Though you’re likely familiar with the usefulness of the pentatonic scale, you may not realize just how versatile the major scale can be. It’s a great tool for soloing and songwriting. And if you want to dive in, you can explore its many modes, too. But first, let’s take a look at the basics.
1. What Makes A Major Scales?
Before we jump into the major scale positions, let’s first make sure we understand what a major scale is. The major scale is a seven-note scale where your first note is the root note. It’s used in much of Western music and pop music especially.
As with all guitar scales, it takes some time to learn. But if you practice and apply yourself, you will soon be playing up and down the guitar fretboard. The major scale is also a great way to improve your knowledge of music theory and better understand chord progressions.
To play through a major scale, select a root note. We will start with C, so we’ll be going through the C major scale. (If you’re a little rusty on your understanding of musical concepts like the musical alphabet, now would be a good time to catch up.) If you’re interested in learning a bit about music theory for guitar, check out this helpful video.
2. What Are Steps?
You might think that the first seven notes you’ll play are C and every whole note that comes after it. But major scales are made up of whole and half steps.
You start with the root note and then move a whole step, a whole step, a half step, a whole step, a whole step, a whole step, and a half step. So the first seven notes look like this: W W H W W W H. When you’re playing guitar, mastering these intervals is not difficult. A whole step is two frets and a half step is one fret.
To determine what major scale notes to play, first remember the musical alphabet: C C# D D# E F F# G G# A A# B. So if we start with C, a whole step would be D. The next whole step is E, then the half step is F.
Next are the three whole steps: G, then A, and then B. And finally, we take a half step to C (although it is an octave higher than the C we started with). Since the C major scale has no sharps or flats, it is usually the first major scale guitarists learn. If you want a video introduction as well, check out this interesting video.
3. Major Scales With Sharps & Flats
The C major scale isn’t too difficult to grasp, largely because it’s easy to remember — it has no sharps or flats. But especially if you don’t have a background in music theory, it can be tough to remember which notes can be sharp or flat and which ones cannot. So let’s look at the G major scale. Here’s the whole musical alphabet starting with G:
G G# A A# B C C# D D# E F F#
And remember that the pattern for whole steps and half steps is W W H W W W H. So following the pattern of whole and half steps, The G major scale would be G A B C D E F#.
Try playing through the scale on one string if you have trouble remembering or visualizing the pattern of whole and half steps for the G major scale or another major scale (this cool video shows you a few one-string scales). Listen carefully to its sound — even casual ear training like this can make a big difference in your playing over time.
4. What Are Intervals?
If you’re a beginning or intermediate guitarist, you may have heard other players use terms like “fifth,” “third,” etc. These terms refer to intervals, which are essentially spaces between the notes on a given scale. In the seven-note C major scale, here are the intervals in order:
- Unison (the root note) – C
- Major 2nd – D
- Major 3rd – E
- Perfect 4th – F
- Perfect 5th – G
- Major 6th – A
- Major 7th – B
These intervals line up with the pattern of major scale steps — W W H W W W H. That means that there is a whole step between unison and the major 2nd, a whole step between the major 2nd and major 3rd, a half step in between the major 3rd and the perfect 4th, etc.
These intervals explain why the major scale patterns we’re about to dive into are movable shapes. The notes themselves may change, but the distance between them does not. It’s kind of like playing with a capo or tuning a full step up or down — the notes and chords still sound the same about one another. For a more in-depth look at intervals on guitar, take a look at this video.
5. Introducing the Major Scale Patterns
Now that we’ve been through the basic major scale formula, let’s take a look at how to play each major scale pattern. Learning each major scale formula is a lot like learning the pentatonic scale — we have divided it into five boxes that connect.
The system we are using here is called the CAGED system. That’s because each major scale formula is based on a major chord shape (one for C, one for A, one for G, one for E, and one for D). The CAGED system is great for easing players, especially newer guitarists, into the major scale.
That’s because it essentially relies on five of the first chord shapes a beginning guitarist learns. So there’s an element of familiarity, and you also get to see how the patterns themselves repeat down the neck.
And much like the minor pentatonic scale, this one’s first pattern lets you easily locate your lowest root note on the low E string. So once you have the C major scale pattern down, you can use these movable shapes to play the G major scale, E major scale, etc. Check out this interesting video for a helpful intro to the CAGED system.
