Plead the 5th (just don’t do it too often)!

What Do I means by “Fifth”?

Well, for start it’s an interval- so we can guess that it’s a certain distance between notes…but just how far? Here is my definition of a 5th:

A Perfect Fifth is an interval of 7 semitones and five letters

Now, that definition- although it’s accurate- might be a bit hard to swallow at first. Let me break it down for you a bit more. There are three main parts to this definition, and they are:

  1. a “perfect” fifth
  2. an interval of 7 semitones
  3. five letters

So I’m going to translate what I mean by each of these so that we’ll hopefully end up with a better explanation of what this is all about. Starting with…

A Perfect Fifth

The word “perfect”, when applied to an interval means that it isn’t major or minor (or anything else: diminished, augmented…). A good, practical example of the fifth not being major or minor is the standard powerchord:


In the tab above is a C powerchord (also known as a “C5” chord). There are only two notes in a standard powerchord: the root note (every chord has one of these somewhere), and the fifth. If you see powerchords of more than two notes they’ll only be repeats of the root or the fifth in different octaves.

So why is that important? Well, play the chord in the tab above.

Done it yet? Yes?

What you just played was a “perfect fifth”. Now compare the sound of the chord you just played to the sound of C major (the normal “C chord”), or A minor (even C minor if you know it…). Notice how the C chord sounds “major” (try other major chords too), and the minor chord sounds “minor” (some people say major chords sound happy and minor ones sound sad…).

The powerchord (aka perfect fifth interval) sounds like neither the major or the minor chords- that’s because it is like neither. It’s a “perfect” 5th.

7 Semitones

So, we’ve worked out that this chord is neither major or minor. With me so far (there is a comment section below if you have questions)?

However, intervals are just the distances between notes. Lets talk about the actual distance of a 5th on the fretboard- 7 semitones.

You could, of course, just play the shape tabbed out above (lower note- in pitch- is the root and higher note is the fifth) to figure out where the 5ths are, but I thought I’d explain it (it’s good to know). A fifth is the distance of 7 semitones- and each fret on a guitar is 1 semitone apart. Therefore, you’ll find a fifth by going up 7 frets from the root note.

So these two notes are a fifth apart:


(hint: the same two notes from the powerchord earlier, just on one string).

Five letters

This one isn’t so important to actually be able to play the 5th, but it is very important when talking about it or writing it down. A fifth has to be a distance of five letter names.

For example, the two notes tabbed above are: C and G. If you count up from C, G is five letters away (C counts as one). This is a fifth- kinda where it gets it’s name from.

A fifth is NOT, and I repeat- NOT- C to F## or any other enharmonic with a different letter. Essentially “F##” or “F double sharp” is an F that’s been sharpened (moved up a fret) twice. You’re unlikely to ever use it by mistake but if you do: that’s not a fifth because there are not 5 letters between C and F, there are 4. Clear?

So, the “guitarist’s translation” of the technical definition above is:

A perfect fifth is: two notes that are 7 frets apart on the guitar, and have note names that are 5 letters apart.

In a Scale

Just like the root note, the fifth of a chord is a pretty safe on to land on. Not as “safe” or boring sounding as the root, but (as long as you avoid them over diminished or augmented chords), they’ll work almost 100% of the time.

In fact, some basslines are actually created just by alternating between root and fifth!

Again, as with the root note, don’t overdo this one. If you want to “hang” on a fifth (or “hold it for a while over the chord”), then go ahead- that’ll probably sound good. Just don’t do it all the time…or you might see your audience yawning.

OK, maybe not actually yawning, but you see what I mean? It can get boring!

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