A deep look into guitar shapes and tuning
Improve your understanding of the guitar fretboard
When playing a tune, you need to learn where notes are located, maybe on the bass string initially. But you mainly need to know this only to locate a scale tonic or a chord root. However, once you have done that, note names are irrelevant (in terms of the notes in that scale or chord), and intervals take over, allowing you to massively reduce your mental effort.
Why? Because every sound you produce on guitar is determined by the intervals present at that time (such as in a scale shape or a chord shape … and bear in mind that the same intervals can be created in a few different ways, such as along one string)
As you learn theory, you become aware of the intervals involved in a given sound, and you need to associate the intervals with locations on guitar. These locations are always measured relative to some note. like the root of a chord, or the tonic of a scale. An interval always involves two notes, some number of semitones apart … and the guitar tuning determines how many semitones apart notes are, thus dictating every shape needed to produce those intervals, that sound combination.
Throughout this post, you’ll mostly see intervals described by semitones. This is purely so you can visually appreciate the examples, by counting frets moved from one place to another, or by counting the semitones involved crossing strings (all explained below).
However, theory uses names rather than semitone counts, and you need to learn these names (recognising that they identify semitone distances), as scale and chords are defined using these names. For example, a minor triad contains the intervals of 0, 3 and 7 semitones made with the chord root, and octaves of these, in a few diffeent layouts. Theory says the minor triad is defined by the intervals of a unison (1), a minor 3rd (b3), and a perfect 5th (5), that each of these make with the chord root. Some interval names are discussed at the end of this post.
The post appears lengthy, as there are lot of explanatory diagrams. The ideas are simple. If you read to the end, I’m confident you will have a good idea of how to make sense of the guitar fretboard. If you are into discovering new guitar tunings, and hence how to play chords and scales, the information in this blog will help you. This information will also help you realise that the scale shapes we learn initially are just a few of the ways we can navigate the neck to produce the same notes.
I’m going to start on piano briefly, to get us going
Look at this piano picture. Visually this has landmarks of a grouping of two black keys and another grouping of three black keys, repeating. Without these, players would get lost finding a particular pitch (each key on the piano produces a unique pitch… More in a moment).
Imagine playing the left key of the leftmost grouping of two black keys on the piano (an arbitrary choice). The pitch produced at this key is named C#1. Move right one key (which will be white) and that key produces a sound that is one semitone higher in pitch, and is named D1. Keep moving right until you encounter the left key of the next leftmost grouping of two black keys. Where you are now is 12 keys (count for yourself) to the right of where you started. The pitches produced where you started and the next eleven keys are given different names, and form a block of twelve pitches. Where you have counted to now has a pitch (C#2) that is 12 semitones (an octave) higher than where you started. This starts a new block of 12 pitches, each of these one octave higher than the corresponding piano key in the previous block. The pitch names here are very similar … but the number changes to reflect the different octave, so we have C#2, D2, and so on. In any one octave, we have pitch names like (C1, C#1, D1, D#1, E1, F1, F#1, G1, G#1, A1, A#1, B1).
You can keep covering adjacent 12-pitch blocks until you run out of keys, and we end up with 12 groups of pitches, each with a different basic pitch name, so we can talk about “all the C’s” or “all the F’s” and so on. For example, “all the C#’s” may contain pitches named C#1, C#2, C#3, C#4, C#5 with each of these being an octave apart. C#2 is double the frerquency of C#1. C#3 double the frquency of C#2, and so on).
Because of the octave frequency relationships, all the members of one group sound extremely strongly related to each other. Such a group is called a pitch class. In Western music, we have 12 pitch classes.
We could choose any arbitrary piano key to start counting from, to break the piano into adjacent 12-pitch blocks. For example, G1, G#1, A1, A#1, B1, C2, C#2, D2, D#2, E2, F2, F#2. The next block then starts at G2. If a piece of music uses a scale whose key centre is G, then the intervals for the scale type implies which pitches in this block belong to the scale, and all their octaves. You’ll learn much more about this below.
