When it comes to teaching the major scale on the guitar, there are five basic patterns. These patterns are the ones most of us generally learn first. In all honestly, they are the easiest to play, and to see and therefore memorize. These five patterns aren’t really well suited for any one technique but are for the most part generic. That is why most teachers and institutions favor them over others.
Teaching involves methods and systems and most methods, and teachers, base their student’s major scale studies around these patterns. But there is a danger in this system of teaching because what a student comes to believe is that these five basic patterns are the only way to play these scales. In truth, these five patterns are really just paradigms. A paradigm is like a map, but maps are not the terrain, only one representation of it. There are other ways to see the terrain. So when we teach our students the five standard patterns, we run the risk of forcing them to believe that they are the best ones or the only ones.
The reality is that the more ways you can play your scales, the better you will become at using the entire range of your neck. What if I asked you to come up with 20 ways to play a C major scale? What could you come up with? I think the five pattern paradigm is fine for beginners, but I also think that I owe my students the simple advice that there comes a time when they need to unlearn them as well. A good way to unlearn patterns is to learn new ones. After a while, all the patterns you know will overlap and you will simply be able to visualize the whole scale all over the neck, from the lowest to the highest point on your neck.
Let me start by asking you to learn the five standard patterns below. I wouldn’t rush to the other patterns until you are completely confident that you can play the standard ones first. If you don’t know these patterns now, just bookmark this page and come back to it in six months or a year. There are plenty of lessons on my site that deal exclusively with the standard five.
Here are the five basic patterns. The root note of the scale is represented by the black circles:
How to practice the patterns in this lesson:
I’m going to base all of my ideas off of the 6th string root for the key of C. The standard pattern for this root note on this string is called pattern 4 as it is the 4th pattern of the major scale from the open position C major scale.
This is what you should do to make the most of this lesson:
- Memorize one pattern at a time.
- Practice the pattern to a C major chord progression or over a one chord modal vamp like Dmin7 or Fmaj7 for example.
- Figure out the other patterns using the same concept.
- Move on to other keys.
Standard Major Scale Pattern (4)
As my name suggests, this pattern is a common pattern. It is easy to play because there are no big stretches involved. There are three notes played on five of the strings (6, 5, 4, 3 and 1) and two notes played on one string (the 2nd string). There are no real disadvantages to the pattern other than being the standard pattern, meaning that most guitarists use the pattern exclusively.
2-Note Per String Major Scale Pattern
Using the same root, you could play a pattern made exclusively of two notes per string. This pattern is very uncommon, which is a good thing. The pattern lends itself to very uncommon phrasing. It is interesting to imagine that the standard pentatonic scale patterns are all two note per string patterns. Unlike the standard patterns above, you will find that using this strategy, you can make seven different patterns rather than five. The disadvantage of these 2-note per string patterns is that you can’t get two full octaves. But by forcing yourself to use them you will find that play lines that would be very unnatural to play utilizing the standard patterns:
3-Note Per String Major Scale Pattern
The 3-note per string pattern is very common and there are some guitarists who might even tell you that these are the standard patterns. The advantage of these patterns is that having three notes per string, they lend themselves well to players who utilize economy picking. Pick the scale from the lowest note to the highest using a down-up-down, down-up-down picking pattern and you will see what I mean. The 3-note per string patterns also lend them selves well to legato type picking. You can practice legato easily with these patterns by simply using different combinations of the three notes. For example, picking each string only once and using hammer-ons and pull-offs, start by playing the 1st, 3rd and 2nd note (your index, pinky and middle finger) on the 6th string. Play the same thing on every consecutive string.
Next play a 3-1-2 combination (pinky, index and middle finger). How many combinations of three can you make? 1-2-3, 1-3-2, 2-1-3, 2-3-1, 3-2-1, 3-1-2, etc. The disadvantage is that the pattern having the same amount of notes on each string, you run the risk of playing continuous repeating patterns, which could become repetitive:
4-Note Per String Major Scale Pattern
The 4-note per string pattern is more difficult to use and visualize but I have seen it used exclusively by certain maniac guitarists. You can try playing the scale using all four fingers on your left hand. You can also slide somewhere in the scale which is what I do. For example, play the C note on the 6th string with your index finger and slide it up to the 10th fret. Play the next two notes with your 3rd and 4th finger before moving on the 5th string. Or you could play the first three notes and slide your pinky up for the last note. The advantage of using this pattern is that you can cover three octaves. The disadvantage is that the 4-note per string patterns somewhat difficult to memorize:
Open-String Hybrid Major Scale
I think this is a great pattern because it takes advantage of the design of the guitar. I’ve included the tab for the pattern below because the diagram by itself is confusing. But basically the rule for this pattern is that you have to use an open string when you can. For example the D note that is usually played in major scale pattern 4 on the 10th fret 6th string gets replaced with the open 4th string.
Now some of you might be asking why would you want to make it so difficult? The answer is because letting the notes ring together creates an interesting effect that only the guitar can do. Country guitarists have been using this technique forever. The disadvantage of this pattern is that unlike the other patterns it doesn’t repeat and obviously this concept will only work in keys that have at least some of the open string notes (E-A-D-G-B):
The Ultimate Scale Pattern
At some point in time, you will hopefully be able to see the whole scale as one big pattern. There are ways to practice this as well. Force yourself to play up and down the neck using only certain sets of strings. For example improvise over a C major chord progression using only the 2nd and 3rd string: