The Major Scale: Patterns, Positions, & Theory
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The major scale is the centerpiece of music theory and probably the most commonly used scale in music. In order to understand chord building, progressions, and other scales, you need to first understand the major scale. In this lesson we will take a look at what makes up the major scale and learn the major scale patterns and positions on the guitar fretboard.
Why Learn Scales on Guitar?
A common misperception of guitar scales is that they’re only useful for soloing. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Yes, scales can provide the basis for soloing on the guitar, but there’s so much more than that.
Guitar scales, specifically the major scale, provide the foundation for understanding music theory. Without knowledge of the major scale, your understanding of chords, progressions, interval qualities will be limited.
Let’s start with a little scale theory to understand what a guitar scale is. Then we will dive into the major scale specifically and see how it sets the foundation for all other guitar theory concepts.
Before we get to the details of the major scale, let’s start with a basic understanding of what a music scale is.
A scale in music is a group of notes ordered sequentially by pitch. Unlike chords where the notes are played together, the notes of a scale are played individually. They can be played ascending (increasing in pitch) or descending (decreasing in pitch).
The scale formed by the group of notes is determined by the intervals, or distance, between each note of the scale and the number of notes in the scale.
The Major Scale
The major scale consists of 7 notes and an octave note (the root note played an octave higher/lower). If we take a look at the G major scale, its notes are as follows:
Listen to the audio to hear how the G major scale sounds:
Major Scale Pattern of Steps
The major scale is a diatonic scale, meaning it progresses through the pitches in a two-tone (whole step/half step) pattern and doesn’t skip any note names.
A step is just a measure of distance between between two notes.
A whole step on the guitar is equal to two frets while a half step is equal to one fret. You may also see them referred to as semitones. A whole step equals two semitones while a half step equals one semitone.
- Whole Step = 2 frets (2 semitones)
- Half Step = 1 fret (1 semitone)
The whole step/half step pattern for the major scale looks like this:
Whole – Whole – Half – Whole – Whole – Whole – Half
You may also see it written as:
W – W – H – W – W – W – H
Using this pattern with the G major scale from above, you can see how the scale is built:
- From G to A is one whole step, or two half steps (2 semitones) (G – G# – A)
- From A to B is one whole step, or two half steps (A – A# – B)
- From B to C is one half step (B – C)
- From C to D is one whole step (C – C# – D)
- From D to E is one whole step (D – D# – E)
- From E to F# is one whole step (E – F – F#)
- From F# to G is one half step (F# – G)
This pattern holds true for any major scale. You can form a C major scale, D major scale, etc. all by using this same pattern.
Interval Qualities of the Major Scale
Each interval of a scale has a quality to it that determines the type of scale it forms and the characteristics of that scale. The intervals for the major scale are as follows:
|Quality||Unison||Major 2nd||Major 3rd||Perfect 4th||Perfect 5th||Major 6th||Major 7th||Octave|
In the diagram below, you can see the relation between the notes and intervals of the G major scale.
While the notes for a given major scale may change, the interval qualities remain the same. This is an important concept because this allows for movable shapes and patterns across the fretboard. In other words, the pattern for the G major scale will also be the pattern for C major, D major etc. The only thing that changes is the root note on which the pattern is based.
Now we’ll take a look at the major scale positions and patterns that make up these positions.
Major Scale Patterns and Positions on the Guitar Fretboard
You can think of the guitar fretboard as one big connected grid. Within this grid, you find patterns of notes. It stands to reason that if the notes on the fretboard follow a given pattern, so too do the scales that are derived from these notes. This is important to understand because once you learn to recognize the patterns that make up a given scale, it gives you the freedom to play across the entire fretboard.
We’ll continue using G major as the example. However, to avoid associating these positions with G major exclusively, the diagrams will be labeled according to intervals to reinforce the application to all major scales. Plus, it’s important to understand intervals as they are a foundational concept of music theory.
