The major scale is one of the most important concepts for any guitarist. It’s the foundation on which all other scales and chords are built, and it’s one of your main tools for becoming a competent solo player and overall musician.
Like many new guitar players, I had zero interest in learning the major scale, let alone any scale. I had WAY more interest in learning popular songs, cranking the distortion on my amp to the max, and churning out guitar licks.
Once you grasp the concepts of the root note, major scale pattern, scale shapes, whole step, half step… yada yada yada, the gates to musical freedom open before your very eyes.
And that’s when playing the guitar becomes REALLY fun!
So, follow along as I explain the theory behind the major scale, the best ways to practice it on the guitar, and some tricks to help you memorize how to play the major scale in all 12 keys.
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Understanding the Major Scale Formula
Let’s start things off by talking about the major scale formula because it’s an important concept.
The major scale is made up of seven notes, plus the octave, making it an 8-note scale. Using the formula, you can count up to eight notes on the guitar following from any given note to play a major scale.
For example, let’s say we start on the 6th string, 5th fret — which is an A note. If we counted eight notes from there, we would have the following: A – B – C# – D – E – F# – G# – A (octave). This particular pattern of notes forms an A major scale.
If you’re wondering when to use a sharp or a flat, you’re on the right path.
This formula, also known as the major scale pattern, is a consistent combination of whole and half notes.
A quick music theory lesson: The musical scale is made up of 12 notes: C, C# (Db), D, D# (Eb), E, F, F# (Gb), G, G# (Ab), A, A# (Bb), B, C (octave). This scale (known as the chromatic scale) goes up by half-steps. It’s a half step between C and C# and a half step between E and F. It’s a whole step between C and D and G and A.
Regardless of the root note (the first note in the scale or the key of the scale), the major scale pattern is a combination of whole notes and half notes that looks like this:
Root — Whole — Whole — Half — Whole — Whole — Whole — Half (root one octave higher)
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Major Scale Steps on Guitar
Visualizing the major scale pattern’s whole and half steps is relatively easy on the guitar because each fret is a half step and every two frets is a whole step.
So, if you’re playing a major scale on one string, you can play the root note and then move up by two frets for the following two notes, then one fret for the fourth note, and two frets for the fifth, sixth, and seventh notes, and then one fret to reach the octave.
While I think it’s important to practice playing major scales in all 12 keys on an individual string, you can play the scales significantly faster by using all six strings and practicing established scale patterns.
Because the guitar is such a great instrument to visualize that whole-step-half-step pattern, some systems have been created to make learning major scales easier. But before we delve into one of those systems, let’s talk about one of the most important theoretical concepts you can learn: intervals.
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Major Scale Intervals
An interval is defined as the distance between two major scale notes — or between two notes of any musical scale, for that matter.
Here is a breakdown of the intervals for the G major scale:
- Unison (R): G
- Major 2nd (∆2): A (two half steps away from G)
- Major 3rd (∆3): B (four half steps away from G)
- Perfect 4th (p4): C (five half steps away)
- Perfect 5th (p5): D (seven half steps away)
- Major 6th (∆6): E (nine half steps away)
- Major 7th (∆7): F# (eleven half steps away)
- Octave (R): G (twelve half steps away)
An understanding of every interval in a major scale can help you immensely in your guitar journey.
For example, if you know the major 7th of a G major scale is the F#, you know that when you have to play a G major 7 chord, you’re going to include that dissonant F# next to the G. Or if you see a G add4 chord, you know that it needs to have a C, either in the bass or the treble.
The more you practice these major scales, the better you’ll understand their chordal relationship.
I recommend practicing major scales starting from the different intervals instead of always going root to root.
The CAGED System
Once you learn these five positions, you can move them around the fretboard to play any major scale in any key. Let’s take a look at them.
CAGED System Example
Let’s first use the CAGED system to visualize the C major scale on the fretboard. Remember: the C major scale is made up of seven notes: C — D — E — F — G — A — B — C.
Using the CAGED system, there are five positions (one for each letter of CAGED) that 1) create a C major chord and 2) serve as the roadmap for the scale.
Open Position (C Position)
The open position of the C major scale corresponds to the “C” in the CAGED system, as the two root notes of the scale in this position are actually the root notes of the open C major chord.
Form an open C chord and start practicing your scale beginning with the root note on the second string (B string). You will then play the open D on the third string, followed by E (second fret on third string), F (third fret on third string), open G on the fourth string, A (second fret on fourth string), open B on the fifth string, and C (first fret on the fifth string).
Practice fretting the scale with your fretboard hand in that open C chord position to make the most of it.
Here are the intervals of this position on the scale:
Position No. 2 (A Position)
The second position of the scale corresponds to the “A” in the CAGED system, as the two roots of the scale in this position correspond to the roots of the A-shaped, C-barre chord.
To create a C chord in the A position, you need to bar the third fret with your index finger and then use your three other fingers to create an open A chord above that fret, which at that part of the guitar fretboard creates a C chord.
Like the open position, run through, starting with the root.
Here are the intervals of this position relative to the root of the scale:
Position No. 3 (G Position)
The third position corresponds to the G in the system, as the roots of the scale mimic a G chord — just above halfway up the fretboard, though.
This shape is more difficult to form, but is a great position to practice to learn the middle of the fretboard.
Here’s the G position with intervals:
Position No. 4 (E Position)
The fourth position corresponds to the E in the system, which is actually the most common barre chord to play. You will create a C barre chord across the eighth fret.
