Using Intervals in Songwriting

As I stated in the last post, intervals can be a much more versatile tool than just the "stepping stones" that make up a scale. In fact, chords are constructed using intervals, oftentimes without any real regard to any underlying scale. By understanding how to construct chords and melodies with intervals, you can have the foundation for building any mood in any song that you want.

In short, most chords are made up of major and minor thirds. A major triad (three note chord) like C major is really just the notes C-E-G, or two whole steps from C to E and one and half steps from E to G, which means a major triad on the bottom of the chord and a minor on the top. Major 7 chords have one more third stacked on top, while suspended chords like sus2 and sus4 have a major third on the bottom with either a major 2nd or perfect 4th on the top that replaces the minor third. This rudimentary understanding of chord construction will enable to us to visualize and use much more "exotic" or nontraditional chords, giving more music much more uniqueness and pizazz.

I will warn you that in order to truly grasp the sound of intervals, you must actually play them yourself, or else the words on this page won't mean a whole lot to you. However, I have found that with a little practice, you can develop a very good ear for knowing which intervals work best for which sounds. But I will also say that in order to understand them better, at this point at least, you should throw out the idea of keeping the intervals in a specific scale. Just let the intervals be stand-alone entities.

There are basically 12 different intervals types. You have major and minor second, major and minor third, perfect fourth, perfect fifth, major and minor sixth, major and minor seventh, perfect unison, and perfect octave. These are formed based on the steps (also called semitones) in between the notes, not counting the notes themselves. For instance, a major third could be the notes C and E. They have two whole steps, or four semitones, that are between them. A minor third, from C to D#, has only three semitones.

Some intervals don't have these direct names like major third, however. For instance, the perfect fourth has five semitones, but the next interval up (perfect fifth) has seven. What happens if your intervals has six semitones? That's where the terms diminished and augmented come into play. A perfect fourth with an extra semitone is known as an augmented fourth. In other words, if the interval has one more semitone than it "should," it is called an augmented interval . If it has one less, it is called diminished.

As such, intervals with certain constructions obviously create certain sounds. I have found that intervals with any type of chromatic nature create an eerie, minor sound. For instance, one great triad is a M2-m2 triad, or a major second in interval in the bass and a minor second in the treble. In the right context, it can bring tears to the eyes of your listeners. Another great chord is two perfect 5ths stacked on top of each other. Together they create a very Joe Satriani sound. If you are looking for something lighter and more cheery, listen to two perfect fourths stacked on each other.

Nevertheless, by just stacking intervals on top of each other and letting your ear do the deciding instead of your brain, you have countless combinations of chords and melodies at your fingertips. Don't worry about what scale you're in. As long as it sounds good, it doesn't matter, since music is about what you hear. Many times, I use these intervallic constructs for creating melodies instead of chords, which still generate the sounds that I want. As a general rule, most augmented interval-based chords are more major sounding, while most diminished interval-based are minor sounding. Most minor based sound minor, and most major based sound major, obviously.

When it comes to your songwriting, approach the guitar a little differently from now on. Think of your music in intervals instead of notes and scales. I promise that you will at least be creating the sounds that you want. Plus, by practicing intervals, you gain a much deeper understanding of the nuances of two notes joined together. Again, the only way to get better is to practice. Whatever you sow, that shall you also reap, and may the reaping be bounteous.


Scalar Sounds and Intervals

Different scales of course have different sounds. Not only does the C major scale sound different from the E major scale, but different modes of the scales sound different. Modes are specific arrangement of the scales that do not start of the root of the scale, thus changing the intervallic formula within the scale itself. An interval is the distance between two notes, and are very important for the sounding of chords (called vertical or harmonic intervals) as well as for developing melodies (called horizontal or melodic intervals). While intervals make up the different sound of the scales, I have found that intervals can be used even without a scale to create a specific sound or mood.

Let's look at how to construct modes first, which will also help us to understand intervals. As I stated before, a mode is nothing more than a rearranged scale. You might be thinking, "Isn't that just another scale?" Well, no, it isn't, as long as the intervallic formula shifts with the scale, it will remain the same scale, just with a different root. Confused yet? Let me give you an example. The C major scale is composed like this: C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C. The E major scale is this: E-F#-G#-A-B-C#-D#-E. If we want the mode E phrygian, which is the third root of the C major scale, we get E-F-G-A-B-C-D-E. That is very different from the E major scale, despite the fact that they both start on E.

