Understanding the guitar fretboard | Part 2

Third and fifth intervals and basic chords building

In the first article of this series about the fretboard we've seen how the layout of the guitar neck works and how to use octave intervals to help us find our way on the fretboard. In this second article we're going to learn what are intervals, in particular two important qualities, thirds and fifths, and how to use them to create chords all along the fretboard, without the need to rely exclusively on memory.

guitar fretboard natural notes

You'll understand why the basic chord fingerings that we all have learned (read brute-force memorized) have their specific shape and you'll be able, depending on your feeling and musical situation, to change and adapt any given chord shape.

Ready? Did you read the first part of this series? Ok, let's dive into...intervals!

Intervals on guitar

If you never took the time to learn music theory, now the time is arrived. But don't worry, at this stage what we need to learn is very simple. Moreover, I've created some diagrams that will help you understand in a visual way the music theory concepts we need. It's gonna be funny!

Let's talk about intervals. Basically, an interval is the distance between two notes, thus, on guitar fretboard, two frets. Depending on the size of this distance, our interval takes a different name. In the previous article of this series, we've already encountered the octave interval, that has a distance of 12 half steps and thus 12 frets (remember, on the guitar fretboard, 1 fret = 1 step)

interval: the distance between two frets

The basic building blocks of chord harmony are the third and fifth intervals. Here are the length of these intervals:

  • A minor third interval spans 3 half-steps (3 frets)
  • A major third interval spans 4 half-steps (4 frets)
  • A perfect fifth interval spans 7 half-steps (7 frets)

Why there exist the "minor" and the "minor third"? And why "perfect" fifth? We'll see later. For now consider only these 3 kinds of intervals: minor third, major third and perfect fifth, respectively 3, 4 and 7 half-steps long.

major and minor thirds and perfect fifths intervals

In the picture above, we can see different intervals:

  • From C to Eb(D#): 3 frets -> 3 half-steps -> minor third
  • From C to E: 4 frets -> 4 half-steps -> major third
  • From C to G: 7 frets -> 7 half-steps -> perfect fifth

Connecting visual to sound

musical intervals soudns

So far we have considered intervals as geometric concepts. But we are musicians and we deal with sound! It's very important to familiarize with the sound of these intervals.

Take a moment to play some minor thirds, major thirds and perfect fifths with your guitar. On one single string, select a fret, play it, then go up horizontally 3, 4 and 7 frets and play the second note, on the same string. Try to focus on the sound of the interval, and sing what you are playing (singing helps a lot develop inner ear, like Steve Vai suggests). Pay attention to the differences of the interval sounds.

One powerful way to memorize and internalize intervals sounds is to associate them to the first notes of a song you already know. Here are some examples taken from very famous tunes, but you should select songs that you really like. Memory is all about emotion! (read this article for good memorization strategies)

Minor third: first two notes of "Greensleeves"

Major third: first two notes of "When the Saints Go Marching In"

Perfect fifth: first two notes of "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star"

There are really infinite options; for example, are you an Iron Maiden fan like me? Well, here are some memory hooks courtesy of The Irons:

  • Minor third: first two notes of the initial melody of "The Evil That Men Do"
  • Major third: first notes of the intro riff of "The Number of The Beast"
  • Perfect fifth: first two notes of the polka-style riff in "Mother Russia"

Playing intervals on multiple strings

To keep things simple as possible, suppose we want to play 3 notes: a C note as root, a major third from it and a perfect fifth, always starting from the root (C). If we count 4 half-steps up (major third) starting from the C, we get the note E. The same with the perfect fifth. Starting from the note C, we count 7 half-steps up and we find the note G. So we're going to play:

  • Root: C
  • Major Third: E
  • Perfect Fifth: G

The examples in the paragraph above, have shown intervals placed on one single string. If you have studied the part 1 of this series, you already know that on the guitar fretboard exist different places in which to find the same note. Now we want to play our 3 notes simultaneously, thus we need to find the E (third) and G (fifth) notes on different strings than the one on which we play the C (root). One possible option is shown in the picture below:

major triad

Did you spot something familiar? Yep, this picture is very similar to the C Major Chord shape that we all know. And what if we want to play the root (C) on the 6th string? We find the C note on the 8th fret of the 6th string, while its relative third and fifth are placed on the 5th and 4th strings as the following picture shows:

major triad

This is still a C major chord, as we are still playing the same notes (C,E,G). What has changed is the selection of the notes on the fretboard. That's the beauty of the guitar: the freedom to introduce interesting variations in our playing.

