The major scale should be one of the first scales you
learn on guitar, because it's one of the most commonly
referenced in music (especially western music).
As you'll soon
discover, it's not just a scale for the
purposes of soloing, but a system
for organising other important musical elements. We'll come to that!
First, we need to understand how the major scale is built.
We'll then move on to its primary function - how we can use it to
harmonise with (play over) chords so we can use
it confidently in a
solo. Take your time with this stuff because it's beneficial
to have a
clear understanding of this elementary scale.
Major scale intervals
So what makes it a scale? In a
nutshell: a repeating sequence of intervals.
Intervals are the distances/gaps
each note in a scale, the separation of a scale's degrees. The major
scale has seven degrees.
Hopefully, you've taken the
fretboard lessons so you'll know how
on the fretboard, but let's recap specifically for the major
The major scale starts with note number 1
(called the root
and continues in varying whole step and half step intervals up to 7.
are as follows...
W = whole step (equivalent 2 fret interval) H
= half step (equivalent 1 fret interval)
So if you were to start on the
open low E string
and lay out the intervals of the major scale on just that one
string, this is how they
being the open, unfretted string)...
= the root note, and in this case the
root note is E
Therefore this would be the E
major scale, since the root lies on the the note E.
The rest of the scale is built in relation to this root. So...
is a major 2nd interval in relation to the root.
is a major 3rd interval in relation to the root.
is a perfect 4th interval in relation to the root.
is a perfect 5th interval in relation to the root.
is a major 6th interval in relation to the root.
is a major 7th interval in relation to the root.
Once we get to note 7, the
next note is the octave
(sometimes labelled as 8
but to keep things simple, just call it 1
again) - the same as
note (E in this case), but higher sounding. The scale sequence begins
again an octave higher.
If we'd started from the open G
string, we'd be playing G major.
If we'd started from the open B
string, we'd be playing B major.
Same scale, same relative intervals,
different root notes.
It's that typical "do-re-mi"
scale most of us are familiar with and it's what chords and other
scales can be referenced against.
For example, when we
talk about a flat 5th (abbreviated as b5)in a
chord or scale, we could see that as the 5th tone in its natural, major
scale position flattened one half step. More on sharps and flats in
to delve deeper? See the major
scale formula lesson
(opens in new window) to really cement these interval relationships in
your mind. Otherwise, read on to get the scale under your fingers.
Basic major scale guitar patterns
It's necessary to use
more than one string most of the time. So we have to map these
scale intervals across the six strings of the
guitar for a more convenient fingering. We can call these scale
The most commonly used pattern for the
major scale is its first/root position "box"
pattern (intervals followed by fingering)...
the first note of the scale, is the root
note, so if
you started the scale at the 3rd
fret on the low
string, the 1st note would be G
so it would be the G major
scale. The root note defines the key in which we play the
scale, in other
You should learn
that major scale pattern above to start with and learn the visual (and
relationships between its intervals.
the second occurrence
(octave) of the root note appears on the D
string two frets above the 1st root note.
the third occurrence (even
higher octave) of the root note appears on the high E string
on the same fret
as the 1st root note.
the second occurrence
(octave) of the 5th appears on the B
string two frets below the 1st occurrence of the 5th note.
appears one fret left of the lowest root note on the A string AND a
higher 3rd (octave) appears one fret left of the root's octave on the G
See if there are any other visual
can pick out. You'll transfer this knowledge to other scales that share
the same intervals.
There are other major scale patterns we
can use, such as this one, with an A string
bass root note...
So using the two patterns we've learned, we can now play the major
scale in two positions
for a given root note. For example, if we wanted
to play C
major, we could play the E string box pattern from earlier at the 8th
fret, or the A string box pattern above at the 3rd fret.
We'll look more at the different patterns we can use to span more of
the fretboard in a separate lesson, but if you want a head start with
it, grab this free cheat sheet.
Playing the major scale over chords
Every scale has related chord types, based on the intervals
the scale. This section will explore the different chords we
build from the scale, so you can confidently connect the two together.
A crucial "piece of the puzzle" many scale lessons gloss over.
Here are the major scale's intervals again for reference...
The major triad
When analyzing the major scale, we can see it contains the root (1),
major 3rd (3)
and 5th (5).
These three intervals make up what is known as
the major triad
- the basis of all major chords.
This means the major scale will work naturally over major chords (as if
the name wasn't obvious enough!). The other intervals from the
scale (2, 4, 6 and 7) can be seen as
"coloring" that basic major sound.
For example, the A major scale would be the natural (although by no
means the only)
choice over an A
See how many 1 3 5
major triad shapes you can pull out of the below
scale pattern. I've done two for you...
this is a great way to connect chords and scales. Use the scale
patterns you learn as
the scaffolding for building chord shapes. Then, when you need to get
your bearings for a solo, you'll find the chord shape and visualise the
pattern around it.
However, that doesn't mean
we should use the major scale over every
occurance of a major chord in a song. Understanding when to use it will
come with time, I promise!
For now, we just need to understand how the tones of the major scale
interact (harmonise) with major chords.
The major 7th
The major 7th (7)
can be used over major triads
to give them a "dreamier" sound. This also means the major scale will
compatible with major
7th chords (1 3 5 7),
which you'll learn about in the
However, the major scale won't
work over dominant 7th
chords, because they contain a flat 7th (1 3 5 b7) which would
clash with the major 7th.
Take a listen to the major 7th being held over a major chord and hear
how it harmonises with and adds depth to the major chord...
The perfect 4th interval in the major scale is most
commonly used as a passing tone. It can sound rather dissonant when
major chord. Instead, we can resolve it to the major 3rd one
For example, the phrase might be: 1 5 4
3 ... we glance over the 4th and rest
on the major 3rd.
the 4th leads to a more
neutral, stable tone in the scale. Try not to dwell on or emphasise
that 4th over the major chord. Try also to avoid using it as a "landing
note" or target note over that root major chord, because it sounds too unresolved
Of course, when the chord changes
away from the root major chord, the 4th may play a more harmonious
role, but we'll look at soloing over chord changes another
The 2nd and 6th
The major 2nd and major 6th intervals can also be used to
color the basic major triad or major 7th chord. Both the
2nd and 6th of the scale can be held comfortably over a major chord
dissonance. Again, see if you can find some major chord voicings within
the scale patterns that use the 2nd and 6th. Some examples would be:
5 6 - added 6th chord 1 3
5 9 - added 9th chord (the
9th is technically the same as the 2nd, just an octave higher) 1 3
5 7 9 -
major 9th chord 1 3
5 7 13 -
major 6th/13th chord (the 13th is the same as the 6th, just
an octave higher)
Major scale chord tracks
a play around with the major scale over the below chord tracks. Don't
worry about playing anything too elaborate at the moment. We just want
to explore the scale's tones and hear how they color the major chord.
This is a good initial ear training exercise, and it'll help you get
those patterns under your fingers.
The first is C major, so you'll want to play the patterns from earlier
at the following frets, with the root on C...