This is something well worth sticking in the toolkit.

First, a little bit of theory behind this, then the visual shapes to look for.

Two pitches played together (or one after the other) make a particular sound flavour, depending how far apart they are from each other. This sound is principally determined by this distance, and far less so by the actual pitches involved. So, E -> G is 3 semitones (3 frets on same string), as is F -> Ab. Both examples of the sound of 3 semitones.

Some distances create sound qualities that jar, for example 1 semitone. Other distances sound very stable. For example, 7 and 12 semitones.

(A semitone is music-talk for the (sound of) a specific difference in frequency from one pitch to another. If two pitches are 12 semitones apart, the higher pitch is twice the frequency of the lower: this combination is really stable ... the "octave"). All pitches that are related by some number of octaves apart all get named with the same letter (A, Bb etc). In MIDI, a number is added to show which particular frequency (A2, A3, ...))

An interval is another name for the difference in pitch between two pitches. The vast majority of commonly used chords typically contain the intervals of 3,4,5 or 7 semitones somewhere in the mix (musically known as the "minor 3rd", "major 3rd", "4th" and "5th" respectively.

So, when a bunch of pitches are played together, all possible pairs of pitches in this bunch form intervals, and one of these stands out more to the ear, making itself heard as the root. It's the strongest sounding interval in all these pairs. For most common chords, this is also recognisable by looking at the pattern of pitches in the chord shape on the guitar.

So, it can really help to be able to visually recognise intervals, by looking at the patterns that visually occur, both in scales, and in chords.

I haven't sussed a way to embed images directly, and I've also hit limits on what I can upload, so I've attached images for the hand shapes for the above intervals.

Points to watch out for...

For interval shapes formed on two adjacent strings, I've coloured the shape red if it can be used anywhere other than when the string pair involves the G and B strings. The interval shape on this pair I've coloured green.

the image 7st-2 shows intervals shapes for 7 semitones, that straddle 3 strings.

Realise that any of these can be slid horizontally along the neck ... so long as you don't change finger shape ... if you do change shape, you're forming a different interval!!

Look at any scalel shape you know, where you already know the root of that scale (e.g. A in A major). Look for these visual patterns with one of the pitches being the A.

Look at chord shapes you know. You will soon start picking out maj and min 3rds and 5ths. You will see 4ths also (these need a bit more explanation on how they're helpful visually ... another time!!)

Hope this stuff helps you.

I promise you, spend 5 - 10 minutes a day on these interval shapes and you'll have them nailed in a week or so, and they'll really help you start to tie together theory with what's going on on the guitar neck. You should be able to visualise these shapes with your eyes shut. Try to start recognising their sounds too.

cheers, Jerry
Why don't you focus on the actual intervalic reationship between a tonic and another note?

Showing someone what a b2, #4, b3, 7th, 5th etc sounds like in context is surely a lot more useful than showing what a 7 semitone interval looks like.
Good question. You're absolutely right that the sound is the critical aspect ... but I've found that students can drastically improve their memory and understanding by association with visual patterns. I guess this is because the brain is very good at cognitive understanding of visual information. And of course, this combines with finger muscle memory and the tactile sense. They find this way easier than relying solely on the ear, for quite some time.

By the way, this is not just about tonic relationships. This applies far beyond the tonic .. it applies everywhere.

When the same visual shapes crop up over and over, as they do, the learning time is reduced to a fraction of what it could be. You get a kind of compund reduction in learning.

It also allows theory to be discussed in a visual way that seems to connect with students better.

As the ears improve, then that further backs up the process, and now we have the visual, tactile, and auditory senses reinforcing the understanding, which in turn makes it easier to play something you've just heard.

Only a suggestion ... I've seen far too many people struggle by being taught they must know the names of all the pitches in each chord or scale, and all over the neck. That's a great way of lining the pocket of the teacher (provided the student doesn't get fed up with slow progress), but a horrible way (and totally unnecessary) for gaining understanding quickly.

cheers, Jerry
Last edited by jerrykramskoy at Oct 1, 2014,
I like it. Teach chromatically before you teach diatonically. Learning scales first is like trying to jump on a moving train.