Learning and practicing scales is one of the most discussed aspects of learning an instrument.
It might not be as enticing as learning some hip licks or transcribing your favorite solos, but there’s no denying that any musician should invest a good amount of time on them.
Interiorizing scales and building muscle memory with them will pay off big time later on, so even if it might seem a bit boring at first, stick with it and in the future you will be thankful that you did!
This article will cover the C Major scale, its fingerings on the guitar, and the most important aspects of it. It is a great scale to master first, since there are no accidentals (sharps or flats). After this the G Major scale is quite quick to learn as there is only one note difference.
The C Major Scale: Notes and its Relative Minor Scale
The C Major scale is typically the first scale that most people learn, and the reason for that is very simple. It has no accidentals (no sharps or flats).
To put it more visually, if you were to play it on a keyboard, you would only play white keys, as the black ones correspond to the sharps and flats.
Taking this into account, we have the following notes:
- C, D, E, F, G, A, B.
Having all natural notes makes it much easier for someone to practice reading notated music, and also less tricky to find them on a keyboard or a guitar.
The C Major scale is not the only one that only has natural notes though. In music, there is a concept that we call “relative scales”.
For each major scale, there is a relative minor scale, and vice versa. It simply means that there is another scale which uses the exact same notes, only with a different tonal center.
In this case, the relative minor scale of C Major is A minor.
This means that A minor uses the same notes as C Major, but the tonal center is the note A.
This gives us the following scale:
- A, B, C, D, E, F, G.
If you are working with a major scale, its relative minor will be one major sixth above it (9 semitones), or one minor third below it (3 semitones).
C Major Fretboard Diagram
The diagram below is a visual representation of where you can find the notes that belong to the C Major scale on your guitar’s fretboard.
It goes up to the 12th fret, and after that, it just repeats the same pattern all over again.
Try to memorize where the C is on every string, as this will be your starting point when you practice this scale.
Later on, it is excellent if you decide to practice the scale starting from a different note as well!
There are multiple ways to start memorizing the fretboard, and practicing scales is a great one. With the diagram above, you could:
- Play the scale on one string only;
- Restrict yourself to a specific region of the fretboard and find the notes of C Major in it;
- Find the chord shapes that are connected to the scale fingerings throughout the neck;
- Learn the notes by finding their nearby octaves and other important intervals (thirds, fifths, sevenths).
C Major in TABs and Standard Notation
The tabs you’ll find below will give you a few ideas on how you can practice the C Major scale on your guitar.
These are not the only ways to play the scale – there are much more fingerings, patterns, and ways to combine them, allowing you to navigate the fretboard whichever way is most useful depending on the context.
This example uses some of the open strings, it is lowest region on the neck where you can play the C Major scale (frets 0 – 3).
Try to play it ascending and descending, so you can get used to the shape you need to play when you’re going towards a lower note!
This shape is immediately next to the first one. They even share some of the same notes, such as the C you have on the 3rd fret of the A string.
This example allows you to quickly cover two octaves of the C Major scale, and it is played between frets 4 – 8 on the guitar’s neck.
This is a great region to develop a good fretboard awareness!
Much like the previous example, you can play through two octaves of the C Major scale by following the pattern notated above.
This fingering is in the last fretboard region there is before it repeats itself all over again (after fret 12). Some of these notes also appeared on the last example.
See if you can connect all of these fingerings slowly as you’re studying this scale, and apply the same concept to other scales, chords and arpeggios you learn in the future.
That will help you visualize the neck of the guitar much better!
C Major “Scale Enclosures”
There are several ways to divide the guitar’s neck in order to make it easier on musicians to memorize arpeggios, scales and other concepts in different regions of the fretboard.
The diagrams shown below illustrate one of those division methods. Instead of showing you the scale in a specific region, these will show you the location of ALL notes belonging to the C Major scale in that region.