Basic Chords Theory

To moving forward, we need now to learn a bit how chords are made. Probably you already know how to play major and minor chords on guitar. Now it's time to look under the hood and understand why exist major and minor chords (we will see other chord qualities, such as seventh, dominant, suspended, in future parts of this series). Here are some basic rules of chords theory:

  • 1) A chord is composed of 3 (or more) notes played at the same time
  • 2) Chords are indicated with 2 elements: the root of the chord, and its quality.
    Examples: C major -> C is the root, major is the quality.
    Ab minor -> Ab is the root, minor is the quality.
    F# dominant 7th -> F# is the root, dominant 7th is the quality
  • 3) The root is the note on which we stack the other notes of the chord
  • 4) The quality of the chords depends on the intervals between the root and the stacked notes
  • 5) A major chord is composed of the root, a major third and a perfect fifth
  • 6) A minor chord is composed of the root, a minor third and a perfect fifth

For the moment this is all the music theory that you need to know. The diagram below shows you the structure of major and minor chord: as you can see, the only difference between a major and a minor chords is the third interval.

major and minor chord scheme

1: root, 3: major thirds, b3: minor third, 5: perfect fifth

Major and minor chords on the fretboard

Now we can apply what we have just seen to the guitar. Let's find some different options for playing a C major chord. The C major is composed of C (root), E (major third), and G (perfect fifth). In the picture below you see what are the most common options for playing a C major chord on three strings:

C major chords fingerings

We can do the same with minor chords. In case of C minor, we use the notes C (root), Eb (minor third), and G (perfect fifth). Here are four different options for playing a C minor chord:

C minor chord fingerings

Due the way guitar is tuned, we have different fingerings when we traverse between the 3th (G) and the 2th (B) string.

And now the magic: you have just learned 24 chords!

The chord shapes on the diagrams above have a very cool characteristics: they are movable! You can move them up and down the neck and play chords with different names (because the root note is changed) but with the same quality: minor or major (because the intervals from the root and the other notes has not changed, you still have a root, a third (major or minor) and a perfect fifth).

Want to play a A major? Play the root (A) on the 5th fret of the 6th string, and play a major third and a perfect fifth on the 5th and 4th string. Same story for E major, C major, A minor... you are now able to play the basic voicing of any given major and minor chord (of course you need to have the name of the notes of the fretboard, this game will help you)

major chords with root on sixth string

A major, C major and E major chords with root on the sixth string.

Basic voicings for 3 tones major and minor chords

Here below you find 8 diagrams (4 major and 4 minor) with the possible fingerings for the basic voicings of any given chord. Remember that you just need to place the root of the shape on the fret you want to be your chord name. The numbers on the diagrams tell the interval of the notes:

1=root, 3=major third, b3=minor third, 5 perfect fifth.

Major chord with root on the 3rd string

Major chord with root on the 3rd string

Major chord with root on the 4th string

Major chord with root on the 4th string

Major chord with root on the 5th string

Major chord with root on the 5th string

Major chord with root on the 6th string

Major chord with root on the 6th string

Minor chord with root on the 3rd string

Minor chord with root on the 3rd string

Minor chord with root on the 4th string

Minor chord with root on the 4th string

Minor chord with root on the 5th string

Minor chord with root on the 5th string

Minor chord with root on the 6th string

Minor chord with root on the 6th string

Recap exercise

A good exercise for getting familiar with these shapes is to play a chord progression you already know, such as C - Am - Dm - G on different part of the fretboard. Find the roots: C, A, D and G on different strings and play the major and minor shapes. Here is a recap exercise: (Download the pdf here)

C Am D G on guitar fretboard

End of part 2, conclusions and useful links

Well, in this article we have covered a lot of ground. We have learned how minor and major chords are made, and what are and how to find major and minor thirds and perfect fifths intervals. Finally, we have seen 8 basic shapes for playing any minor and major chord on every part of the fretboard.

Useful links:

In the next articles of this series we will study chords inversion, and we will introduce augmented, diminished and suspended chords. If you liked this article, please sharing it by using the button below, and drop me comments or questions in the section below.

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