Position No. 5 (D Position)
The fifth and final position corresponds to the D in the system. You will create the shape of an open D chord at the 10th fret. Remember, the 12th fret is one octave higher than your open strings. So, it makes sense that an open D chord on the higher octave that’s shaped two frets below the 12th fret and, therefore, two steps below D, creates a C chord.
Here is the D position with intervals:
Now that you have a better idea of the CAGED system, run it through these two other keys:
A Major Scale
To play an A major scale using this pattern, you would start with an A-shaped open position. Position No. 2 would be G-shaped, position No. 3 would be E-shaped, position No. 4 would be D-shaped, and position No. 5 would be C-shaped. The next position would be identical to the open position but one octave higher.
G Major Scale
To play a G major scale, you would start with a G-shaped open position. Position No. 2 would be E-shaped, Position No. 3 would be the D-shaped; Position No. 4 would be the C-shaped, and Position No. 5 would be the A-shaped.
Major Scale Patterns
The beauty of systems like the CAGED system is that you can start from any position on the guitar and complete the major scale.
This video by Justin Guitar is a very basic introduction to practicing the major scale with a metronome.
You can use the exercises explained in Justin’s video to practice all of the major scale positions, allowing you to truly master the digitation of each one of the major scale patterns and gain a deeper knowledge of the entire fretboard.
Single Octave Patterns
It’s important to practice all patterns of the major scale across all octaves on the fretboard. Doing so helps you better understand how the notes on the guitar fretboard relate to each other.
While the CAGED patterns above are single- and two-octave patterns, it’s also useful to know how to break them down into single-octave patterns.
Sticking to the C major scale as an example, let’s see what the single-octave patterns look like on the guitar’s neck.
Starting From The 6th Sring
Starting From The 5th Sring
Starting From The 4th String
Starting From The 3rd String
After practicing single-octave patterns, add a second octave to really get those fingers flying.
A two-octave pattern can actually be played within the first few frets of the fretboard, going from the lowest root note on the low E string in the open position, for example, to an E that’s two octaves above it.
Here’s a video showing other basic major-scale two-octave patterns playing three notes per string:
Three Octave Patterns
As always, after conquering two-octave patterns, learning three-octave patterns is the next logical step in your journey as a musician. Not only will this help with finger dexterity, but it will also better educate you on the fretboard.
Check out this video from Berklee College of Music to learn a basic three-octave pattern exercise on the major scale using “mirror fingerings”:
Yes, these musical concepts help you learn this important scale, but by following the same pattern and similar scale positions, you’re also learning every note on every fret, which unlocks loads of possibilities when learning guitar, especially if you find yourself reading sheet music or mimicking your favorite guitar solos. You’ll understand key signature, note names, and so much more.
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How Major Guitar Scales Are Related to Chords
Chords are simply two or more notes played together. And the major scale is the foundation of almost all chords used in Western music.
The most common type is a triad: three notes played together. There are ten triads in every major scale:
- 1st, 4th, and 5th scale degrees = Major Chord: C E G (C chord)
- 2nd, 3rd, and 6th scale degrees = Minor Chord: D F A (Dm chord)
- 7th scale degree = Diminished Chord: B D F (Bdim chord)
- 1st, 3rd, #5th = Augmented Triad Chord: C E G# (C#5)
There is no chord built on the 8th (octave) scale degree because it’s just a repeat of the root note.
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Major Scale FAQs
Let’s now answer a few of the questions that you’re most probably asking yourself after learning about the major scale.
Should I memorize all the major scales?
You don’t need to technically memorize the exact notes of all 12 major scales. Instead, memorize the patterns and systems like CAGED that make up the major scale. If you do that, you can play any given scale without even thinking about the complexity of keys like F# or Ab.
That being said, many of our favorite songs are in common keys, like C, F, A, and G major, so start practicing your major scales in those keys before moving to more complex keys.
Why does the major scale sound good?
The major scale, which is used to write most popular songs today, is considered the “happy” sounding scale, as opposed to the minor scale, which has a more melancholy sound. There’s a sense of completion when you run a major scale, which is often associated with something sounding “good.”
How do you practice the major scale on the guitar?
One of the best ways to practice playing the major scale on guitar is by using a metronome and starting with a slow tempo. I recommend using an online metronome (like this one) or a metronome app on your phone so that you can easily adjust the speed as you need to.
Start by setting the metronome to 60 beats per minute (BPM) and play each note in the scale on one string up and down in time with the click. As you get comfortable, gradually increase the tempo until you’re playing at a speed that’s challenging but manageable.
Once you can play scales comfortably at a fast tempo, start practicing them in different positions on the fretboard, as outlined in this article.
If you’re struggling to learn this most important scale, try to play through an online guitar lesson, which offers multiple step-by-step approaches.
What’s the difference between a major and minor scale?
There are three main differences between a minor and major scale:
- The minor scale has a flattened third, sixth, and seventh note. So, if we’re talking about a C minor scale, the third would be an E flat, the sixth would be an A flat, and the seventh would be a B flat.
- The minor scale has a more somber sound than the major scale.
How do you remember major scales?
The best way to learn scales is to practice and visualize the scale patterns and systems, like the CAGED system.
As we mentioned earlier, the major scale is a consistent combination of whole notes and half notes, so if you can focus on that pattern, you can confidently play major guitar scales in any key.
Why does the major scale pattern have so many notes on guitar?
A major scale only has eight notes. The eighth note is actually the same note as the root but one octave higher. It only seems like there are a lot of notes in the pattern because you can run several octaves of a major scale from the lowest string to the highest.