How to Play the C Major Scale on Guitar

When you finally decide it’s time to start practicing major scales, chances are pretty good that you will begin with the C major scale.

That’s because it’s typically identified as the easiest of the major scales, and many popular songs are written in the C major scale.

I always start my major scale practice on the scale of C before expanding to other keys.

So, I will use this article to teach you how to play the C major scale and understand each note of the scale on the fretboard

What Is The C Major Scale On Guitar?

It is one of the most important guitar scales. It is used across all genres, including blues, rock, and jazz.

As mentioned, the C scale is the easiest of all scales because it doesn’t include flat or sharp notes. If you look at the scale on a piano, it only consists of the white keys — no black keys.

It’s typically one of the first major scales people learn when they start to play guitar because the C chord is one of the first chords you learn.

Notes of the C Major Scale

This scale consists of the following notes: C (root note), D, E, F, G, A, B, and C (one octave higher).

Notes of the C major scale on the 5th string of a guitar.

As you study your scales, you’ll learn alternative scales to C major that use the same notes.

The relative scale of the C major scale, for example, is A minor. An A minor scale runs A, B, C, D, E, F, G, and A (octave). You likely noticed those are the same notes as C major, but with the A as the root.

C major’s dominant key is G major, and its subdominant is F major.

When you practice the C major scale, make sure to play it with different root notes.

Intervals of the C Major Scale

One way to understand and grasp the C major is to think of it in intervals.

The C is the scale’s root note, and each of the other notes is located a number of half steps away from it. Depending on how many half steps, each note is separated from the root by a particular interval:

  • Root (R): C
  • Major 2nd (∆2): D
  • Major 3rd (∆3): E
  • Perfect 4th (p4): F
  • Perfect 5th (p5): G
  • Major 6th (∆6): A
  • Major 7th (∆7): B

Practicing the scale with these in mind can also help you shape more complicated chords, like Cmaj7 (there’s a B in that chord!), or Cadd4 (there’s an F in this chord!).

Intervals of the C major scale on the 5th string of a guitar.

The C Major Scale: How to Play It On Guitar

Let’s dive into how to finger and play this fundamental scale on the guitar neck.

Most players simply learn how to play the scale using a combination of fretted and open strings at the bottom of the fretboard.

Unfortunately, if that’s all you learn, your skills will be confined to that part of the guitar. That’s why learning the scale across the entire fretboard.

Let’s review how to play the C major scale positions across the ENTIRE fretboard.

C Major Scale Positions On Guitar

Like all major scales on guitar, there are five positions of playing you should learn. This is known as the CAGED system.

Open Position (C Position)

The open scale position corresponds to the “C” of the “CAGED” acronym — the first position. This is because the two root notes of the scale in this position are actually the root notes of the open C major chord.

Start by shaping an open C chord and then running the scale from the root on the third fret of the 5th string up to the first fret of the 2nd string. You won’t play on the low E string (6th string). In this position, you’ll play two open strings — the G (third string) and the B (2nd string).

Guitar fingering of the C position of the C major scale.

Remember, the fingerings shown here are only suggestions. For the open position, many people prefer the middle finger instead of the ring finger on the 2nd fret for the 5th, 4th, and 3rd strings. Or the index finger for the 2nd fret and the middle finger for the 3rd fret on the same two strings.

Here’s how the intervals of the open position look on the fretboard: 

Guitar intervals of the C position of the C major scale.

And here’s the tab for the open position:

Guitar tablature and standard notation of the C position of the C major scale.

Position No. 2 (A Position)

Scale position two of this scale is the A position. To create a C chord, you will shape an A chord barring the third fret of the 5th string. Use the diagram to understand how to run the scale and notice where the root note is located compared to the first position.

Guitar fingering of the A position of the C major scale.

Here are the intervals of the A position: 

Guitar intervals of the A position of the C major scale.

And here’s the tab for the A position:

Guitar tablature and standard notation of the A position of the C major scale.

Position No. 3 (G Position)

The third scale position is a G chord shaped over the eighth fret, with a bar on the fifth fret. This can be tricky to form, but running the scale, as shown in the diagram, can make it easier.

Guitar fingering of the G position of the C major scale.

Here’s the G position with intervals:

Guitar intervals of the G position of the C major scale.

And here’s the tab for the G position:

Guitar tablature and standard notation of the G position of the C major scale.

Position No. 4 (E Position)

The fourth position is a C-barre chord, which is pretty common. A standard bar chord forms an E chord while your index finger barres the root found on the sixth (or 1st) string.

Guitar fingering of the E position of the C major scale.

Here’s how the E position looks with intervals on the fretboard:

Guitar intervals of the E position of the C major scale.

And the tab:

Guitar tablature and standard notation of the E position of the C major scale.

Position No. 5 (D Position)

Finally, the fifth position is the D chord which, when shaped on the 12th fret, actually creates a C chord. It’s the best way to learn the scale high up on the fretboard.

