How to Use Octaves for Powerhouse Guitar Lines

Rich, warm and robust octave lines are just the thing for adding body and depth to your solos.
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Consider this scenario. You arrive at a gig with your single-channel amp only to discover you’ve left your overdrive pedal at home. On top of that, there is no master volume on your amp, and this is a low-volume gig. How in the world are you going to beef up your solos?

The answer: with octaves.

Rich, warm and robust octave lines are just the thing for adding body and depth to your solos. And they can supply a considerably amount of fretboard pizazz, providing a useful and expressive way to articulate a melody.

In this lesson, you’ll learn the string pairs used to play octaves as well as playing techniques. To wrap it up, we’ve included a video of Alex Skolnick demonstrating how to play octaves, which will give you a chance to see the concepts in practice.

Although there are a variety of ways to play octaves on the fretboard, they are usually voiced along nonadjacent string sets—low E and D strings, A and G strings, D and B strings, and G and high E strings—each divided by a single muted string. A good way to practice these octave shapes is to apply them to your favorite scale patterns.

FIGURES 1A–B offer a couple of examples. FIGURE 1A features an ascending passage from the A minor scale (A B C D E F G). FIGURE 1B descends through the G major scale (G A B C D E F#). Either use a pick or brush the strings with the outer side of your thumb—we’ll call this a thumb brush—and make sure to mute the inner string with the fleshy part of your fret hand’s index finger. Use your 1st and 3rd fingers to fret the shapes that span three frets, and your 1st and 4th fingers for the four-fret distances.


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Don’t try to watch both fretting fingers while you play the scale. That can lead to confusion. Instead, keep your eye on your 1st finger, which is fretting the lower string, and allow the other fretting finger (3rd or 4th) to simply follow along in its proper place, two or three frets way. Once you get used to this procedure, try reversing the process: target the notes on the higher string while allowing the 1st finger to fall in behind on the appropriate frets.

In addition to playing scales across the neck, experiment with playing them in linear fashion, up and down one set of strings. FIGURE 2A, an example of this procedure, offers a sliding sequence that ascends the E Mixolydian mode (E F# G# A B C# D).

FIGURE 2B uses wider, intervallic slides to gradually descend the E Dorian mode (E F# G A B C# D).


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Now, let’s take a look at a few licks in various styles.

FIGURE 3 is in the style of jazz great Wes Montgomery, the undisputed king of octaves. Typical of the fluid technique of this masterful player, the example addresses all four sets of nonadjacent strings. To cop the proper tone and touch, dial in a clean warm tone, select the neck pickup, and use thumb-brush strokes to attach the stings. Also, let your fret-hand fingers bounce from note to note. Doing so decreases string drag and squeaks—difficult to achieve but well worth the effort.


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Octaves are by no means relegated solely to the jazz idiom. To the contrary, you’ll hear them applied in virtually all styles of guitar music. FIGURE 4 offers a laid-back example over a blues shuffle groove. Derived from the A blues scale (A C D Eb E G), the phrase incorporates some extended slides (A and G octaves) down the neck.


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FIGURE 5 rocks it up with a 16-note-fueled series of octaves plummeting down the 6-4 string set. Note the adjacent string octave voicing on the last E dyad.


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When it comes to octaves in a funky R&B setting, few can hold a candle to the great George Benson. FIGURE 6 pays homage to his trademark technique of inserting 5ths and 4ths between the octave notes. This tone-enhancing device not only beefs up the sound of the octaves but also provides added harmonic texture. For example, strip way the middle notes of each triple stop and you’ll uncover an F major scale melody played in octaves. The additional (middle) notes tucked between the octaves (indicated below the staff) comprise carefully selected 5ths and 4ths. The result is a fat octave melody that borders on full-blown chord melody. Fret the outer notes of these triple stops as you would ordinary octaves, and use the logical finger to fret the notes on the inner strings. (Fret-hand fingering suggestions are provided beneath the tab staff.)


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FIGURE 7 is an Eric Johnson–inspired take on the octaves-plus technique described above. Based on the G Mixolydian mode (G A B C D E F), it voices the octaves far apart, on the D and high E strings. This allows for the inclusion of 5th intervals along the B string and for a sitar-like drone on the open G. For maximum sparkle, use a strong pick-and-finger attack. Use your pick to attack the D string, and pluck the G, B and E strings with your 2nd, 3rd and 4th fingers, respectively. Regarding your fret hand, use a partial 1st-finger barre on the B and high E strings, and use your 3rd finger to fret the notes on the D string.


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Let’s wrap things up with a video of Alex Skolnick demonstrating how to play octaves, with an emphasis on using the technique in a metal setting. When you’re finished, start putting this powerful technique to work in your own playing.