This is where intervals come into play. Intervals are usually broken up into half-steps and whole-steps when considering their role in scales. On a guitar neck, a half-step is the distance of one fret, while a hole-step is the distance of two frets. All major scales have the intervallic formula of whole-whole-half-whole-whole-whole-half. C to D is two frets, D to E is two frets, E to F is one fret, and so on. When you shift to a different root or a mode of the major scale, you must shift the formula around. E phrygian has the intervallic formula of half-whole-whole-whole-half-whole-whole, which is a different formula than C major, yet they have the same notes! The effect of this to create a different sound. Phrygian modes, when used properly, tend to have a more haunting, minor sound. Many Spanish classical guitarists used this mode. If you want to hear a modern example, listen to the group Alice in Chains.

Modes can be derived from any of the notes in a scale. In fact, the major scale is also known as the ionian mode. Here are the list of modes in order of their root: Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, and Locrian. Just make sure to shift the intervallic formula "forward" when you derive a mode from the major scale. With a little practice, modes can greatly enhance your playing and songwriting. Here's a list of what the modes sound like:

Ionian -- Major, "Happy"
Dorian -- Minor, Bluesy (Metallica is notorious for using this mode)
Phrygian -- Minor, Haunting
Lydian -- Major, Jazzy
Mixolydian --Major, Folksy and Jazzy
Aeolian -- Minor, Heavy
Locrian -- Minor, Jazzy and Diminished

The only way to really get comfortable with these modes is to play them, and a lot. Develop chord progressions from certain scales and play different modes of the scale over the progression. Which sounds good? Which are weird? Make a note of this in your journal. Again, the only way to fully understand how to employ these modes to their fullest "flavor" potential is to play them over as many different progressions as possible. The more you play them, the more you will be able to hear and develop the little nuances that characterize these great improvisational soloing and songwriting tools.

In the next posting, I will cover how to use intervals to your songwriting advantage without really having to think about keys and scales. In fact, I believe that if you understand how to construct the intervals, you can create any mood that you desire in a song. But until next time, keep the chops moving.


Varying Your Scale Work

For beginners, scales are one of the greatest tools to develop overall timing and individual finger dexterity, plus a good alternate picking technique. However, like I stated in the previous post, scales will really only get you so far. If you have been soloing for any amount of time, scales more than likely will not help you much. However, if you are dead-set on using scales in your practice regimen, there are some things you need to know that will enhance the amount of rewards you reap from your efforts.

First, while repeatedly running up and down the scale will give a little benefit, it really only the teaches the hands to do a few things. Your picking hand will learn how to pick two, three, and four note patterns in a particular order, depending on the scale. Your fretting hand will learn to fret those same patterns. And you will be able to build up speed in those patterns, but mostly only in those patterns. Like I stated before, you must vary your practice. One of the best ways I have found to do this is to imagine that each note in a scalar pattern is a specific number. For
instance, in the C major scale, C is 1, D is 2, E is 3, etc. Then, either jumble up the numbers in your head or make little pieces of paper with numbers on them and draw them out of a cup. When the numbers are pulled out and out of order, play them in that order. So if the first three numbers are 3 and 1 and 2, play an E and then a C and then a D. Doing this will cause your picking hand to have to move around a lot more, as well as your fretting fingers. You may even want to put the same number in the pile more than once. Another thing that works well is to play each note in the scale twice before moving on to the next note, which teaches your hands to do more speed picking type of work.

Another exercise that is closely related to scales is using the 1234 method. In this practice technique, each one of your fingers is a number: pointer is 1, middle is 2, ring is 3, and pinky is 4. Come up with as many different combinations of these numbers as you can. Choose a fret range that you need practice with, say the 9th-12th frets, and play the pattern by fretting the number that corresponds with your finger. In this case, your middle finger would fret the 10th, and your pinky the 12th, and so on. Play each string this way in this fret range until you have built up considerable speed. You can even play your first two fingers on one string while the secod two play another string. Or, instead of playing each string in succession, you could do some string skipping. For instance, play 1234 on the 9th-12th frets on the high E string and then immediately following play 1234 in the same fret range on the D string. Just get creative. A whole slew of combinations are at your fingertips, no pun intended.

Whatever type of scale you choose, make sure to pay attention to the sound of each note as well as the collection of notes. Do they sound major or minor? Exotic or melancholy? Make a note either mentally or in a guitar journal (which I suggest all musicians have) of which note combinations sound certain ways, and which you would like to use in future songs you write. Just keep in mind that eventually you will have to move on to something more stimulating than scales, or come up with very unique ways of playing scales, in order to progress to the highest level of guitarship.


