Basic Guitar Harmony: Scale Primer and Intervals – Part 3

Basic Guitar Harmony: Scale Primer and Intervals – Part 2 outlined the formula for the major scale. The next step in learning to understand harmony when looking at music is the use of key signatures. The key of a tune is vital to understanding phrasing, chord progressions, and improvisation.

Key Signatures

On a musical staff (where the notes are written as opposed to the tablature or tab for short) there is a symbol that looks like a fancy “S”. This is known as the clef of the staff. It indicates the actual pitch relations on the five lines. For a guitarist, the staff will always have the fancy “S” known as a treble clef. Also, immediately to the right of this clef the key signature is given. The key signature is derived from the sharps or flats found in the major scale that the tune is based upon. The number of sharps or flats, or their absence, will indicate the key of the tune. Therefore, when playing the notes in the tune, these notes are always played as sharp or flat all the time unless otherwise noted within the score.

Each key signature corresponds to one of the major scales. For instance, if four sharps are seen in the key signature, then the key of the tune is E Major. This is because the key of E Major has four sharps. Three flat notes indicates the key of E♭ Major. If no sharps or flats are given, then the key is C major because there are not sharps or flats in the C Major scale. The example below (Example 1) gives a pictorial view of the key signature for each major key and its relative minor. The relative minor key has the same notes as the major key and therefore are related.

Example 1

key signature chart


The perceived distance between two notes as heard to the ear indicates their musical relationship. The name given to this relationship is the interval. Previously, intervals were touched upon in the formula of the major scale. In that formula, the intervals of a Major 2nd (whole step) and a minor 2nd (half step) created the major scale sequence. Furthermore, to determine an intervals name, it is important to include both the notes as you count through the musical alphabet. Intervals should be learned by counting from the bottom (lowest) note and the to the top note (highest). The distance from C to E would be counted like this: C-1, D-2, E-3. Therefore, the interval from C to E is a Major 3rd.

Each interval also has a name that identifies the quality of the interval (Major, minor, Perfect, etc.). These quality identifiers will be crucially important in the understanding harmony. Furthermore, it is important to recognize intervals both by sight, sound, and where they exist on the fretboard of the guitar. In the example below (Example 8), the tablature shows where to play each given interval. Notice that after the Fret 12 is reached, the intervals are placed on the next string. There is more than one place to play these intervals on the guitar. In this case, they are given on a single string (up to Fret 12) to facilitate the understanding of the distance visually.

Example 2


In the above example, the basic definitions of the qualifiers are as follows.

Perfect = This qualifier began being used centuries ago. It describes the purest sounding intervals of the scale.
Major = This is the larger form of an interval that is not described as a perfect interval.
Minor = This is the smaller form of an interval that is not described as a perfect interval.
Diminished = This describes a perfect interval that has been made smaller.
Augmented = This describes a perfect interval that has been made larger (not given on the example above).

Cycle of 4ths (or 5ths)

In almost every style of music, chords tend to move in specific patterns. One of the most common movement are the movements of 4ths and 5ths. The diagram below (Diagram 1) shows this movement pattern. There are twelve roots of chords and/or keys shown around the circle. If movement is in a counterclockwise direction, then each root is a 4th higher than the previous one–hence the name cycle of 4ths. If the movement is in a clockwise direction, then each root is a 5th higher than the previous one–hence the name cycle of 5ths. The memorization of this order of notes (4ths and/or 5ths) should be memorized because any study of harmony will require the understanding of these relationships.

Diagram 1


Harmony is a very big subject. However, understanding the major scale and intervals is the first step to its mastery. Processing this information takes time.  It is better to master small pieces and then add the together to create the whole. This is the same with theory and harmony and now the tools have been presented for the first step in that process.

I encourage you to help support this education work by purchasing a downloadable pdf of this entire lesson (Part 1, 2, & 3). It includes:

  • All the information in Part 1, 2, & 3 plus,
  • The completed major scales,
  • Roman numeral explanations,
  • Printable practice notecards for the scales.

Just click the button below to visit the store. Thank you for your support and keep learning!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.