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How to Practice Playing in Fourths on the Guitar
Recently, on one of the many guitar forums I'm apart of, a guitar player asked about playing in fourths. Since my explanation--although brief, considering the topic--will take up my than my fair share of forum space, I decided to seize the opportunity and make a Hub out it.
What are fourths?
Fourths aren't exclusive to guitarists, for those unfamiliar with them. A fourth is simply an interval, just like a unison or an octave. Specifically, a fourth is five half-steps. On the guitar fretboard, one half-step is one fret-space in either direction (toward the nut or toward the bridge). So five half-steps is the distance of five fret-spaces (or more commonly, five frets).
By the way, if you are unfamiliar with the italicized or bolded terms, go to my A Guitarist's Glossary Hub for definitions, as many of them are there. It is frequently updated, so check back from time to time.
Note-wise, a the interval of a fourth up from C is F, while a fourth down from C is G. Let's try another note: A. a fourth up from A is D / down from A is E. Since the Cycle of Fourths is in ascending order, we will follow that order here.
What is the Cycle of Fourths?
Without getting too technical for this Hub's purposes (discussing frequencies, approximation, etc.), the cycle of fourths, simply, is the following group of notes:
C F Bb Eb Ab Dd Gb B E A D G
or the twelve pitches of the Western Chromatic Scale arranged by fourths (rather than chromatically / in consecutive half-steps).
Consecutive Ascending Fourths on the Guitar (For Those Interested)
Consecutive ascending fourths are probably possible on the piano, but certainly not on a traditionally tuned / strung guitar. But if you'd like to hear them (consecutive ascending fourths, that is) on the guitar, here's how:
- Detune your low E string to G (that's right, a major sixth down, for you music theory guys). Match it to the open G to make sure it's in tune.
- Play the open low E (now low, low G), then the 5th fret, then the tenth fret on the same. You've now played G, C, and F.
- Play the A string, 1st fret; the D string, 1st fret; and the G string, 1st fret. You've now played Bb, Eb, and Ab.
- Play the B string, 2nd fret, then the high E string, 2nd fret. You've now played Db and Gb.
- Play the remaining frets on the high E string: 7th, 12th, 17th, and 22nd (if you have a 21-fret Strat, just bend it). You've now played B, E, A, and D...and you're done.
My apologies to those that think playing consecutive ascending fourths on the guitar is worthless. I think it's pretty cool. Plus, hopefully some minds have been opened regarding the possibilities available to you through detuning...
OK, before we start playing simple chords and scales in fourths on the guitar, there's something about the fretboard you should know. Did you know that...
The Guitar Fretboard is Organized in Fourths (5/6 of the Time)
The guitar is tuned in fourths, with the exception of the relationship between the G and B strings (which is the interval of a Major 3rd, or the distance of 4 half-steps / frets). Because of this, learning things in fourths is easy on the guitar and--more importantly--greatly helps any player to be better acquainted with the fretboard.
Let's review this quickly: the low E string, 5th fret is supposed to match the open A string. We all know this. But did you know that E to A is the interval of a fourth? As is A to D; D to G; and B to (high) E. This is why the fretboard 'regenerates' itself every 5 frets. This is also why I suggest learning the fretboard in 'chunks' of five frets at a time. But that's for another Hub.
Ok, let's begin learning basic Major chords and scales on the guitar starting in the key of C Major in 2nd position...
Chords and Scales in Fourths, Starting with C Major
For time's sake, the fingering shapes to the right will be called chord shape #1 and--below it--scale shape #1. I will refer to them in future paragraphs in this Hub. This is a movable chord followed by a movable scale. They can be played in most fretboard positions.
'Movable' means: once you memorize these fingerings they can be transferred to other positions. The key and notes will change while the shape remains the same. Sounds like a bargain to me. Note that the root note of the chord and scale are in the same octave range. Scale-wise, the notes of C Major are: C D E F G A and B.
The next chord / scale pair is in the key of F Major. These will be called chord shape #2 and scale shape #2. Again, the root note of the two items is in the same range.
Scale-wise, the notes of F Major are: F G A Bb C D and E.
The next chord / scale pair is in the key of Bb Major. These will be called chord shape #3 and scale shape #3.
Pretty soon we'll be repeating shapes (there won't be a new shape for every new key), but bear with me for now.
Scale-wise, the notes of Bb Major are: Bb C D Eb F G and A.
The chord / scale pair to the right is in the key of Eb Major. These will be called chord shape #4 and scale shape #4.
Scale-wise, the notes of Bb Major are: Eb F G Ab Bb C and D.
The chord / scale pair to the right is in the key of Ab Major. These will be called chord shape #5 and scale shape #5.
Scale-wise, the notes of Ab Major are: Ab Bb C Db Eb F and G.
Now it's time to repeat the ten shapes--five chord shapes and five scale shapes--you've memorized. There's one more new pair of shapes but we won't need it until the end of the cycle.
Congratulations...you're pretty much 1/2 way through. You'll probably be happy to know that shapes 6 to 11--both chords and scales--will be dupes of the shapes you've learned so far:
This is chord / scale pair #6. Play chord shape #1, but in IV (fourth position) rather than III, as before. Now play scale shape #1 in III (third position) rather than II. In other words, move the first chord / scale pair you played, one fret toward the bridge. The notes of the Db Major scale are: Db Eb F Gb Ab Bb and C.
This is chord / scale pair #7. Play chord shape #2, but in IV (fourth position) rather than III, as before. Now play scale shape #2 in III (third position) rather than II. In other words, move the second chord / scale pair you played, one fret toward the bridge. The notes of the Gb Major scale are: Gb Ab Bb Cb Db Eb F Gb.
This is chord / scale pair #8. Play chord shape #3, but in IV (fourth position) rather than III, as before. Now play scale shape #3 in IV rather than III. In other words, move the third chord / scale pair you played, one fret toward the bridge. The notes of the B Major scale are: B C# D# E F# G# and A#.
This is chord / scale pair #9. Play chord shape #4, but in IV (fourth position) rather than III, as before. Now play scale shape #4 in IV rather than III. In other words, move the fourth chord / scale pair you played, one fret toward the bridge. The notes of the E Major scale are: E F# G# A B C# and D#.
This is chord / scale pair #10. Play chord shape #5, but in V (fifth position) rather than IV, as before. Now play scale shape #5 in IV rather than III. In other words, move the fifth chord / scale pair you played, one fret toward the bridge. The notes of the A Major scale are: A B C# D E F# and G#.
This is chord / scale pair #11. Play chord shape #4, but in II (second position) rather than III, as before. Now play scale shape #4 in II rather than III. In other words, move the fourth chord / scale pair you played, one fret toward the nut. The notes of the D Major scale are: D E F# G A B and C#.
This is chord / scale pair #12. As promised, these are new shapes (to the right). The notes of the G Major scale are: G A B C D E and F#.
The above method can be applied--and profitably so--to arpeggios, dyads, triads, and 'licks' (phrases) of every kind. This can, and will be time-consuming, so I suggest to tackle one or two topics at a time, such as I did in this Hub with basic Major chords and Major scales.
The great benefit is you'll begin to know the fretboard like the back of your hand. The guitar is multi-positional, chord-wise, as well as being multi-positional and multi-interpositional, scale-wise.
Learning the fretboard in fourths, because it is organized in fourths to a large extent, puts players in touch with the 'heart' of the instrument, quickening the learning process. Coupled with chromatic methodology and you'll have the fretboard covered, figuratively and literally!