​​​​Major Scales

Last Updated August 16, 2019

In this section we will learn a few important scales and how you can practise and use them in your playing.

What are so important about scales? In music, a scale is a set of notes that form the foundation of a song’s key. Different songs have different moods or feels, and the secret is to do with the choice of scale used in the song. A scale can determine whether a song sounds happy or sad. It can also give a song either a European or Far Eastern feel for example.

If music was compared to food, the set of notes of each scale are like the ingredients of a recipe. A chef may select a set of ingredients to create a particular region’s tasting dish, and another set of ingredients for a dish tasting from a different region of the globe. The same principle can be applied to the many different scales in music which can be used to create different moods or feels. The following sections will show you the formulas and methods used by the pros that will help to kick-start your creative juices to vastly improve your guitar playing.

The Major scale

The Major scale consists of a set of notes separated by 7 intervals consisting of whole and half steps.  Remember a whole step on your guitar is equal to two frets. And a half step equal to one fret. Steps are also often called tones. So we can also say whole tone and half tone. Half tones are also often called semi tones.

The intervals for the Major scale are as follows:

Whole – Whole – Half – Whole – Whole – Whole – Half

The intervals are like a formula that never changes.  In other words, the specific arrangement of whole and half step intervals is what strictly makes it the Major scale. When the intervals are applied in the key of G on the fingerboard (starting on the 3rd fret of the 6th string), the order of notes are:

Above the notation we can see the intervals. ‘W’ for whole tone, ‘H’ for halftone.

Note:  the last note is a repeat of the 1st note (i.e. both are G).

The notes do not have to stop there. The intervals for the Major scale can be repeated again from the 15th fret onwards.

Most fingerboards only go up to about 24 frets, so a clever technique is to extend scale onto the other strings. This involves playing exactly the same musical notes but on a different part of the fingerboard. For example, another way of playing the G Major scale is shown in the following diagram.

Note: Although the fingering of both examples are different, they are playing exactly the same notes. And the intervals between the notes are exactly the same.  This is an important concept to remember, scales are moveable and can be played in several positions along the fingerboard.

The notes of the G major scale

When the major scale is played in the key of G, the 7 different notes are:

            G A B C D E F#

It’s important by now to have learnt the twelve note chromatic scale, this will let you know what notes you are actually playing when follow the interval patterns.

It is important to remember that these notes will never change for the G major scale. In other words, no matter where the G major scale is played on the fingerboard, it will only be played with the same 7 notes named above.

Similarly, to work out the A major scale, we could apply the pattern of intervals to the note A, which would give us the following notes:

            A B C# D E F# G#

The A major scale can be played on the fingerboard like this:

Again, since we’re playing a major scale the intervals are exactly the same. All we’ve done is changed the root, that is the first note, to an ‘A’ note.

The degrees of a scale

The notes of a scale are also ordered in degrees. This is simply giving each note of the scale a number in ascending order:

            G (1st) A (2nd) B (3rd) C (4th) D (5th) E (6th) F# (7th)

So, in the G major scale, G is the 1st degree, and C is the 4th degree.

Sometimes you may notice the term “degree being omitted in texts and conversations. For example the 4th degree in the G major scale can be expressed as the 4th in G major”. They both mean the same thing and the latter is just a shortened (and commonly accepted) method.

Playing the G major scale

Have a go at playing the G Major scale in the following fingering:

Sound clip

A popular way of fingering scales is to arrange them three notes per string as we’ve done here.

Start slowly and make sure the coordination between each fretting finger and the plucking hand is connecting fully before moving on to the next note. When you get comfortable with the pattern, gradually build up speed, over many repetitions, until you can play it at a steady pace with ease. Aim to use all four of your fingers using your index finger for the first note of each string and then following on with your other fingers. For larger stretches it’s a good idea to get into the habit of using your little finger rather than stretching across with your third finger.

Here is another example of the G Major scale. But this time we’re not playing the notes in order one after the other. This is how we make music!

Sound clip – Slow

Sound clip – Fast

In the previous example we started on a higher ‘G’ note and descended to some lower notes before going back up.

Here is another example, again in G major. This time we’ve aimed to mix the notes up more and not play so many notes in the scale that are next to each other.

Sound clip – Slow

Sound clip – Fast

It’s important to get into the habit of using your third and little finger. The above examples can be played without moving your hand up or down the neck as long as you use all of your fingers.

Once you learn the Major scale, you can easily learn other scales by slightly modifying the intervals of the scale. This may involve moving a degree of the scale up or down a semi-tone, or removing a degree completely to form a new scale.

A helpfull way of learning scales are to use full neck diagrams like the one below,

<the diagram is called scales 20 in the image folder>

This diagram shows us all the places we can find the notes of the C major scale between the open strings, up to the 12th fret. The dots colored in red are the root notes. In this case the C note. The black dots show us the positions of the other notes. The circles to the left of the diagram show us when a open string is also part of the scale.

You can use diagrams like this to play the scales in other positions and in other directions. It is helpfull to learn scales in as many different positions along the neck as possible. This increases the varity of your music.

To work out the positions of where to find the notes after the 12th fret we simply copy the same patterns across.

Key points to remember!
  • Major scales are made from a fixed formula.
  • Major scales typically sound melodic and happy.
  • The major scale is one of, if not the most commonly used scale in western music .
  • Mixing up the notes of a scale is how we make music.
  • You can change the key of a scale by moving it’s root note and then moving all other notes by the same distance.