On guitar the same 12 groups exist, but there is more than one location (string and fret) that can produce the exact same pitch. Knowing the set of “octave shapes” solves this
Let’s now swap to discussing guitar
Here’s some terms for later:
“Moving up” (along) a string is towards the guitar body. It results in higher pitches, e.g. moving from the nut (fret zero) to fret 1 is up. “Moving back ” along a string is towards the nut. Moving up a string is like moving right on a piano: The pitch increases one semitone per fret. Moving back along a string is like moving left on a piano: The pitch drops a semitone per fret moved.
Where the two pitches of some interval are located on two different strings, the “upper” string is the skinnier string.
For example, in this next diagram, the A string (5th string) is the upper string, relative to the where the solid red pitch is located. In standard tuning, the 5th fret of the bass string produces the exact same pitch as the open string (fret 0, the nut) on the adjacent upper string (the 5th string). The pitch is A2. (Hence why we call the 5th string the “A” string, or “open A”)
Move up 5 frets on the 5th string, and that fret produces a pitch 5 semitones higher than the open string. The next diagram shows this with pitch names.
The next diagram shows the same thing, but now the upper pitch (labeled 5) is shown as being 5 semitones above the lower pitch (labeled zero). The red pitch is where we’re measuring from to this upper pitch.
We’ve just seen that the 5th fret on the 5th string produces a pitch 5 semitones higher than the 5th fret of the bass string. If you fretted both these pitches (the A2 and the D3), the visual shape is a vertical line (vertical across the neck, parallel to the fret).
Slide that vertical shape anywhere along that string pair and the pitches involved obviously change each time, BUT… whatever those pitches are, they are always 5 semitones apart. This interval involving two pitches 5 semitones apart produces a sound flavor unique to that interval size. As it slides the flavor is unchanged, but you hear this flavor higher or lower.
The above shape holds for every adjacent string pair apart from the pair (G, B), where the strings are tuned 4 semitones apart. In this case the vertical line shape produces an interval of 4 semitones.
In this next diagram, everything is measured from the red pitch labelled zero. It’s all still consistent… Look at the rightmost pair of pitches labeled 4 and 8. These are 8-4 = 4 semitones apart. You can see the 5 semitone shape (0 -> 5) at the left of the diagram. This had to adjust up one fret (compared to what we’ve looked at above) because the tuning means the straight line is 4 semitones.
Next diagram, all the above has been slid up 4 frets. Our measuring point is still the red circle (I’m using emuso/Studio to do this dragging about).
Adjusting the “Vertical Shape”
If the vertical line, 0 to 5, is 5 semitones: then simply move up along the upper string 2 frets (2 semitones) to get 7 semitones. Slide the shape formed by fretting the 0 and the 7 along its string pair, and you’ll always get 7 semitones between the two pitches involved
Here are a few examples.
Here is the same idea, but on the string pair (G, B) that are tuned 4 semitones apart. Again, slide the shape formed by fretting the 0 and the 7 along its string pair, and you’ll always get 7 semitones between the two pitches involved. Any other string pair, use the above.
In general, here’s how to find various semitone distances moving along up the string from the vertical line…
Each of the pitches on the upper string is labeled by its semitone distance from the red pitch (our datum point).
The interval of 7 semitones crops up a great deal. E.g. next are a few major triads I’m sure you’ll recognize. See if you agree with the semitone distances shown to the other pitches, as measured from the red pitch. It’s important you try this for yourself… Just remember the number of semitones involved in the vertical line shape for a given string pair.
Here’s the above chord slid… same interval distances.
Adjusting Down From a Vertical Line Shape
Keep moving the upper string pitch lower (towards the nut). The various semitone distances from the red pitch are shown:
This gives a very simple way to find the exact same pitch on adjacent string pairs. From whichever fret you are choose on the lower (bassier) string, cross strings to the upper adjacent string (the vertical line) and move back (towards nut) 5 frets. Conversely, starting on the more treble string, cross to the bassier string (vertical line) and then move up along that string by 5 frets. This works everywhere apart from the (G, B) string pair, where you use 4 frets instead.
About Chord Shapes and Intervals
Now, if I change the chord shape somehow (hence altering (some of) the intervals between the chord members), this completely changes the sound flavour. For example:
The change on the 3rd string drastically changes the sound.
