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How to Play the Major Scale on Guitar

I’m not sure why I took so long to write a guide on the major scale, considering it’s easily the most important bit of music theory that you can learn, and knowing it is essential in order to learn other scales and chord theory. I even wrote my guide on modes of the major scale first! But don’t fret, it’s finally here – a guide to the major scale, the mother of all scales. It’s the scale which all other scales are compared to, and from where chords and their progressions derive from; it literally gives birth to music theory. The major scale is the first of the diatonic scales, which is just a fancy word for a seven-note octave repeating scale, which consists of five whole steps and two half steps between each octave. Don’t understand any of that? Don’t worry, you will very soon.

Firstly, there are two main types of scale, they are:

  1. Chromatic
  2. Diatonic

A chromatic scale is a scale that contains every single note on the guitar neck. In other words, it is not very musical. A musical scale is derived from the chromatic scale, and is nothing more than a clever way to travel from octave to octave (a note that repeats itself across the fretboard, but at a higher frequency than the previous note, or a lower frequency, if descending the guitar neck.) The name of the chromatic scale comes from the word chroma or colour, so try to think of the chromatic scale as a paint palette that contains all of the colours, while scales are a select few colours (that complement each other) selected from the chromatic palette. A minor scale, for example, would be shades of blue, while a major scale might be shades of yellow or orange. There’s a beautiful quote by Leopold Stokowski which I think fits here: “A painter paints pictures on canvas. But musicians paint their pictures on silence.” The analogy between music and art is powerful indeed; especially when you dive into scale and chord theory, and explore the different colours available to you.

How to Construct a Major Scale

The main scales that we create out of the chromatic scale are called diatonic scales, and obviously the first diatonic scale we’re going to learn is the major scale. Diatonic scales are constructed using a formula devised of Whole-Steps (W) and Half-Steps (H), which are sometimes referred to as Whole-Tones and Half-Tones, respectively.

  • A Whole-Step is a distance of 2 frets on the fretboard, so C to D or G# to A# is considered a whole step.
  •  A Half Step is a distance of 1 fret on the fretboard, so C to C# or E to F are half steps. Even though there are no sharps between E and F or B and C, they are still only one fret apart from each other, and are still considered to be Half Steps, this is a common confusion amongst guitarists. Here is the formula for the major scale.

W – W – H – W – W – W – H
1     2     3     4     5     6     7

As you can see it contains the numbers 1 – 7, which means that there are 7 notes in the scale, and above that is an outline of where we can find the Whole-Steps and Half-Steps; notice how there are 5 whole steps and two half steps. After 7, the scale goes back through 1-7, but at a higher octave – it repeats endlessly. These are all the characteristics of a diatonic scale.

I’m going to show you how this formula works to create two scales, the C major scale, and the E Major Scale:

W – W – H – W – W – W – H –
1      2     3     4     5     6     7
C     D     E     F    G    A    B

Above are the notes of the C major scale, as you can see C-D is two frets (a whole step) apart and E-F is one fret (a half step) apart etc. The 7th note (B) is also one fret (half step) apart from C, as the scale continues on forever, each time it reaches back to C, it is an octave higher. Hopefully this will help you visualise how this works a little better.

W – W – H – W – W – W – H –
1      2     3     4     5     6     7
E     F#   G#   A     B    C#  D#

Again we can see that in the above chart (the notes of the E major scale) E-F# are two frets (a whole step apart) and G#-A are one fret (a half step) apart. The 7th note is also one fret (H) apart from the higher octave E. By knowing that there are 7 notes in a major scale, and knowing the whole step/half step formula, we can construct any major scale. In fact this is how we construct any scale, all we need to know is how many/which notes are in the scale, whether any of the notes are flattened, and the W-H formula to paint the notes on top of the numbers. Below are 6 of the common major scales. See if you can notice how the formula fits into each of them, and if you love homework you can try to construct the remaining 5 major major scales yourself (C#, D#, F#, G#, A#.)

