales and Intervals, Part 1

This is the first of a series of posts about scales and intervals, ways to incorporate them into your practice routines, and how to use them to build chords and learn more advanced melodic concepts, such as modes and arpeggios.

The interval is the most basic element of western music, regardless of style. Triads, scales, modes, chords, and arpeggios can all be expressed in terms of intervals, and all are constructed from various combinations of intervals. Getting the concept of intervals down and learning to apply them to these other musical areas will absolutely shorten the learning curve not only for theory, but for technique and composition.

The definition of an interval is simply the distance between any two notes. This series of posts will focus specifically on intervals contained within a major (diatonic) scale, from which you can then see how to construct all the aforementioned triads and chords. For those of you new to scales, we’ll describe that to you shortly, as this series progresses.

People can frequently be intimidated by these ideas, of having to learn and memorize a bunch of old Greek names and scale shapes and such. Folks, I promise you, it’s not a history exam; the advantage to knowing what a Mixolydian mode or a diminished triad is, isn’t to impress people with your esoteric knowledge of an ancient fifty-cent word.

All the terms for these concepts — major, minor, Phrygian, suspended, whatever — are just names for things. The reason the names and concepts are useful to know is simply to have a common terminology that enables you to quickly grab any new idea and run with it, because you know what the name means — and more importantly, what it sounds like. It takes some time to learn and internalize them upfront, but I guarantee you that the knowledge will save you far more time down the road, as your playing develops. It’s time well spent.

The very first place to start with learning music theory is probably the most obvious — learn all the notes on the fretboard. Seriously, learn the name of every single note. There are only 12 notes in an octave, 7 natural notes (no sharps or flats) and 5 accidentals (sharps/flats). Depending on the key you’re in, accidentals may use sharps or flats to indicate the note; these are called enharmonics.

The sequence of notes in a single octave goes like this:

A     A#/Bb     B     C     C#/Db     D     D#/Eb     E     F     F#/Gb     G     G#/Ab     A’ (next octave)

You can start from any note and cycle through the octave sequence, go higher or lower. A 24-fret guitar in standard tuning will have 4 full octaves, from the open low E string to the 24th fret on the high E string.

Notice that there is no accidental note between B and C, nor between E and F. For the rest of them, the sharp/flat pairs are identical. So A# and Bb are two names for a single note; again, the proper name will depend on the key you’re in at the time. On a printed score sheet, the sharps or flats on the left of the musical staff (next to the clef marking) will tell you the key of the piece.

Let’s keep it simple for now, though:  12 notes in an octave. Each note is a half-step (or semi-tone) apart. So it’s a half-step from A to Bb, a half-step from B to C, a whole step (tone) from C to D, 1½ steps from B to D, etc. If you aren’t already familiar with these concepts, take a few minutes and check out the entire line of notes in the octave indicated above, and consider the number of steps between various pairs of notes. This is the beginning of understanding intervals.

Now, find where each of those notes exists on the fretboard. Two ways to do this — systematically, where you just start from the low open E string, and start heading up the neck one fret at a time from there, F on the 1st fret, F# on the 2nd fret, G on the 3rd fret, etc.; and randomly, where you just call out (or set up a randomizing macro on Excel) a note, for example C#, and then find every C# on the neck.

Some of the notes you identify will be duplicates; for example, the C# on the 9th fret of the low E string is the same exact note as the C# on the 4th fret of the A string. The C# on the 6th fret of the G string is an octave higher, and the C# on the 9th fret of the high E string is yet another octave higher.

In standard (EADGBE) tuning, there will be more E notes than any other; a 24-fret neck will have a total of 14 E notes, covering 4 full octaves, so plenty of multiple locations for identical notes. The 24th fret of the low E, 19th fret of the A, 14th fret of the D, 9th fret of the G, 5th fret of the B, and the open high E string are all the same exact note. Play all of them, of course.

Use the diagram below for reference. All the accidentals are shown as sharps; keep in mind that they are also flats, so C# is also Db, D# is also Eb, and so on.

All notes

So, got all that? Knowing where every note is located on the neck may seem like a lot at first, but again, there’s just 12 notes in an octave, then you’re in the next octave. Five minutes at the start of every practice session, and you’ll have them all down in a week or two.

The next post in this series will get you started on scales and intervals. Stay tuned!

PTG Books for Kindle

Hey everyone, just a quick note of appreciation to all of you who have been coming through and checking out the site. We’re still getting people dropping in from all over the world, from Romania to South Africa to Sacramento to Calgary. Please keep your questions and comments coming, either here or email me directly at .