6. Major Scale Patterns and Root Notes
If you’re fairly new to scale patterns in general and have just looked at the major scale pattern, you might feel overwhelmed at first. Each box pattern has so many notes that listing them individually would be confusing. So instead, we will focus on the root notes for each C major scale pattern. To see scale diagrams of the patterns, check out this excellent resource.
- Pattern 1: For this pattern, we’ll start with our root note, C, on both the low E string and the high E string at the eighth fret. There is one more root note in this box pattern. On the D string at the 10th fret, there is another C. Just like with any other scale pattern, it may be helpful to say the root name each time you land on C. This can help train your ear for the future.
- Pattern 2: This scale pattern overlaps with the first position. Specifically, the C at the 10th fret on the D string is one of the root notes. The other is on the B string at the 13th fret.
- Pattern 3: The third C major scale pattern also overlaps with the second pattern; the first root note is the C on the B string at the 13th fret. The other is on the A string at the 15th fret.
- Pattern 4: The fourth box pattern is probably the most difficult, but it’s a great way to practice your hand stretching. It picks up where the third pattern left off — there is a root note on the A string at the 15th fret. The only other root note is on the G string at the 17th fret.
- Pattern 5: Now we come to the last of the C major scale patterns. The fifth position is the only one besides the first pattern to have three root notes. It overlaps with the fourth position with a root note on the G string at the 17th fret. The two other root notes are at the 20th fret — one is on the low E string and the other is on the high E string. Of course, after this, the scale restarts with the first pattern.
It can sometimes become frustrating to spend hours practicing different scale patterns.
And many players make the mistake of waiting until they can play the whole scale before they start making music. Don’t do this — even within one major scale position, you can create new licks and work on your technique. Learning guitar isn’t supposed to be boring! For some tips on how to keep your practice routine fun, check out this video.
7. Connecting the Patterns
Even though they’re all notes from the same scale, putting the C major scale together across the guitar fretboard is no easy task. After all, dividing the C major scale (or any major scale) into box patterns makes learning it easier. But to be able to play major guitar scales well, you’ll need to be able to view all of the scale diagrams as a unified whole.
There’s no singular way to get good at connecting your patterns. Some guitarists practice improvising with two adjacent patterns, then three, etc. Others like to go up and down the neck and make sure they can play all of the root notes.
And if you like repetition, you might want to just drill the major scale until you can do it completely absentmindedly. For some helpful tips on unifying the individual box patterns of the major scale, check out this helpful video. As you practice playing and connecting your patterns, be sure to focus on accuracy above speed.
This is easier said than done. Many of us are eager to start playing quickly as soon as we possibly can. But patience will pay off. Emphasizing speed will almost always result in sloppy playing and poor technique.
8. Building Proficiency
You probably haven’t worked hard on playing major scale patterns just to play major scales. If you’re like many guitarists learning the C major scale for the first time, you want to be able to both play your favorite guitar solos and improvise anywhere on the guitar fretboard.
One way to build proficiency is to ensure you know where all of your root notes are in the CAGED system.
This might sound tedious and pointless at first, but you’ll start to understand how the scale is working when you know your root notes. And once you understand how they work, major scales become a lot easier to remember and apply. For a very in-depth explanation of the CAGED system, check out this video.
Another way to build proficiency is to play along with backing tracks. There are plenty of free backing tracks available online. Alternatively, you can choose songs you like, find their keys, and play along.
But what if your chosen song is in a minor key? Can you play major scales over minor chords? The answer is yes, but there’s a catch: you will need to play the relative major of the minor key. For example, the relative major of Am is C. So if the song you’re playing along with is in the key of Am, you would play the C major scale over it. Check out this resource for some helpful information on relative majors and minors.
If you do decide to work on improvising with the major scale, remember to be patient with yourself. Experienced guitarists make improvising solos look effortless. But behind that effortlessness, there are hours of focus and practice. Start with slower-tempo songs and then work your way up to playing more quickly.
Need A Guide?
When you started out learning the very basics of guitar, you probably had no issue watching a couple of YouTube videos here and there. But once you move into more complex topics like the major scale and its patterns, you may find that following a structured course makes a world of difference.
But you don’t need to go through all the trouble of finding an instructor and commuting to weekly lessons. An online guitar course lets you learn at your own pace, and you can go back and re-watch challenging topics as many times as you want.
If you’ve just made your first foray into the often-intimidating world of major scales guitar, we commend you. Especially after learning the pentatonic scale, the major scale is a complex step up. What do you think? Do you have any helpful learning tips we left out? Please let us know in the comments, and don’t forget to like and share if you found it helpful!