Intervals and tunings

Guitar basics
Posted Wednesday, October 17, 2012 - 8:39pm

Aldo friends. As we move forward with guitar basics, it’s my hope that these articles are coherent and insightful enough to improve your skills. Last issue covered tuning the guitar, and I’d like to expound on this but, move from standard to non-standard tunings. This is often referred to as open tunings. 

There are specific musical concepts, which are fundamental to these tunings that you have to understand before bridging the gap from standard to non-standard tuning. In a major scale, there are 12-possible tones to play and hear. On a piano, there will be seven-white keys and five-black keys played. The seven-white keys are named C,D,E,F,G,A,B in that musical order. The black keys directly above or below any of these notes will be sharped (#) if it’s above, or flatted(b) if it’s below. For example, Db is the black key just to the left of D and D# is the black key just to the right of D. 

Another way to think of these 12 tones or the 12 keys on the piano, is by using mathematical intervals. That means each note can be numbered depending on the first note you play. So, if you play a C that’s going to be your first interval and if you move up to the next white key (which is a D), that’s the second interval. Next white key is third and so on until you get to another C which is technically the eighth interval, but just remember it’s a perfect octave. 

This way of thinking with intervals can get confusing if you don’t start on C or starting on a black key for instance. If we refer to those 12 tones or the total 12 black and white keys and visualize them as steps, there is either half or whole steps. The rule being anytime you move up one key, it equals one half-step. It doesn’t matter what color it is, whatever the next key directly above. If you play two keys above, that equals a whole-step. Two halves equal one whole. 

This system of using intervals with whole and half steps is the building block of music and works for every instrument and every musical key. To illustrate how this works, there’s a specific pattern of whole and half steps needed which goes whole,whole,half,whole,whole,whole,half. When you play a note (any note), this is your first interval. To get to the second interval, you make one-whole step up (two physical keys.) From that note, you make another whole step up. From that note, you make one half step up (one physical key), and so on. Remember this pattern of whole,whole,half,whole,whole,whole,half and you’ll be in good shape.

One reason to use this system is because we use those same intervals to play musical chords, which is defined as three or more notes played simultaneously. A basic chord everyone has heard is a 1-3-5 chord. All that means is you pick a note, and then you play the third and fifth intervals above it all at the same time. So, if you sit at a piano and you want to play a C chord, the 1 is a C, 3 is an E and the 5 is a G. There are literally countless chord formulas formed from using different interval combinations. This is how musicians can play certain styles of music by knowing specific chord formulas and patterns. 

What does this have to do with the guitar? First, the guitar doesn’t have keys like a piano right? Intervals work the same way, every guitar fret is one-half step, so the whole and half-step pattern works. One whole step equals two frets up. This system makes more sense on the guitar because there isn’t two-colored keys, just frets. And all the frets are numerical, so the twelfth fret is always going to be an octave above each open string.

Remember standard tuning has to be specific notes for each string on the guitar, which goes from low string to high; E,A,D,G,B,E. Open tunings are nothing more than changing the open strings’ note to something other than the standard, and when all six-strings are played simultaneously, they form a chord. Remember a chord is three or more notes and a typical chord is a 1-3-5 combination. Depending on what chord you want, you need one string to have the 1, another the 3 and another the 5. Since the guitar has six-strings, you can double certain intervals to get some rich full-sounding chords. You can also build some interesting 4, 5 and 6 note chords. Open and alternate tunings are really fun to play and are limited to your imagination.       

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