Guitar fingering of the D position of the C major scale.

Here’s the D position with intervals:

Guitar intervals of the D position of the C major scale.

Tab:

Guitar tablature and standard notation of the D position of the C major scale.

All positions repeat themselves once you’re passed the 12th fret of your guitar.

C Major Scale Chords on Guitar

You can form several widely used chords using notes from the C scale, which is another reason so many beginner players learn this scale first.

C Major

A C major chord is made up of C, E, and G. That’s the first (root note), third, and fifth of the scale.

Common guitar fingerings of the C major chord

D Minor

A D minor chord is made up of D, F, and A. Again, that’s the first, third, and fifth of the D minor scale.

Common guitar fingerings of the D minor chord

E Minor

An E minor chord is made up of E, G, and B.

Common guitar fingerings of the E minor chord

F Major

An F major chord is made up of F, A, and C.

Common guitar fingerings of the F major chord

G Major

A G major chord is made up of G, B, and D.

Common guitar fingerings of the G major chord

A Minor

An A minor chord is made up of A, C, and E. This is also known as the relative minor of C major.

Common guitar fingerings of the A minor chord

B Diminished

Common guitar fingerings of the B diminished chord

A B diminished chord comprises B, D, and F. But it is usually played as a 7th chord. 

C Major Scale Exercises on Guitar

Sure, you can use our diagrams and read our insight into how to play, but following along with a video is often a better route. Andy Guitar does a great job at simplifying this scale.

This video is an excellent introduction to how to play the scale ascending and descending in all fretboard positions. The instructor doesn’t explicitly use the CAGED system to identify each position, but the result is the same in practice.

C Major Scale Songs on Guitar for Beginners

There are many popular songs you can learn using notes and relative chords found in the C major.

My favorites include:

Let it Be by The Beatles

Dreams by Fleetwood Mac

Don’t Look Back in Anger by Oasis

As you run through the C scale — C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C — you can probably mimic some melodies from a number of popular songs.

FAQ

Still have questions? Here are some of the most common:

What’s the root note of the C major scale?

The root note of the C major scale is a C. The root note is always the first note in any scale. It’s also the same note as the octave above it.

You may hear guitar instructors refer to a particular note as the “lowest root note,” which really means the lowest root note — in this case, the C — that you can play on a guitar. That’s typically found on the 6th string, but in the key of C, it is on the 5th. Of course, it could be lower if you own a 7-string guitar.

Why does the major scale system for guitar start on an E shape instead of a C shape?

There are a few reasons why this.

First, the E shape is easier to finger than the C shape, making it more suited for beginners.

Secondly, the E shape provides a better starting point for learning the scale, as it includes all of the notes in the scale within one root note on the 6th string, and one root note on the first string.

Finally, starting on an E shape gives the player a better sense of where they are on the fretboard, making it easier to navigate.

That said, not all major scale systems start with an E shape. As we saw in the previous sections of this article, with the CAGED system, a scale could begin at the lowest position of the guitar neck, be it in the C, A, G, E, or D position.

What is the key of C major?

This is simply another way of saying “C major scale.” It is a major scale starting on C.

Is C major the easiest key?

The C major is typically identified as the easiest scale because there are no sharps or flats in it. You get to run it C, D, E, F, G, A, B, and C — which is pretty easy. If you look at the scale on a piano, it would only use the white keys from root to root.

That being said, mastering all forms of a major scale — from C to F# — is equally as difficult (or easy!) once you master the different patterns.

What capo is key of C?

A capo alters the key of a song as long as you don’t change the chord shapes you’re using, but it doesn’t dictate the overall key of your guitar.

If you place a capo on the third fret of the guitar, for example, you can shape an open A chord to create a C chord. If the capo is on the third and you shape a C chord, you’re actually playing an Eb chord. If it’s on the fourth fret, you’re playing an E chord. That chord will go up by a half step with each single fret move up the fretboard.

Man playing a guitar with a capo

What does C major feel like?

C major is a happy and bright key and feels optimistic and hopeful. The melody is often playful and energetic, and the harmonies are typically simple and straightforward. This key is a good choice for upbeat, feel-good music.

What are the most famous C major scale guitar riffs?

There are several BIG-TIME songs that are in this key and, as a result, have riffs that use the C scale. Some of the most epic include:

La Bamba by Ritchie Valens

Use Somebody by Kings of Leon

I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man by Prince

What are the C major scale triads on guitar?

There are seven triads in the C major scale, beginning with a C major chord that’s made up of C-E-G. If you follow the scale on each of those notes, you will hit the following chords:

  • D minor: D-F-A
  • E minor: E-G-B
  • F major: F-A-C
  • G major: G-B-D
  • A minor: A-C-E
  • Bdiminshed: B-D-F  
A hand fretting a C open chord on a guitar neck
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