Octaves For Beginners

author: JC Rea date: 12/10/2005 category: music theory tips
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Before going to the point, I'd like to make clear the following: most people reading this, surely are guitarists with some experience who might think what this article is about is simple logic or common sense and there were no need to write it. So, that's why it's been written for beginner guitarists, for whom some things aren't common sense yet and need to learn some new stuff. Into the matter. First of all, in order to explain what an octave is, it's necessary to remember major music scale: C,D,E,F,G,A,B. In most instruments, like guitar or piano this scale is repeated several times. If you've spent some time with your guitar, you've surely noticed open sixth string sounds an E note, just like fourth string played at second fret and little E string played open.
E E E e|---------0--| B|------------| G|------------| D|-----2------| A|------------| E|-0----------|
So, that's what an octave is: the same note, but played in a higher or lower pitch. And why the name octave? Let's take the major scale again:
C D E F G A B e|-----------------------| B|--------------------0--| G|--------------0--2-----| D|-----0--2--3-----------| A|--3--------------------| E|-----------------------|
If we keep ascending following major scale, we'll find next C note at little E string's eighth fret. If we count, we'll find that there are eight tones from C note at A string to C note at e one (from latin octo, which means eight).
C D E F G A B C e|-------------------------8--| B|--------------------0-------| G|--------------0--2----------| D|-----0--2--3----------------| A|--3-------------------------| E|----------------------------| 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
I used C note from major scale as an example, but the same pattern is repeated with any note all allong the fretboard, always following major scale intervals. Another example: D# E# or F F# G# A# B# or C C# D#
e|--------------------------------------------| B|------------------------------1-----2----4--| G|-------------------1---3--------------------| D|-1---3--------4-----------------------------| A|--------------------------------------------| E|--------------------------------------------| 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
There comes a question: Why should this be useful? Answer:
  • First, because this helps developing a good musician ear. For instance, it's useful in case you want to quickly know if your guitar is correctly tuned. Take your guitar and play A string open. Then, while it's still ringing play G string at second fret. The same A note must be heard, with different pitches obviously. Let's supose you're sure A string is well-tuned. So, if G one doesn't sound the same note as open A, it means it's not correctly tuned. You can also play octaves if you want to know if your guitar needs to be calibrated. Play open little E string, and then, while it's still ringing, fret it at 12 (Natural harmonic). Both sounds should fit the same note. If not, your guitar is lying, as we say in Spanish, and needs to be calibrated.
  • Second, because you can use octaves as a special technique if you want to give your playing more variety. An example: This is a phrase from Carlos Santana's Black Magic Woman intro:
    e|--------------------------| B|-10--86\5------8--65\3--| G|--------------------------| D|--------------------------| A|--------------------------| E|--------------------------|
    Including a higher octave:
    e|-17--15--13\12------15--13-12\10--| B|--x--x---x----------x---x--x-----| G|-14--12--10\-9------12--10---9\-7--| D|-----------------------------------| A|-----------------------------------| E|-----------------------------------|
    Sounds better, doesn't it? Actually, this second way is how Carlos plays Black Magic Woman nowadays. Adding a higher or lower octave to a certain note often gives you a richer sound than if you play an only note. For those lazy people like me, there's no need to always count tones if you want to find the one you need to add to a certain note, in order to get an octaved sound. Here you have all of the patterns for guitar:
  • A.
    e|-3--4--5--6--7--8--9--10--11--12--13--14--15--16--17--18--19--20--21--22-| B|-------------------------------------------------------------------------| G|-0--1--2--3--4--5--6---7---8---9--10--11--12--13--14--15--16--17--18--19-| D|-------------------------------------------------------------------------| A|-------------------------------------------------------------------------| E|-------------------------------------------------------------------------| e|--------------------------------------------------------------------------| B|-3--4--5--6--7--8--9--10--11--12--13--14--15--16--17--18--19--20--21--22--| G|--------------------------------------------------------------------------| D|-0--1--2--3--4--5--6---7---8---9--10--11--12--13--14--15--16--17--18--19--| A|--------------------------------------------------------------------------| E|--------------------------------------------------------------------------| e|-----------------------------------------------------------------------------| B|-----------------------------------------------------------------------------| G|-2--3--4--5--6--7--8--9--10--11--12--13--14--15--16--17--18--19--20--21--22--| D|-----------------------------------------------------------------------------| A|-0--1--2--3--4--5--6--7---8---9--10--11--12--13--14--15--16--17--18--19--20--| E|-----------------------------------------------------------------------------| e|-----------------------------------------------------------------------------| B|-----------------------------------------------------------------------------| G|-----------------------------------------------------------------------------| D|-2--3--4--5--6--7--8--9--10--11--12--13--14--15--16--17--18--19--20--21--22--| A|-----------------------------------------------------------------------------| E|-0--1--2--3--4--5--6--7---8---9--10--11--12--13--14--15--16--17--18--19--20--|
    If you're using a pick, you must block the string between those two you're playing.
  • B.
    e|-0--3--4--5--6--7---8---9--10--11--12--13--14--15--16--17--18--19--20--| B|-----------------------------------------------------------------------| G|-----------------------------------------------------------------------| D|-2--5--6--7--8--9--10--11--12--13--14--15--16--17--18--19--20--21--22--| A|-----------------------------------------------------------------------| E|-----------------------------------------------------------------------| e|-----------------------------------------------------------------------------| B|-0--1--2--3--4--5--6--7---8---9--10--11--12--13--14--15--16--17--18--19--20--| G|-----------------------------------------------------------------------------| D|-----------------------------------------------------------------------------| A|-2--3--4--5--6--7--8--9--10--11--12--13--14--15--16--17--18--19--20--21--22--| E|-----------------------------------------------------------------------------| e|--------------------------------------------------------------------------| B|--------------------------------------------------------------------------| G|-0--2--3--4--5--6--7---8---9--10--11--12--13--14--15--16--17--18--19--20--| D|--------------------------------------------------------------------------| A|--------------------------------------------------------------------------| E|-3--4--5--6--7--8--9--10--11--12--13--14--15--16--17--18--19--20--21--22--|
    On the other hand, I must mention there are some special electronic devices created to play octaved sounds automatically. Obviously, these are called octavers. What a digital octaver do is take the note you play, process it and repeat it an octave higher or lower, depending on the setting. Good device for a basic setup; put it together with a sustain pedal, and you'll get dynamite!!! I find two advantages for digital octavers: first, you can play octaved sounds using an only string; second, you can reach higher octaves, especially while using little E string. For instance, let's supose you're playing a note at little E string 12 fret; the octaver will give you the note you're playing and the next octave, which would sound as if you were also playing at fret 24, which most guitars don't have. Finally, the use of digital octavers don't exclude traditional octaves playing. Both can be combined in order to get a more variated sound. Hope it was useful. Cheers, -JC
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