Starting with the G note on the 3rd fret of the 6th string, play each note of the scale in order across the fretboard (ascending) and back to the starting position (descending), including the F# on the 6th string. It’s a good idea when learning these scales to get into a habit of starting and ending on the root note, but be sure to play all notes of the pattern.
It’s also important to make note of the root note pattern (middle diagram) found in each position. Using the root note is good way to begin navigating scale positions. Position 1 contains three root notes, forming a triangle pattern on the fretboard.
The far right diagram shows the recommended fingering for the position. Feel free to try alternate fingerings and adjust it to what best suits you.
In position 2 of the major scale, the root notes are found on strings 4 and 2, which means this position only contains two root notes. As with position 1, practice the scale starting on the root note and play ascending and descending.
Notice how this position connects with position 1 via the notes on frets 4 and 5. While the actual frets will change from one major scale to another, the association is the same. Position 1 will always connect with position 2 via the same note intervals.
Position 3 of the major scale contains two root notes, located on the 2nd and 5th strings. Again make note of the root note patterns and the connecting notes with the second position above.
Moving on up the fretboard to position 4 you again find two root notes, located on the 3rd and 5th strings.
By including the p4 on the 6th string, the fourth position of the major scale spans a lot of frets (5). You can choose to omit this note if you want, but I prefer to include it as part of this position. Note the suggested fingerings on the position shifts.
As with position one, the fifth position of the major scale includes three root notes due to two of them falling on the 6th and 1st strings. This position also includes a position shift, so pay close attention to the suggested fingerings for how to player over it.
Connected Scale Patterns
Of importance to note is that these patterns are all connected to the position above and below by shared notes. The diagram below shows this relationship.
Once you get to the last position (position 5), the patterns repeat themselves, starting again with the pattern of position 1.
Just to reiterate, these scale patterns are movable. While these diagrams map out the G major scale, the patterns apply to all major scales. If you move these patterns up one fret, you’ll be playing the A♭ major scale. Move it up two frets and you would be playing the A major scale. You can shift the root note up or down the fretboard and play any major scale with the same pattern.
Single Octave Major Scale Patterns
While the scale positions above cover two octaves, they can also be broken into single octave patterns. Going from the root note on strings 3 through 6, you can create the following scale patterns.
Root on the 6th String
Starting with the root on the 6th string, there are four common scale patterns. Note that in the first scale pattern you’re using open notes in the scale, but this pattern is movable and can be played anywhere on the neck. Note in pattern four mind we’ve moved to the A major scale since the root note is on the 5th fret of the 6th string.
Root on the 5th String
With the root note on the 5th string, you get the following common patterns for the major scale. Note that these are almost identical in shape as the patterns from the 6th string root. The exception is when the scale moves to the 2nd string, which is tuned a 1/2 step lower.
Root on the 4th String
On the 4th string the patterns change a bit more to compensate for the tuning of the 3rd string. Still, you should see the similarities between these patterns and the previous.
Root on the 3rd String
Finally, we have the patterns created starting with the root on the 3rd string.
To summarize, a music scale is a group of notes arranged sequentially by pitch and played individually. The major scale is a diatonic scale consisting of 7 notes and and octave note. You build it by following a formula of half/whole step intervals (W-W-H-W-W-W-H).
Since so many other musical concepts and theory are derived from it, the major scale is the most important scale for a guitarist to know. Learning it sets the foundation for applying music theory to the guitar, so take your time to thoroughly understand the content in this lesson.
For more information on the major scale and it’s relation to chords, triads, arpeggios etc, check out Guitar Essentials: Foundational Fretboard Navigation. It teaches you how all of these structures are related and how they map to the fretboard, helping you to navigate up and down the fretboard with ease.
Further your knowledge of the major scale with the Major & Minor Scale Lesson Pack, which includes lesson workbooks for both the major and minor scales, practice guides, and more.
Worksheet: Major Scale
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