Navigating Major Scale Positions on Guitar by Using the Root Note

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One of the challenges we face as guitar players wanting to incorporate leads into our playing is being able to move between scale positions. We learn all of the patterns, but typically rely on one or two boxes for our leads. In this lesson, we’re going to look at how we can use the root note to easily move between major scale positions on guitar.  This will help open up the fretboard and get you playing all over the neck.

Major scale review

Let’s begin with a review of the major scale.

The major scale is a diatonic scale consisting of 7 notes. It’s made up of the following intervals:

  • Root
  • Major 2nd
  • Major 3rd
  • Perfect 4th
  • Perfect 5th
  • Major 6th
  • Major 7th
Major scale intervals

It’s important to note that these intervals are relative to the root note. On the fretboard, these intervals follow the following pattern of whole and half steps:

W – W – H – W -W -W – H

For example, if we take a look at the G major scale on a single string, it looks like this:

Major Scale Steps

If you move the root note, G, up one fret, you would have the G# major scale, which follows the same pattern of whole/half steps because it contains the same intervals.

Learning major scale positions

When first learning major scale positions on guitar, it’s common to learn each position in succession. You learn the first position, connect that to the second position, connect the second position to the third position, etc. The problem this causes is it builds a relationship between the connecting patterns. In order to find position three, you first have to find position two, which requires you to first find position one. Because you’re not able to identify scale positions independently, it makes you feel locked into one or two scale boxes.

So how can we begin to view these positions independent of each other and easily jump between them? By using the root note of the scale.

Using root patterns to identify major scale positions on guitar

Every position of the major scale will have at least two occurrences of the root note, with positions 1 and 5 having three.

Root notes in all major scale positions on guitar

The root notes of each position are always located in the same place relative to the other notes of the scale. This creates memorable root patterns that can be associated with a scale position.

Root note pattern of position 1

Position 1 of the major scale contains three root notes. The root notes occur on strings 1, 4, and 6 and form a triangular pattern on the fretboard.

Major scale root pattern, position 1

Root note pattern of position 2

The root notes in position 2 of the major scale form the standard octave shape. There are two root notes, which occur on the 2nd and 5th strings. When a root note occurs on the 5th string, you can always find its higher octave by moving across two strings and up three frets.

Major scale root pattern, position 2

Root note pattern of position 3

Position 3 contains two root notes which occur on the 2nd and 5th strings.

Major scale root pattern, position 3

Root note pattern of position 4

Position 4 also contains two root notes, found on the 3rd and 5th strings. Note that the octave shape is a little different than the octave shape in position 2. In position 2, the 2nd string is tuned a 1/2 step lower, so it requires moving up an additional fret.

Major scale root pattern, position 4

Root note pattern of position 5

Position 5 is the only other position that contains 3 root notes and this is because roots occur on the 1st and 6th strings, which are both tuned to E in E standard tuning. The other occurrence is on string 3.

Notice that this root pattern also forms a triangle, but it’s flipped from the triangle formed in position 1.

Major scale root pattern, position 5

Because these patterns are based on intervals, they are the same across all major keys. Position 4 of the G major scale will have the same root pattern as position 4 of the C major scale and so on.

Using root notes to identify connected major scale positions on guitar

In addition to root shapes, each occurrence of the root note connects two scale patterns. This gives us another way to relate root notes to scale positions.

The examples in this lesson use the G major scale, but again, the scale patterns remain the same regardless of what major key you’re playing in.

Root on 6th String

When the root on the 6th string, you get position 5 above and position 1 below.

Major scale positions root on 6th string

Root on 5th String

The root on the 5th string connects positions 3 and 4.

Major scale positions root on 5th string

Root on 4th String

The root on the 4th string connects positions 1 and 2.

Major scale positions root on 4th string

Root on 3rd String

With the root on the 3rd string, positions 4 and 5 are connected.

Major scale positions root on 3rd string

Root on 2nd String

On the 2nd string, the root connects positions 2 and 3.

Major scale positions root on 2nd string

Root on 1st String

Since the notes are the same on the 1st and 6th strings, the root on the 1st string connects the same positions as the root on the 6th string. Positions 1 and 5 are connected by the root on the 1st string.

Major scale positions root on 1st string

Position Switching Exercises

The following are some exercises you can do to get familiar with moving from position to position by using the root note. While these exercises are using the G major scale, you should practice in other keys as well.

Keep in mind that the purpose of these exercises is just to increase your familiarity with the scale positions and help you easily identify any position on the fretboard.

When playing the scale, start on the root position and play both ascending and descending across the fretboard. Be sure to end with the root note on which you started.

1. Learning connected major scale positions by root

Each root note will connect two major scale positions. The purpose of this exercise is to learn the scale positions that are connected by the same root notes.

In this first exercise, you start with the root on the 6th string and play both patterns connected by the root, then move across to the root on string 5 and do the same. Continue across the fretboard until you’re starting on the root note on the 1st string, then come back across to the 6th string.

Navigate major scale positions by root, exercise 1
Top: Root on 6th string
Bottom: Root on 5th string
Guitar tablature for connected major scale positions
1st section – scale position 5
2nd section – scale position 1

2. Learning disconnected major scale positions by root

For this exercise, you’re moving away from learning adjacent positions and learning to identify positions by the root only.

For the second exercise, you’re essentially playing the same two non-adjacent positions, but alternating the root notes from which you start. You play the 5th position starting with the root on the 6 string and move to the 2nd position and start with the root on the 2nd string.

Come back to 5th position and start with the root on the 3rd string, then move back to the 3rd position and start with the root on the 4th string.

You can repeat the process one more time with the root on the 1st string in position 5.

This exercises can be applied to all of the other root positions on the fretboard as well.

Navigate major scale positions on guitar by root, exercise 2
Top: Position 5
Bottom: Position 2
Guitar tablature of disconnect major scale positions
1st section – scale position 5
2nd section – scale position 2

3. Play all scale positions by root note

With the third exercise you start with any root note and play a scale position, then move to another root note and do the same. The only rules for this exercise is you have to play all scale positions and you can’t play two consecutive scale positions that are connected by the same root.

Navigate major scale positions by root, exercise 3
Root notes of the 5 major scale positions

There’s nothing magical about these exercises. The point is to be able to identify scale positions all over the neck. Feel free to play around with it and create your own exercises.

Wrap Up

When learning the major scale positions on guitar, it’s important to be able to identify the positions all over the neck and not be limited to the patterns that are connected to each other. Associating root notes with scale positions is a starting point that helps with this process. Use the exercises in this lesson and you’ll quickly become more fluid at identifying and playing between the different scale positions.

Tabs created with:

Guitar Pro: tablature and standard notation editor

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