Since you don’t necessarily start phrases with the note C all the time, and you might want to start on a lower or higher note, developing this kind of awareness is completely necessary if you want to be able to improvise fluently.
Important: each of the enclosures you’ll see below are directly connected to the scales/chords associated with the CAGED system, which you might have heard of already. This is a well-known method of mapping out the fretboard.
This region encompasses the open strings up until the third fret.
Notice that the first example that appears on the TABs of the previous section is also found in this section of the fretboard, but this one also shows the lower notes on the low E/A strings, and the higher notes on the B/high E strings.
This enclosure encompasses notes located from frets 2 to 6.
It is more correct to place your middle finger on the G or C notes on the 6th and 5th strings, and use your index finger to play the B, E and A notes on the second fret.
As you’re trying out these “boxes”, see if you can start connecting them to the previous example.
The third enclosure goes from fret 4 to fret 8.
The most correct way to play this set of notes would be to place your pinky finger on the low C on the 6th string, since this will automatically position your other fingers to play the rest of the notes in a comfortable way.
The fourth enclosure goes from the 7th fret to the 10th fret.
Place your middle finger on the C you’ll find on the 8th fret of the low E string to start playing this shape from the root note. That way, your index finger will play all the notes on the 7th fret, and your pinky will play the notes on the 10th fret.
The fifth enclosure goes from fret 9 to 13.
As you can tell, the notes on the 13th fret are the same as the ones that appear on the first fret of the first enclosure, and the ones on the 12th correspond to the open strings.
Try to connect all 6 of these slowly, and in time you’ll be much better at navigating the fretboard!
Chords in the key of C Major
If you harmonize the C Major scale, you will obtain the seven chords that make up its harmonic field.
In short, those are the chords that exist in the key of C Major, which you can use to create chord progressions in that key.
The diagrams below illustrate how you can play those chords on the guitar, but keep in mind that there are lots of other voicings available for them!
Play these chords in a sequence, listen to their different colors and how they relate to the individual notes of the major scale.
Afterwards, try playing some progressions with them, you might even stumble upon the chords of a song you already know!
Also, in order to make things a bit more interesting when you’re playing a chord progression, it is a great idea to cycle around a few different chord shapes of the same chord, just so that you aren’t stuck to the same voicing all the time.
With that in mind, after you are comfortable with the shapes shown above (some of them are the first chords that people usually learn), you can try to learn other voicings of those chords so you can spice up your comping game!
Songs that use the C Major Scale
As you have probably guessed by now, there are tons of songs written in the key of C Major, and consequently, that use its major scale as well.
However, just because a song is in C Major, it doesn’t mean that you cannot use other scales in certain moments, otherwise it might end up sounding a bit dull or repetitive. It is always great to use different resources when they are available to us.
For instance, if you’re playing a tune in C Major and the chord D7 shows up (this chord is not a part of C Major’s harmonic field), instead of playing in C all the time, the D Lydian Dominant scale is a great choice to give your solo some extra flavor!
Here are a few examples of songs that use the C Major scale:
- Leonard Cohen – Hallelujah
- The Beatles – Let it Be
- Carlos Santana – Oye Como Va
- Blue Öyster Cult – Don’t Fear the Reaper
- Bill Withers – Ain’t No Sunshine
- Oasis – Don’t Look Back In Anger
- Wilson Pickett – Mustang Sally
- The Rolling Stones – Angie
- Kansas – Dust in the Wind
- Led Zeppelin – D’yer Mak’er
Remember that since C Major is the relative major scale of A minor, these two share the same notes.
Some examples of this list (such as “Ain’t No Sunshine”) actually use the A minor scale because of the key of the song!
The C Major scale is probably the most important scale to master as you’re starting to study your instrument. This is due to the lack of sharps or flats, which makes it the easiest to read and play from sheet music.
It is also the most used scale for demonstrating other music theory concepts, such as the Greek modes (ionian, dorian, phrygian, etc.). After you are comfortable with this scale, it is time to move on to another!