Playing Intervals on Guitar

An interval is the name of the distance between any two notes. The distance from C to D is a 2nd. The distance from C to E is a 3rd. Playing in intervals instead of running up and down scales is an important way to introduce jumps and leaps into melodies. These jumps can be small, for example a 3rd, or they can be fairly large like a 6th.

Interval practice is very useful for building technique because playing larger leaps involves skipping strings and awkward fingerings. However, the real benefit is aural. Guitarists often practice by running scales, and in doing so train their ears to only hear linear melodies. By forcing ourselves to introduce intervallic leaps into our practice, we train our ears to hear new melodic ideas, which then feed through into our natural playing. Remember; you are what you practice.

An interval can be played either ascending or descending and these directions can be combined into sequences. For example, the first interval skip could ascend and the next one could descend. Long patterns of these permutations can be strung together. This is shown in example 2j where a sequence of two ascending 3rds and then a descending 3rd is played.

It is also possible to alter the rhythm of these patterns. Playing two-note interval patterns in triplets creates interesting cross-rhythmic effects.

Start by learning the basic interval skip patterns from 3rds all the way through to octaves. Use the following routine to organised your practice time.

Pattern Day 1 Day 2 Day 3 Day 4 Day 5 Day 6 Day 7
A* @60 @80 @100 @50 @75 @90 @100
B* @60 @80 @100 @50 @75 @90 @100
C @60 @80 @100 @50 @75 @90 @100
D* @60 @80 @100 @50 @75 @90 @100
E @60 @80 @100 @50 @75 @90 @100
F @60 @80 @100 @50 @75 @90 @100

Intervals Example 2a: *

Intervals Example 2b: *

Intervals Example 2c: *

Intervals Example 2d: *

Intervals Example 2e: *

Intervals Example 2f: *

As mentioned previously, it is possible to combine interval skips in different directions to create interesting melodic ideas. By reversing intervals and combining groups of three or more interval skips into a sequence, we open up a wide range of musical possibilities. These exercises also dramatically increase our familiarity with the scale shape and build confidence and fluency in our soloing.

The following patterns, permutations and rhythmic variations are all based around the interval of a 3rd, however, you must also learn these sequences with the other interval skips (4ths, 5ths and 6ths etc.). I suggest that you spend a week learning the following examples with 3rds before moving on to using each melodic idea with a different interval.

Use the following table to help you efficiently organise your practice.

Pattern Day 1 Day 2 Day 3 Day 4 Day 5 Day 6 Day 7
G* @60 @80 @100 @50 @75 @90 @100
H* @60 @80 @100 @50 @75 @90 @100
I @60 @80 @100 @50 @75 @90 @100
J* @60 @80 @100 @50 @75 @90 @100
K @60 @80 @100 @50 @75 @90 @100
L* @60 @80 @100 @50 @60 @70 @80
M* @60 @80 @100 @50 @60 @70 @80

Intervals Example 2g: (inverted 3rds) *

Intervals Example 2h: (one up, one down) *

Intervals Example 2i: (one down, one up)

Intervals Example 2j: (two up, one down) *

Intervals Example 2k: (two down, one up) *

Intervals Example 2l: (in triplets – 2 against 3 feel) *

Intervals Example 2m: (one up, one down in triplets. 6 against 3 feel) *

Any of these ideas can be applied to the other intervals. For example, here is example 2g played with 4ths:

Intervals Example 2n: (inverted 4ths)

Use the following table to plan out your practice over the period of a few weeks. As you progress you will find that you only need to briefly recap earlier intervals so you can spend more time working on the trickier sequences. This routine may not be perfect for you, so keep track of your own progress and prioritise the intervals and sequences you most like the sound of.

Pattern Day 1 Day 2 Day 3 Day 4 Day 5 Day 6 Day 7
G 4ths 4ths 5ths 6ths 6ths 7ths 8ths
H 4ths 4ths 5ths 6ths 6ths 7ths 8ths
I 4ths 4ths 5ths 6ths 6ths 7ths 8ths
J 4ths 4ths 5ths 6ths 6ths 7ths 8ths
K 4ths 4ths 5ths 6ths 6ths 7ths 8ths
L 4ths 4ths 5ths 6ths 6ths 7ths 8ths
M 4ths 4ths 5ths 6ths 6ths 7ths 8ths

When you have developed an understanding of how these melodic structures work in position 1 of the Major scale, apply the ideas to the other four shapes of the Major scale.

For many more ideas about how to improve your fretboard fluency with intervals, check out my book Guitar Fretboard Fluency, Available on Amazon.