Perfect Practice Makes Precise

This isn’t the only place that you will hear that practice makes perfect. I know that it’s redundant and overly stated, but practice really is the only way to get any better at the guitar. Some sites will advocate quick and easy methods of learning the guitar. Those are crap. Some sites advocates specific gear to help you along. Those are crap. I’ve always understood that a truly talented musician will sound good whether they play on a cheap guitar from the Thrifty Nickel or if they play a Gibson Les Paul.

I think it necessary to lay down this very important tenet of being an accomplished guitarist. But even practice may not get you to where you want to be, depending on your goals and how much you practice. While it would be nice to say that playing 30 minutes a day will make you the next Steve Vai or Andres Segovia, that is in every way false. In fact, when Steve Vai was a guitar student, many times he literally played ten hours a day. I’m not suggesting that kind of rigidity, but if you want to be the next Steve Vai, that may be the only route.

Practicing is a lot more complicated than just playing the guitar. I mean, if you want to play just for the fun of it, then sure, playing your favorite songs and such is fine for practice. If, however, you want to make yourself the best possible musician that you can be, you must develop a practice routine, much like a weightlifting routine. It must be consistent, yet varied, in order to achieve the best possible results. Well, how do you do that?

Draw up a practice schedule. I’ve read certain guitar experts say that you should only practice for an hour, and then stop, because your hands and brain cannot take that much stimulation. I have found the opposite to be true. The longer I practice, the more my hands and brain connect, bringing me faster results. Regardless, you must find what works for you. Set aside some time to practice, although I would suggest at least one hour per day. It generally takes 20 to 30 minutes just to get the fingers warmed up. If you only practice for only 30 minutes more, you probably won’t accomplish much. After you have the time allotted, determine what are your strengths and weaknesses. If you need work on legato, appoint roughly a third of your “workout” to legato. If you need work on arpeggios, appoint the appropriate time. As a side note, scales, while very effective tools, can really only get you so far in your abilities. Don’t spend too much time on them unless you are an absolute beginner. Perhaps your practice schedule will include songs. Whatever the schedule looks like, make sure to follow it religiously for about a month, whether you have mastered it or not. After that month is up, switch the routine around, focusing on another aspect of your playing. With some things, more is not better; but with guitar, you can never go wrong with more, as long as it is variated enough to stimulate growth in your playing and dexterity in your hands.

When you practice, practice like if you were in front of an audience. In fact, sometimes I practice like I were playing for a panel of judges. When you practice, make sure to be as precise as possible. Sometimes, it may even be beneficial to play a practice session without any mistakes. In other words, make the oath to yourself that x particular practice session, you will not make a mistake. If you do, you will set the guitar down for the rest of the day. Although it sounds counterintuitive, it teaches you really quickly to keep from making mistakes. Even if it takes you thirty seconds just to play one note, make sure not to mess it up. Of course, you can’t practice like this all the time. Just do so every once in a while, when you feel comfortable with the material you have been practicing.

Finally, make sure to take rest days sometimes. Although you may lose a little edge, you will be able to regain it very quickly. You may also find that you will have a renewed vigor for the guitar, enabling you to practice your heart out.

Keep in mind that perfect practice makes precise.

Introduction and Intentions

Over the years, I have found that there is a supreme lack of guitar wisdom online. I mean, sure, there are plenty of website to visit that will tell you the basics about playing shred or classical guitar. However, in my multiple-year quest in searching for something more, something that is a challenge for me, I found little results. We musicians need some information that will guide us on our way to becoming a fantastic artist.

As such, my desire is to present you, the struggling student of the guitar, with as much guitar wisdom, technique, and teaching that I possibly can. I myself haven’t been playing too terribly long, just shy of a decade. Nonetheless, I have learned a lot over these years, and I will learn a lot more. But I wish to present you with this knowledge that I gain, in the hopes that you will not have to face the struggles that I have had, through trial and error.

Just to give you a heads up, I will be posting all sorts of things, from the reviews of the latest gear for the classical guitar to insane shred licks and exercises that I have uncovered in my odyssey to become a guitar demigod. I truly hope to bring you the best information that I possibly can, inherently valuable information to raise you to the heights of guitar playing that you never thought possible. Of course, that will take work, and lots of it. I do not intend to be a guitar fairy, but rather a guitar coach, one who will direct you to the do’s and don’t’s of one of the most versatile and beautiful instruments ever created.