Every shape on guitar is a consequence of how we tune the guitar. Here I'm discussing standard tuning (E A D G B E) and its impact on everything we play, but the same principles below can be used to work out shapes in any tuning.
As a prerequisite, you need to know what we mean by pitch, semitone and octave.
I'll gradually build up the picture for you over two lessons. Today, you'll learn about how we can visualise 5 contiguous regions within any 12 fret block. These become the foundations for creating all scales, chords, and arpeggios.
Let's get started.
The neck diagram below is drawn so the (invisible) guitar body is on the right. The bass string, labelled "6" is the bottom horizontal line. The treble string, labelled "1" is the top horizontal line. The double vertical line at the left represents the nut (this is fret zero). A circle represents a pitch on some string at some fret. Same colours represent the same pitch (or octave of). The pitch of an open string is shown between the double vertical line and the string number label. Here is how we tune the guitar for standard tuning. For example, the open 5th string (yellow pitch) is adjusted to match that made at the 5th fret on the 6th string (yellow)... So both these are coloured the same.
Next, a number in a circle shows the number of semitones to that circle from a circle that is labelled 0. (Count frets from the red circle)
Below is the exact same set of relationships starting somewhere different on the guitar. Why is this a relationship? Because we are stating that the various pitches are to be located at various semitones away from the starting pitch, no matter what that starting pitch is. If we use the same relationship (such as the diagram above, and the one below), we create the same sound flavour. Try playing these to hear.
Try the following for yourself. Let's fix our start pitch (red) at fret zero on the 1st string, and then locate the other pitches at 3, 5, 6, 7 and 10 semitones above it on that same string. Check yourself with the next diagram:
Congratulations if you got this right. You've just played the minor blues scale, here starting from E. As usual, you could start it anywhere ... in terms of naming it, we'd just use the name of the chosen red pitch. So, if we slid this shape up, unmodified, to the 3rd fret on that string, we've got G minor blues scale. If you started it at the 5th fret on the 3rd string, this pitch is C, and we have C minor blues scale.
The Impact of Standard TuningNow I'm going to guide you through how to build a shape called an octave (which is 12 semitones). I encourage you to get very familiar with the octave. Why? If we know one pitch is named E (such as the open 6th string), and we know our octave shapes, we can easily find all the other E's. That's good news, right? Less to remember.
Technically, all the pitches related by octave belong to the same "pitch class." So, we have a pitch class of E's, a pitch class of F's and so on.
Exactly the same as above, we can then choose anywhere for our starting pitch, and so long as we maintain the appropriate distances to the other pitches, we'll find all the other octaves. This starts shrinking down the fretboard.
In fact, what we'll see below is that we end up with a block of twelve adjacent frets divided up roughly into five regions, by where the octaves fall.
I'll show this now, and then explain it. The red circles below are either octaves of each other, or are identical. They represent the locations of all members of a pitch class (E here). Here, I asked the eMuso™ software to position the start note at the open 6th string (hence the solid circle). It then produced all the pitches in that same pitch class.
And here is the exact same relationship, this time starting from the 3rd fret on the 6th string. Compare with the above. See how the string and fret spacings are maintained. Everything has simply shifted to the right by three frets.
Look carefully at just the 6th string. Notice that there is a red-rimmed circle 12 frets higher than the solid red circle. So, there is one octave.
I've then broken down this 12 fret block into 5 regions (see the blue boundaries above), based on where else the start pitch or its octaves are found. These regions are normally numbered from 1 to 5 from left to right, where region 1 has its start pitch on the 6th string, and octaves on the 4th and 1st strings. Regardless of what scale or chord we want to use, by using region 1, its shape will always have the start note of the scale or chord located relative to each other as shown.
The region I've outlined in red is where a copy of region 5 is sneaking in, an octave below the blue-outlined region 5. Compare where the red circles fall on the far right of the diagram (region 5) and in the red-outlined region. They are identical. If I dragged the start pitch even further to the right, say to the 5th fret on the 6th string, then a copy of region 4 also sneaks into the picture … it lies to the left of region 5. And so on. We just have this repetition of the 5 regions (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 1, 2, 3, …) but some will fall off the end of the neck at the body, and some will fall off the guitar at the neck.
How Does This Relate to the Guitar Tuning?Look back at the very first figure. Using colours, we can see that the pitch created at the 4th fret of the 3rd string is identical to the open 2nd string pitch (they are tuned to sound the same).
Question: How many semitones above the solid red circle is the yellow circle on that same string? (Count frets).
Answer: 5 semitones.
Question: If you look at the yellow circle on the 5th string, how many semitones above the solid red circle is it?
Answer: Must be 5 semitones, since it's the same identical pitch, just located differently.
Can you see that the red and yellow circles on the adjacent strings form a visual pattern of a short vertical line?
Question: How many semitones above the yellow circle on the 5th string is the purple circle on that same string? (Count frets).
Answer: 5 semitones.
Question: How about to the purple circle on the 4th string?
Answer: 5 semitones. Starting to get the idea?
But something different is happening on the 3rd string. How many semitones above the yellow circle is the blue circle? This time, it's 4 semitones.
Ok … we've just found that vertical line between string pairs (6, 5), (5, 4), (4, 3) and (2, 1) all represent pitches that are 5 semitones apart, whereas the vertical line for string pair (3, 2) represents pitches that are 4 semitones apart.
Here's the good news again. No matter which fret we place our vertical line at the above holds true. To see why, look at the next diagram.
Remember the labels are showing the number of semitones above the solid red circle labelled zero.
We can continue this idea, by crossing vertically over more strings. What happens if we keep going all the way across to the 1st string? We get this:
Being pedantic, the "3" should be labelled 12+3, and the "7" labelled as 12+7, and the "0" on the 1st string should be labelled 12+12, but we don't do this. Just realise these are being measured from the nearest octave (the red pitch on the 4th string). Finally, observe that the red circle on the 1st string is 24 semitones (2 octaves) above that one the 6th string. All these red circles are members of the family of pitches named "E."
Let's do the same starting from the red pitch on the 4th string, and cross a couple of strings vertically to get 9 semitones, followed by a horizontal move of 3 semitones, to get 12 semitones again.
So, here's our region 2 emerging.
Another way we could form the octave is by crossing from the 6th string to the 5th string (i.e. 5 semitones) and then moving horizontally for 7 frets (5+7 = 12):
Putting this all together, we end up with the pattern for finding members of the same pitch class (those pitches with the same name, in the same and different octaves) that I started off with (The 5th diagram). I've shown the copy of region 1 appearing on the far right as well.
I hope this starts to make things a little less mysterious for you.
Next time, we'll start filling in the regions, using intervals of 3, 4 and 7 semitones. These occur very commonly in scales and chords. We'll also examine one scale fully, and I'll show you how we can merge adjacent regions to yield another navigation system known as "three notes per string." Navigating along one or a pair of strings can also be thought of as traversing through the regions. We'll look at that also.
Unfortunately, I had to leave out a fair chunk of this lesson to be able to submit it. But feel free to PM me, and I'll send you a pdf. To get round the limitations of UG, I'll probably put together a video instead.