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Guitar Theory 101 // Lesson 2 // Whole Steps and Half Steps

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You’ll often hear musicians speak about “whole steps” or “half steps.” You may even hear them speak about “going up two steps” or “moving it down a step and a half.” What are they talking about?

If you play your A string on the 3rd fret, then move up and play it on the 4th fret, those two notes are a half step apart. A “step” is just a measured change in pitch (just like a step on a flight of stairs is a measured change in altitude). Guitar frets are spaced at half-step intervals, so a half step is the difference in pitch when you play a note on a guitar string, then play that same string one fret higher (or lower). A whole step (which, logically, is two half steps) would be the interval between notes that are two frets apart. Two steps would be a four-fret distance apart, etc, etc.

Here are the 12 notes of Western music:

A       A#/Bb       B       C       C#/Db       D       D#/Eb       E       F       F#/Gb       G       G#/Ab 

Look at the list and figure out how many steps are between different pairs of notes. Keep in mind that each of the notes listed above is a half step away from the note next to it.

Here are some sample distances:

A to C: 1-1/2 steps

C to E: 2 steps

E to F: ½ step

A# to C#: 1-1/2 steps

Bonus note: some musicians call a step a “tone” and a halfstep a “semitone.”

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