Major Scales on Guitar

So we’re starting our look at guitar scales with the major scales on guitar. Why? Because it’s the basis for most modern music theory! Sure, it started out life as the “Ionian Mode” (under an ancient Greek system of music theory), but it has moved on since then and turned into the famous scale that we know an (sometimes) love.

If you want to hear what this scale sounds like (in case you didn’t know already), just play the white notes of a keyboard from “C” to “C”, or failing that here is the pattern for the guitar:


e -------------------------------
B -------------------------------
G -----------------2--4--5-------
D --------2--3--5---------------
A --3--5-------------------------
E -------------------------------

Again, the example above is from “C” to “C” and contains the notes: C D E F G A B C. If you were to play it along one string, it would look like this:


A --3--5--7--8--10--12--14--15

Here you can see the pattern of intervals (or “distances between the notes”) that make up a major scale. You can start on any note in the world, and (if you follow this pattern) you’ll create a major scale. If we take a closer look at the distances (in frets) we have this:


A --3--5--7--8--10--12--14--15
----|+2|+2|+1|+2||+2||+2||+1|

Remember that pattern! Musically, a distance of two frets is a “tone”, and a distance of one fret is a “semi-tone” (half a “tone”). So, you could say that the pattern of intervals in a major scale is: tone, tone, semitone, tone, tone, tone, semitone. Sounds really “theoretical” huh? All it’s saying is that to find the notes of any major scale, follow the pattern of fret distances above.

Major Scale Fretboard Diagrams

Eventually, you’re going to want to play this scale all over the neck. Here, I’ve arranged the scales into what we call “three note per string” (or 3nps) form. As you may have guessed, this means that each string has three notes on it. It’s not the only way to visualise the scale, but it’s one way that works.

I’ve also colour-coded each note. The tonic is in red, the 2nd in black, the third in green, the fourth in yellow, the fifth in blue, the 6th in orange and the 7th in pink. Notice, also, how each of the 7 shapes starts on a different degree of the scale.

first shape of the three note per string major scale shape on guitar second shape of the 3nps major scale
fretboard diagram of the major scale starting from the third note fourth shape of the major scale on guitar
fifth shape of the major scale the sixth shape of the major scale diagram

seventh and final shape of the major scale on guitar starting from the 7th note

The Chords of C major

I have covered this in the post on harmonising a scale, but just in case you haven’t read it (I suggest you do if you want to understand where I get these chords from) the chords that fit a C major scale are:

C, Dm, Em, F, G, Am, Bdim

And we number these chords using Roman Numerals from the first to the 7th.
You’ll find charts for most of these chords on this site: major chords, minor chords and barre chords.

The diminished chord is just a minor chord with a ♭5 (i.e. the 5th moved down a semitone, or one fret). It looks like this:


e ------
B --3--
G --4--
D --3--
A --2--
E ------

Common Chord Progressions

Now, when writing out chord progressions, we write them showing the Roman Numeral of each chord- this way we can take the progression and easily apply it to any key. The capital letters (e.g. IV) mean major chords, and the small letters (e.g. vi) mean minor chords. For example, the most common chord sequence taken from this scale is the “V – I” (or 5 – 1), known as the “authentic cadence” (or sometimes referred to as the “perfect cadence”). In the key of C, this gives us the two chords “G major” and “C major”.

The V chord can also be replaced with a V7 (G7, giving you V7 – I), and the cadence is heard a lot in classical music to end a section or establish a key (because when you hear it, you know the second chord is “chord one”).

Other good chord progressions from this scale include (with these chords in the key of C in brackets):

  • ii – V – I (Dm – G – C)
  • IV – V – I (F – G – C)
  • I – IV – V – I (C – F – G – C)
  • I – vi – IV – V (C – Am – F – G)
  • I – V – ii – IV (C – G – Dm – F)

…but there are literally hundreds of them! See if you can hear some in your favourite songs (hint, listen for the bass note of each chord, that’ll probably be the root note).

Major Scale Licks

I wouldn’t say this scale was the best in the world for awesome licks- it’s too cliché! What it is great for, though, is melodic playing (creating nice, flowing melodies over chord progressions) if you understand your target notes, or fast scale runs, such as:


e ----------------------------------------------
B ----------------------------------------------
G ----------------------------------------------
D -----------------------------------------9-10-
A ---------8-------8-10----8-10-12-8-10-12------
E -8-10-12---10-12------12----------------------

I’ve ended the above run on a C note, but you’ll have to change that depending on which chord you’re playing over (to a note in the chord- you can use your ear, if you like).

If you really want to get into playing lead guitar, my new book ‘Awesome Lead Guitar’ is out now. In it you’ll learn the most common scales and techniques that lead guitarists use with full scale diagrams and tabs!

Then, you can practise along with the 17 included full solo examples and backing tracks! Click here now for more.

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