C  Major Scale:   C    D     E     F    G    A     B
D  Major Scale:   D    E     F#   G     A    B    C#
E  Major Scale:   E    F#   G#   A     B    C#   D#
F  Major Scale:   F    G     A     A#   C    D     E
G  Major Scale:  G    A      B    C     D    E     F#
A  Major Scale:   A    B     C#   D     E    F#   G#
B  Major Scale:   B   C#    D#   E     F#   G#  A#

Playing a Major Scale

Ok, now for some fun! You’ve hopefully digested everything above, and now know how to construct a major scale of your own! It might seem like a daunting task at first, but with practice (and patience) it will become second nature. You might be wondering, ‘why the hell do I want to construct a major scale, I just want to play it! Good question! You are actually just about to play it, so don’t worry about that, but it is extremely important to know what it is you are playing. Just like how we need to know the meaning of words before we can use them in communication. If I told you a word you had never heard before, wrote it down on a piece of paper, pronounced it to you, and then asked you to start using it in conversation – you wouldn’t know how to, and would soon forget all about it.

Considering the major scale is used to compare and construct every other scale, if you know to make your own major scale, you can create any scale you want! It’s a skill that is analogous to a carpet – once you roll it out it will unravel and appear a lot longer than when it was rolled up! You will find this to be the case with a lot of music theory; at first it will sound totally alien to you, then eventually, when it clicks, you will realise how much you have learnt and can apply to your instrument, from only a tiny but of theory.

Ok, now that we got that out of the way, we’re going to start with the C major scale. I know it seems odd at first that we start with C, considering the alphabet starts with A, but it’s because the C major scale is the most neutral and easy to measure against as it is the only major scale that contains no sharps or flats in any of it’s notes. The C major scale looks like this:

1    2    3    4    5    6    7
C   D   E    F    G   A    B

As you can see, there are no flats or sharps. Easy. All we have to do is find the above 7 notes on the fretboard, and root the 1 (C) and we have a C major scale! Note, it is extremely important that you root the 1 always, in this case C, as it allows the listener to establish the tonality of the scale. Below is a diagram of a position of the major scale in C. This is movable, so you can literally move it up and down the fretboard to play the major scale in a different key.

major scale

The three diagrams above probably contain more information than you would like, but I assure you it is all essential knowledge. The first diagram is a box position of the C major scale, starting at the 8th fret. When playing this scale, keep in mind that each finger, except for your thumb has a number:

  1. Index finger
  2. Middle finger
  3. Ring finger
  4. Pinky finger

It’s very important that you play these scales using all four fingers (especially your pinky) as underusing the pinky is one of the biggest errors that self-taught guitarists make when learning the instrument – believe me I know, as I am 100% self-taught and have only been using my pinky for the past year or so! It’s extremely difficult to learn the required muscle memory to use the pinky finger after a long time of not using it, so use it early and strengthen it. It gives you amazing reach, but beyond that, it makes learing and playing scales a whole lot easier! As a matter of fact, the only scale I could play comfortably before using my pinky was the minor/major pentatonic scales (they only contain 5 notes). Once I started using my pinky, I was able to assimilate and play new scales at the drop of a hat.

Know that each finger (thumb not included) corresponds to a fret. As you can see in the above diagram the C major scale encompasses 4 frets, so each finger is dedicated to only fretting a note on it’s specific fret. So the first note (C) will be played with your 2nd (middle) finger, and the second note (D) will be played with your 4th (pinky) finger, and so on. At first this might feel awkward or strange, but believe me, it is the best advice I can give you. Also note that the black dots symbolise a note that is not the root, while the red dot is the root note. The diagram underneath that demonstrates how the scale formula applies to the scale, as you can see where the 1, 2, 3 ,4, 5, 6 and 7 notes are: if you want to learn more scales, it’s very important you become aware of this. Finally the third diagram shows the notes. Learn them! If you don’t know your notes, Zentao has a great guide which you owe it to yourself as a guitarist to study.

major scale complete

Finally there is the entire Major scale in C! Now download some backing tracks to play along to if you need them, and get used to playing the scale in every key, not just C!

Be sure to check out the other guitar guides scattered throughout the site!

Chord Theory

Scale Theory

General Music Theory

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