Playing solos using scales is great, but that’s just the beginning. One way to flesh out the sound of scales is by adding intervals on an adjacent string to create simple harmonies. The sounds immediately become thicker and richer. You can use any kind of interval, but the most common, and the one I’ll focus on in this lesson (see music examples below), is the third, which can be either major or minor. If you know a little about chords, you know that most basic chords are either major or minor. Major chords can be described as “happy,” “uplifting,” or “pretty.” Minor chords are often described as “dark,” “mysterious,” or “sad.”
Major and minor chords are made up of three notes: major chords consist of a root, major third, and fifth, while minor chords are root, minor third, and fifth. You’ll notice that major and minor chords share two of three notes, the root and fifth. For example, E major is made up of the notes E, G#, and B; E minor is made up of the notes E, G, and B. The only note that is different is the third (G# or G).
Intervals, as you may know, are made up of two notes. In the key of E the interval between E, the first degree of the scale, and G#, the third degree of the scale, is a major third, which can also be thought of as consisting of two whole steps. If you flat the G# to G, you end up with an interval of one and a half steps, which is called a minor third.
A good place to start hearing and seeing the possibilities of harmonized thirds is to look at a major scale laid out on one string. Ex. 1 shows an E major scale played entirely on the fourth string. Ex. 2 harmonizes each note in Ex. 1 with its corresponding third on the string above it. Starting with the root note, E, a pattern develops: major, minor, minor, major, major, minor, minor, which corresponds with the chord pattern you’ll can find in any major key.
You can do the same thing, of course, on any pair of strings. Ex. 3 shows the E major scale starting on the B string, while Ex. 4 harmonizes the scale in Example 4 with thirds on the E string. You’ll notice that the sequence of minor and major thirds is different here because we’ve started on the fifth note of the E scale (B) instead of its root note (E). Learning scales in thirds like this can inspire new ideas: for instance, Example 5 might inspire a mandolin-style lick like the one in Ex. 5.
Another way to find some new ideas or licks is to look at the chords in a progression and pull them apart to look for parallel thirds. Let’s stay in the key of E and look at a simple blues progression. Ex. 6 (above) shows an E chord played at the seventh fret and an E9 chord at the sixth fret. You might notice that the notes at the ninth fret on the second and third strings of the E chord are a third (E and G#, the root and major third of E), and that the same interval is in the E9 chord on the same two strings but two frets down at the seventh fret. So you can create a lick using thirds that moves between the two chords, as in Ex. 7, starting with the third on the ninth fret and descending to the seventh fret, with a quick stop at the eighth fret on the way.
In Ex. 8 I’ve extracted a third from a common barre chord shape (at the 12th fret) on the third and second strings and walked it down a fret at a time to the ninth-fret partial shape we started with in Example 8. This is a really nice way to move around the fingerboard, moving from one chord voicing to another.
In Ex. 9, I switch to the IV chord in the E blues progression (A). Rather than simply moving in a linear fashion as you’ve have done in the previous examples, work out of the A barre chord at the fifth fret and play the C#–E interval (the major third and fifth of A) on the second and third strings, follow it with the A–C# interval (root and third) on the fourth and third strings, and then slide down to a flatted seventh (G) for the A7 chord.
Ex. 10 shows the last four bars of a 12-bar progression in E. I start with parallel thirds over a B chord, and then move the second third down two frets to suggest a B9 chord. The lick is repeated for the A chord and descends to an A9. The last two measures show a fingerstyle turnaround that starts with a repeating root and major third on the top two strings above a walking bass line that descends from E to the B7 chord in the last measure.
Thirds in a Solo: Play ‘The Third Man!’ (Music by Pete Madsen)
Now let’s try a complete 12-bar solo we’ll call “The Third, Man!” (see below) that uses some parallel-third licks over a shuffle rhythm. The intro shows a shuffle rhythm figure over E, A, and B chords that you (or a friend) can use to back up the solo. The solo starts with a version of E7 that might be new to you. This voicing has the major third (G#) in the bass (on the fifth string), the flatted seventh on the fourth string, and the root and third at the seventh fret on the third and second strings. This shape sets you up to play a series of minor thirds in the third measure that descend chromatically down to E. The fourth measure uses the root/major third notes, played as a double-stop on the fifth and fourth strings, and cruises down two frets, suggesting an E9 chord.
Over the A chord in measures 5 and 6 there’s a nifty double pull-off followed by thirds that outline an A–A9. This happens twice. The first time the lick jumps to a higher voice on the fourth and third strings. The second time it ends with the same intervals an octave lower on the sixth and fifth strings.
Returning to the E chord in measure 7, play an ascending lick that covers two octaves. The final four bars use a series of double-stops in familiar and unfamiliar ways. The lick played over both the B and A chords is based on a regular barre-chord shape, using sliding double-stops on ascending pairs of strings. I first heard this kind of chord-based lick from the country-swing guitar legend Jimmy Bryant. The last two bars of the solo use double-stops bouncing off of open strings to produce a bit of a ricochet effect.
The adjacent-string licks and riffs in this lesson can be moved all over the fingerboard, played in different octaves, and with different rhythmic flourishes and chord voicings. Incorporating parallel thirds into your playing will push your blues soloing into new and exciting areas.