The Major Scale
Now we’ll get into the grand-daddy of music theory, the major scale.
The major scale is important to theory, because it’s the yardstick by which we measure all other scales… when I’ve said that the minor pentatonic is 1-b3-4-5-b7, I’ve meant that those are the pitches compared to the major scale.
To understand the structure of the major scale, we first need to look at the spacing between the letter names. Not all letter names are the same distance apart. The letters B and C are just one fret apart, and the letters E and F are one fret apart – all the other letters are separated by two frets. That leaves one fret in between the other letters… a fret between A and B, C and D, D and E, F and G, and one between G and A.
We can think of an ‘in between’ fret as a letter name that has been inflected, or changed a little bit. The Second fret of the first string can be thought of as a little bit higher than F (F-sharp, or F#), but it can also be seen as a little bit lower than G (G-flat, or Gb). As a result, each of these in-between pitches have two names.
The two names are called “enharmonic”, which means they’re written differently, but they sound the same. Some guitarists will tell you this means the names are interchangeable, but they’re not.
The major scale is our first diatonic (through-the-tones, or seven note) major scale. That means it’s going to have exactly one of each letter name.
To illustrate that, I’ll use the A major scale. We’ll need one of each letter name: A, B, C, D, E, F, and G.
The pattern of the major scale is whole step (two frets), whole step, half step (one fret), whole step, whole step, whole step, and half step. So if we started on the open fifth string, we’d get this:
---------------------- ---------------------- ---------------------- ---------------------- -0-2-4-5-7-9-11-12 ----------------------
The open string is A, and two frets above it will be B. Our next scale pitch is two frets higher than that – on one of the ‘in between’ notes… it’s either C# or Db. The pitch after that falls one fret higher, on D.
If we call the scale note Db, we’ll end up with TWO D notes (one flat, one ‘natural’, or unchanged). Because our major scale is diatonic, we MUST call this note C# in the context of the scale.
After D, we go up two frets to E, and then we have to go up two frets again – to the pitch between F and G. Since we haven’t used the letter F yet, this note must be F#. Two frets higher than that must be G#, because we’ve already used A as our starting point.
That means our A major scale spelling will be A-B-C#-D-E-F#-G#-A. When we’re looking at any scale or chord with an A root, that’s our yardstick for comparison: anything containing C natural will have a b3 – which means it will be ‘minor’.
The next thing to realize about our major scale is that we’ll have to play three notes on most of the strings because of the way the notes are spaced. Unlike the simple pentatonic scales, this means we’ll have a LOT more fingering choices!
Only two fingerings will put all the major scale notes underneath your fingers. One is the major scale with the root on the 6th string under your 2nd finger – here’s the C major scale in that fingering:
-7- 8-(10)- -8-10- -7-9-10- -7-9-10- -7-8-10- -(7)-8-10-
The notes I’ve marked in parenthesis lie above or below the scale root – they’re part of the scale, but they’re not part of a complete octave in this fingering. That means when you’re using the scale to improvise, these notes are available… but when you’re practicing the scale, you want to start and end with a C note; otherwise it won’t sound like C major, and you want to get your ears used to the sound of the notes in relation to ‘home base’. That’s going to be important later on when we look at the modes of the major scale.
The other fingering that puts all the notes under your fingers starts with the root under your fourth finger on the 5th string. In C major, that’s in 12th position:
-(12)-(13)-(15)- -12-13-(15)- -12-14- -12-14-15- -(12)-(14)-15- -(12)-(13)-(15)-
Many other fingerings are possible, and there are variations of these fingerings. For example, if you start with the root under your fourth finger on the 6th string (in the key of C, that’s in fifth position) you’ll find you have to stretch for one note – in the key of C, there’s a B note that’s not right under your fingers. You can get it by stretching or shifting on the fourth string, like this:
-5-7-8- -5-6-8- -5-7- -5-7-9- -5-7-8- -(5)-(7)-8-
Or by stretching or shifting on the third string, like this:
-5-7-8- -5-6-8- -4-5-7- -5-7- -5-7-8- -(5)-(7)-8-
These choices actually create three different fingerings of the major scale in this position! In the first, you’ll hit the B by stretching your fourth finger to the 9th fret; in the second, you’ll stretch to reach the B on the 4th fret… and because you’re stretching, you’ll return to position by also playing the C with your first finger, playing the 3rd string notes with a 1-1-3 fingering… or you can shift to fourth position for the 3rd string, playing those notes with a 1-2-4 fingering, and returning to fifth position for the 2nd string notes.
