Basic Intervals on Guitar – Tones And Semitones

tones semitones pic 300

In this lessons, we’re going to explore basic intervals on the guitar.¬†This lesson will be pretty basic, but it will allow us to dive into more complex concepts, such as using intervals to build scales and unlocking the notes along the fretboard.

What Is An Interval?

An interval is really just the distance between two notes, measured in pitch. One of the advantages of the way that the guitar is set out is that it is very easy to visualise intervals. Because of the nature of using frets as reference points, it’s quite easy to relate to intervals in terms of frets. Let’s do some examples using Semitones.

What is a Semitone?

Using frets as a reference point, we can say that a ‘semitone’ is an interval of one fret. When we play a note on a certain fret and then move up one more fret, we have just moved up a semitone. Let’s do a few examples.

With all three of the above examples, there are two notes separated by one semitone (1 fret). The first note is played, then there is interval of one semitone, up to the next note. In all of the above examples, we are moving up in pitch. Of course, we can also move down in pitch by semitones, such as in the below examples.

This is all pretty simple stuff. An interval of one fret is an interval of a semitone. Although the idea is simple, it’s a good idea to play through a few examples yourself. Simply play any note at random, then move up or down a semitone, so that you really establish a relationship between playing semitones and associating them as being what they are.

What is a Tone?

An interval of a ‘tone’ is the distance of two frets from one note to another. Another way of looking at it is as the distance of two semitones. Here are a few examples.

Going Beyond Frets

1 fret = 1 semitone.

2 frets = 1 tone (or two semitones).

Easy right? Well, yes, but the truth is that using frets as a unit of measurement is a bit of a rough way of doing things. It’s important to understand that the interval of a tone or a semitone is a measurement of pitch that is not specific to guitar. These intervals can be played on the piano, trumpet, voice, or any other pitched instrument. We can use frets as an easy reference point, but it is really only one way of demonstrating intervals. Another limitation of using frets as a reference point is that even on guitar, moving up or down by a certain number of frets is not the only way to produce tones and semitones. It is effective for producing those intervals while staying on one string, but in reality, we often produce these intervals when moving from one string to another.

Have a look at the following three examples. In each example, there is an interval that  is produced by moving up a up a tone or a semitone using the frets method that we have just used. Next to each of these examples is the same interval (and indeed the exact same notes) but it is produced by changing strings.

E to F 1 string 300
E to F 2 strings 300
D to C 1 string 300
D to C 2 strings 300
Bb to B 1 string 300
Bb to B 2 strings 300

How Is This Possible?

The reason why we can produce identical intervals in different ways is because it is possible to play two identical notes on two different strings. This is a unique trait of guitar and other stringed instruments. We are able to produce one note, in a variety of ways. On the piano for example, there is only one way to play a given pitch. You can play it up the octave, down the octave, but you can not play the exact pitch any other way.

The point of all of this? Frets are a great way of becoming familiar with tones and semitones. This should be your starting point while becoming familiar with intervals. But be aware that a tone and a semitone is really a measurement in pitch that exists beyond frets and the guitar itself. We’re going to look at the way the notes are set out on the guitar in another lesson, but for now, we just want to have a basic understanding of intervals. We also want to use our knowledge of intervals to understand the musical alphabet.

Beyond Tones And Semitones

There are of course, intervals that are bigger than tones or semitones, but by becoming familiar with the concept of tones and semitones, you are laying the foundation for understanding larger concepts.

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