May is going to be the kickoff month for a huge summer here at PTG. In addition to continuing the regular content here, May will see the publication of two Kindle e-books at Amazon.

Practice Power will elaborate on some of the articles earlier in the year about how to get the most out of your practice environment, materials, and work habits. Rather than swamping you with tons of tab exercises to sort through, Practice Power focuses on how to sort through it all in the first place, and save yourself hundreds or thousands of hours in the long run by practicing the right material.

Climbing the K2 will feature the Kreutzer Etude #2 we profiled several months ago, with tons of additional material — musical analysis, tab to perform the piece in lower and higher octaves, and custom exercises specifically designed to play the K2! Given how brief — yet effective — the K2 is, pound for pound it may be one of the most effective exercises for accelerating the development of your fingers and your ears. Can a 25-bar violin piece written 220 years ago really help you crack the code to being a great player? Check out Climbing the K2 and see for yourself!

Planned release date for Practice Power is May 6, and for Climbing the K2 May 11. Stay tuned for further updates on release dates, great discount offers, free MP3 files to accompany the tabs, and more classical pieces to be released over the summer!

Lick of the Week: Pedal Point and Scale Sequences

Here’s an extended lick that is really two separate melodic runs combined. The first half is a pedal point phrase based in E minor. Practice this basic phrase, utilizing strict down-up alternate picking:


Using the suggested fingering will keep you in the 12th position, and utilize all four fingers, accenting the first note of each 4-note grouping. It’s a great-sounding phrase to play at higher tempos. The 3-note (C-B-C) pedal is a cool contrast to the usual single-note style.

So let’s take that intro phrase and add a few more notes to play against the pedal.


The first note of the third bar (F#) requires a slight shift back one fret, but you should be able to move the index finger back and forth from G to F# and back to G, while keeping everything else still in the 12th position. Slide into the final high A note from the high G (15th fret) for added emphasis.

Now let’s take a look at the second half of the phrase, which will cover most of the strings and move along several positions:


This is just a straight E minor scale, sequenced in descending groups of four. Rather than the typical 3-notes-per-string scale, note how the run alternates between three notes and four notes per string. This facilitates position shifting, with small slides at key points in the phrase. The shift to the D# (major 7th interval) to slide into the final E note suggests a shift from natural minor to harmonic minor.

A few things to consider trying with this phrase:  I like to begin this descending run by raking into the first high A note at the 17th fret. Raking is like sweeping, only much easier, since the actual notes being raked are simply muted, rather than played out. To rake that first note efficiently, just lightly mute the two (or three) strings above the “target” note (in this case, again, the high A at the 17th fret) with your index finger, while your 4th finger is set up on the target note. Once you hit the lower notes, perhaps midway through the third bar, try palm muting the rest of the way through. As always, these little variances add dynamic contrast, and keep it from sounding like just another quick scalar run.

Here’s the entire lick, combining both parts:


The entire melodic run has a baroque classical feel to it, and usually these types of scale sequences sound better at higher tempos when strict alternate picking is maintained. But there’s always room to throw in some improvised legato phrasing as well.

You know the drill — take it slowly at first, definitely use a metronome, build up some speed and precision and change a few notes here and there. For example, try playing the descending run as E Dorian, rather than Aeolian, which means all the C notes would be C#. Chromatic passing tones are also fun to use here and there. Experiment, play hard, and have fun!

Lick of the Week: Blues You Can Use

Let’s try a simple two-finger pentatonic run that moves across and up the neck. You should be able to play the entire thing with your 1st and 3rd fingers. The lick uses the A pentatonic boxes, joined together as follows:


Easy enough, right? Notice in the third and fourth bars where the pattern varies; instead of the ascending sequence, the pattern reverses before ascending again. These sorts of back-and-forth sequences and pattern fragments add color and melodic tension, rather than just playing a predictable, repetitive scalar run.

So let’s add a little flavor to those spots where the pattern reverses, throw in some quick hammer-on/pull-off notes. Check out the variation below for the last two bars:


Sliding into the final note, and then holding it, resolves the run with a nice “vocal” quality. With solos and short melodic runs, it’s generally the beginning and the end which are the most memorable parts of the melody, so it’s helpful to throw in some stylistic elements in those parts.

As far as picking goes, you’ll notice that there are no picking indications given. The odd-numbered note groupings per string make alternate picking more interesting, but as soon as you internalize the pattern and position shifting, use hammer-ons and pull-offs as much as possible throughout. That will make the entire run sound more smooth and fluid.

Melodic runs like this are great for “connecting” the fretboard, and for getting between distant points quickly and smoothly. The wider intervals of the pentatonic scale are especially useful for these sorts of connector licks.