Because we have so many choices, guitarists take one of two approaches to learn the major scale. Option 1 is to memorize just a few fingering patterns (typically four to six) that let you get all the major scale notes on the fretboard. Option 2 is to learn the spellings of the major scale in each key, and the name of each note on the fretboard. In my opinion, while option 1 is ‘faster’, option 2 is better for two reasons: first, because you won’t be locked into ‘box’ playing when you’re improvising you’ll be able to find easier fingerings for many passages; second, learning the spellings and note locations will be a great help when you’re dealing with other things, like complex chord structures.
On to some of the other useful fingerings – if you put the root under the second finger on the 5th string, you’ll reach for two notes, the fourth note of the scale on the 1st and 6th strings. In the key of C, you’ll be in second position:
-(1)-(3)-(5)- -(3)-(5)- -2-4-5- -2-3-5- -(2)-3-5- -(1)-(3)-(5)-
Scales can also be started with the first finger, and many guitarists use these for a reason I’ll get into shortly. With the root on the 6th string, our first note is on the 8th fret in C; you can think of this as eighth position or ninth – the difference is what notes your second finger plays. In 8th position, your second finger will get the 9th fret, and you’ll stretch for the 12th fret notes… in 9th position, your second finger will get the 10th fret, and it’s the first finger that’s doing the stretching. Here’s C major again:
-8-(10)-(12)- -8-10-12- -9-10- -9-10-12- -8-10-12- -8-10-12-
Just to add one more variation, the G note on the 8th fret of the second string is also found on the 12th fret of the 3rd string, so you could do this instead – if you’re keeping track, that means you have four possible ways to finger the scale in this position:
-8-(10)-(12)- -10-12- -9-10-12- -9-10-12- -8-10-12- -8-10-12-
Starting from a 5th string root, we can also do C major in 3rd position, which looks like this:
-(3)-(5)-(7)- -(3)-(5)-(6)- -4-5- -3-5-7- -3-5-7- -(3)-(5)-(7)-
Or like this:
-(3)-(5)-(7)- -(5)-(6)- -4-5-(7)- -3-5-7- -3-5-7- -(3)-(5)-(7)-
The reason these fingerings are widely used in spite of the stretching involved is because they start with a first finger root, and put three notes on almost every string. When you have three notes on a string, you can use economy picking – playing the first note down, the second one up, the third note down… and continuing the downstroke to the next string. If you’re going down the scale, you can reverse this, playing the highest note on each string with an upstroke.
Economy picking conserves motion, allowing you to play a bit faster. If we combine these scale forms with a shift of position on the second string, you can get a quick scale run that spans almost 2-1/2 octaves:
-10-12-13- -10-12-13- -9-10-12- -9-10-12- -8-10-12- -8-10-12-
There are even more possible fingerings – the ones that start with your third finger on a scale root. But as these require even more stretching, they’re seldom used. If you’ve got the inclination to try them (and I play them sometimes as finger stretching exercises), apply what you’ve learned so far to the fretboard.
Tom (“Noteboat”) Serb is a longtime Guitar Noise contributor and founder of the Midwest Music Academyin Plainfield, Illinois. This advice first appeared in Volume 4 # 17 of Guitar Noise News. Sign-up for our newsletter to receive more free tips like this by email.
More from Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Scales
- Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Scales – Part 1
- Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Scales – Part 2
- Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Scales – Part 3
- Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Scales – Part 5
- Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Scales – Part 6
- Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Scales – Part 7
- Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Scales – Part 8
- Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Scales – Part 9