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Learn The Second-String ‘Shift’

Leon Rodriguez



In this JGT lesson, jazz guitarist Leon Rodriguez explains the Second-String Shift in this music theory lesson specifically for guitarists.

Notice that the octaves that stayed entirely within the {6543} string set have one angle and the octaves that included either member of the {21}  string set have a slightly different angle. They differ by one fret. The line crossed the 2nd string! The line must SHIFT UP 1 fret! It is an exception to our symmetry.

The interval between most of the strings is a Perfect 4th (5 frets) EXCEPT for the interval between the 2nd and 3rd string. That interval is a Major 3rd (4 frets) so the F octave in the diagram that includes a note of the {21} string set displaces the angle by one fret to compensate for that one fret difference between a Major 3rd (4 frets) and a Perfect 4th (5 frets). Think of it as an angle of incidence in optics for an easy visual you can intuitively trust. This defends the visual shift from our trusted symmetry of 4ths. Our lines and shapes must integrate this.

This is not a burden in our visuals, it will become your tool! Once we are used to the 1 fret shift, we can use that difference of interval to create symmetry in our fingerings. Below are the two most common progressions in music. The ii -V and the V7 I. Play the next two bars. Same fingerings but different chord types.

When we place a straw in a clear, half-full glass of water, we know the straw is still straight but it looks a bit bent where the medium changes viscosity. The 2nd to 3rd string interval of a major 3rd visually ‘bends’ the symmetry of our lines and shapes as it interrupts the perfect 4th intervals of the {6543} string set. Accepting this ‘shift’ as natural law justifies our further visuals. The 6 F’s below occur first on even then odd strings, first a 3 fret then 4 fret difference. 

In measure 1, the D minor7 to G7 sequence is the ii-V progression in the key of C. Both spell Root,7th , 3rd , 5th . (We spell low note to high note) The half step difference between the major 3rd and the minor 3rd in the progression is naturally there. Use it. Working this semitone shift is like having a ‘B bender’ on a Tele. No telling where you’re gonna use it; it’s just there! Have fun with it! 

In measure 2, the G7 to C Major 7 sequence is called a cadence. It’s the V-I progression in the key of C. The half step difference this time affects the 7th to 3rd*(F to B notes) because it falls across the 2 and 3 string. The chord spells Root, 7th, 5th, 3rd. We’ve changed Dominant7 to Major7 with our 1 fret difference. BTW, We call that voice leading. * More on 3rd/ 7th good stuff to come!

Let’s do an exercise with a wider scope. These are all Root Position Triads. They all spell in order; Root, 3rd, 5th (no 7th). We are playing descending ii-V progressions across the range of the two string sets: {321}, {432}. A major 3rd interval above a minor 3rd is a minor triad; a minor 3rd over a major 3rd interval is a major triad. We get a quality change by alternating string sets with the same fingering.

As we do so notice how that middle note of each triad is changing its relationship to the other two notes, the Root and the 5th. The interval from the root to the 3 is shifting from a minor 3 to a major 3. The Root and 5 are each moving along the Cycle of 4ths. Alternating the string sets lets us use the 2nd string interval difference to keep the fingering while alternating chord types! Hybrid picker heaven! 
Your hands will appreciate the break. Incidentally, the ii-V progression is one of the most important progressions we must absolutely have under your fingers. Notice the roots are the cycle of 4ths.

Naturally we can get creative with this tool. Here is a rootless ii V I you might like to try with a trusted bassist. Let’s dive into this one. In this case we have three different chord types, same fingering. 

There are two diagonal lines along the cycle of 4ths. C, F, B, E {4321) string set (green); then A, D, G on the {654} string set (red dotted). More on interval lines to come. 

To be continued…Books and On-Line Private Lessons available at 

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