If I want to create a major chord sound higher up the neck, then one way to do this is slide the shape unchanged up the neck. This means introducing a barre with your 1st finger, to play the role that the nut was doing for you (when it acted as fret 0). In this way, all the measurements we did above will be identical in terms of semitones from the pitch on the bass string. But the actual pitches involved will all change.
Musical Naming Convention for Intervals
While the above is absolutely correct in terms of measuring semitones from sound chosen pitch (always the solid red pitch in all the above examples), no one uses this numbering scheme. Instead, there are some music terms used. Here are a few:
“1” (unison) is the synonym for an interval that is zero semitones above the measuring point (i.e.coincident, i.e. is the measuring point), and
“3” (major third) is the synonym for 4 semitones and
“b3” (flat 3 or minor third) is the synonym for 3 semitones.
“5” (perfect fifth) is the synonym for 7 semitones.
In fact, these are used to represent all octaves of a particular distance. So if we have a pitch 3 semitones above our red pitch, then the octaves of that pitch are at 3+12, 3+24, 3+36… Likewise, octaves of our red pitch are at 0+12, 0+24, 0+36… Octaves of the pitch 7 semitones above the red pitch are found at 7+12, 7+24, 7+36… You get the idea. Using the correct naming in the above two chord diagrams, we get:
So, for example, we can look at the left diagram, and talk about the major third (labeled with its musical name “3” for the interval), or look at the right diagram, and talk about its minor third (labeled “b3“). This is what distinguishes a major from a minor triad, and causes the huge change in sound. This b3 or 3 is an important pitch to target when soloing or singing over a minor or major triad.
And here are the same two chords, slid up three frets:
This is why thinking of shapes as involving a set of intervals measured from one of the pitches in the shape (which we call the root, for a chord, and tonic for a scale) is so much easier. I don’t care what the pitch names are, and never think of them (other than where the pitch for the root or the tonic is located), because it is the intervals involved that’s responsible for the sound produced. Imagine looking at all the above, and discussing it all purely using pitch names. Way, way harder, and much less useful.
When we write a tune, we choose a bunch of intervals to work with (for example the “major scale” is a shorthand way of talking about the set of intervals found at 0, 2, 4, 5, 7, 9 and 11 semitones from our choice of tonic). The choice for tonic is normally based on how comfortable the resulting pitches are to sing or play. Let’s choose E2 (fret 0, 6th string). (see diagram below). If we choose G2 (3rd fret, 6th string), we get pitches at fret 3, 5, 7, 8… As these are 0, 2, 4, 5 semitones above G2. You starting to get the idea? And remembering that are several octaves of any pitch, we use them as well (not shown below).
Here it is, the E major scale, labeled counting semitones from the E (red pitch):
and here’s G major scale, again labeled counting from the red pitch:
Here’s the G minor scale (semitone intervals of 0, 2, 3, 5, 7, 8, 10).
Using musical terms this becomes (1, 2, b3, 4, 5, b6, b7):
The thing to realize about a scale or chord (as we’ve just seen) is that these are formed by intervals from the tonic (scale) or root (chord).
So, if you know an interval shape (where you place your fingers… so many strings and frets apart), then you can see it in both chords and scales. For example, here’s G minor pentatonic (1, b3, 4, 5, b7). Compare with above G minor scale. If you encounter any scale or chord that includes a b3 (3 semitones) or a perfect 5th (7 semitones), you know how to find it. When you solo, you know where the important intervals are in the chord or scale.
Here is the G minor pentatonic just on the bass E and A strings.
Intervals help you remember how to form the scale or chord. They are the absolute foundation stones of all music.
By knowing the basic interval shapes you reduce your mental effort massively. For more about these shapes, have a look at this other post.
Finally, music ultimately comes down to light and shade, tension and resolution, and phrasing… This is all controlled through interval usage, and rhythm.
I hope this helps clarify for you, and gets you going on your musical journey.
By the way, if you want to explore all this yourself, try our free 14-day trial. (All the above diagrams were made using emuso. Just bring up a chord or scale, and repeatedly press the letter “i” on your keyboard to flip labels from senitones to proper interval names to note names). See you soon!