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 how to apply the major scale to the guitar fretboard.
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 see how the G major scale sounds:
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. The whole step/half step pattern for the major scale looks like this:
Whole – Whole – Half – Whole – Whole – Whole – Half
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 (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|
So now that you know what the major scale is, the qualities it has, and how you build it, let’s take a look at how it’s applied to the fretboard.
Applying the Major Scale to 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.
Using the G major scale from above and starting with the root note on the 6th string, here is the first pattern (first position):
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.
The four remaining patterns look like this:
Play these patterns the same as the first, up and down the scale starting and ending on the root, being sure to play all notes.
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.
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 G# 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.
To summarize, 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 your development as a guitarist.