A Complete Guide to the Major Scale for Guitarists

The major scale is one of the most important and fundamental concepts that any musician learns in the beginning of their musical journey.

Aside from being one of the most used and abused scales in composition and improvisation, it is generally the scale that everyone uses when they want to explain a certain concept, such as the greek modes, how to build chords, arpeggios, and much more.

Most of the times, people go for the C Major scale for this purpose, because it is the simplest major scale there is. 

Since it does not have any accidentals (sharps or flats), it is the perfect “template” to use when discussing any other related topic.

This article is going to show you everything you should know about this scale in order to make the most out of it in any scenario you might encounter. 

Why learning scales is worth your time

There are many people who end up skipping scales early on, and go straight to learning their favorite songs, solos, riffs, licks, you name it.

While this is still a valid way of learning how to move around your instrument, acquiring vocabulary within the music genres you want to play and compose, it isn’t the most complete and foolproof method, and it should be complemented by a more systematic approach.

If you wish to really understand music and get to a point in which you can feel comfortable in virtually any scenario, you must comprehend music theory quite well, and you can’t achieve that without understanding the major scale.

Mastering this will be the foundation for many other concepts, such as chords, cadences, and much more.

Scales: A General Overview

What exactly is a scale anyway? 

A scale is nothing more than a set of notes that are ordered by pitch in a sequence. 

Most scales are composed by 7 musical notes, although there are a few exceptions.

When you’re playing through a scale, you play each note individually, which is the opposite of playing chords, where all the notes and intervals are supposed to be played simultaneously.

Scales can be played ascending or descending in pitch (going from lower to higher notes or from higher to lower notes).

You could say that each kind of scale has its “formula”. 

This means that each type follows a certain structure with the intervals that occur between its notes. This is how you can tell whether a scale is major, minor, diminished, or any other type of scale.

The Major Scale 

Like most of the other scales, the major scale is comprised of 7 musical notes. We’re going to take the C Major scale as an example, since it is the scale that most people start with. 

The C Major scale has the following set of notes:

  • C, D, E, F, G, A, B; C (octave of the first note)

This scale can be classified as a diatonic scale, as opposed to pentatonic scales, for examples. 

This designation tells us that the scale is formed by notes that are either a half step (one semitone) or a whole step (one whole tone) away from the last note, and that there aren’t any skipped notes (like for example in the pentatonic scale, in which two notes are removed from this set of 7 notes).

If you’re a guitarist, you should definitely memorize that a half step corresponds to moving to the fret above or below the one you’re playing, and that a whole step corresponds to moving two frets above or below where you are. 

This makes it easier on you sometimes, since you don’t always have to think about the note you’re playing and the one you’re targeting – many times you can simply think of intervallic distances like this.

The Formula for the Major Scale

Regardless of the key you’re playing in, the major scale is always going to follow the same intervallic structure, or formula. 

Seeing things through this perspective can be amazingly useful as it saves you a lot of time in moments in which you might have to think very fast, such as when you’re improvising over a tune with many changes.

The formula for the major scale (in whole steps and half steps) is the following:

  • Whole Step – Whole Step – Half Step – Whole Step – Whole Step – Whole Step – Half Step

To simplify it, you can also abbreviate and write it this way:

  • W – W – H – W – W – W – H

Let’s see how this formula can be applied to the C Major scale, so you can comprehend it better: 

Once again, we have the notes C, D, E, F, G, A, B.

  • From C to D, there’s a whole step;
  • From D to E, there’s a whole step;
  • From E to F, there’s a half step;
  • From F to G, there’s a whole step;
  • From G to A, there’s a whole step;
  • From A to B, there’s a whole step;
  • From B to C (the first note of the next octave), there’s a half step

If you look at this with a keyboard next to you, you can easily tell where these half step intervals are. They’re the white keys that do not have a black key in between them. 

In this case, those occur between E – F and B – C, or between the 3rd – 4th and the 7th – 1st degrees. 

Here’s a visual representation below:

Here is the C major scale represented on a guitar’s fretboard, so you can get a better idea of how it looks outside of the keyboard:

This is the C Major scale played only on the 5th string. You probably wouldn’t play it like this in most scenarios, but this way illustrates the “formula” of whole and half steps much better.

Remember: moving up one fret means you’re increasing in pitch by one semitone, and moving up two frets means you’re increasing by one whole tone.

Now, here is the same diagram, but instead of showing you the note names, it shows you the intervals of each one compared to the root note (C).

Here’s what these numbers represent:

Number12345678
Type of IntervalUnisonMajor SecondMajor ThirdPerfect FourthPerfect FifthMajor SixthMajor SeventhOctave
Number of Semitones
0

2

4

5

7

9

11

12

If you want to build the major scale of any other key (D, Eb, E, etc.), by following this formula, you can’t get it wrong. 

You just need to make sure that the whole step and half step intervals are located in the correct places (3rd to 4th degree, and 7th to 1st).

This concept is what makes playing scales on the guitar relatively easier than playing them in a keyboard, for example. 

The reason for this is that by knowing that the relationship of each degree (notes of the scale) is the same regardless of the key, you can identify patterns and shapes that always repeat themselves, changing only the place where you start playing those patterns.

After memorizing the major scale in all positions in the guitar’s neck, you can just target another note, and move that shape elsewhere to play another major scale, changing nothing more than your starting point.

Major Scale Positions in the Guitar’s Fretboard

Just like it was described before, the guitar’s fretboard can be divided in different sections, and several patterns and fingerings can be identified and memorized. 

This gives you a complete arsenal of “boxes” or “enclosures” that you can use to find and play scales a lot easier than you would if you had to think of all of the notes and intervals individually.

There are a few ways of mapping out the guitar’s fretboard, and while there isn’t one that is absolutely better than the others, you should probably try them out and see which one works best for you. 

Ultimately, knowing a little bit of each method can make you a more complete musician than focusing exclusively on one, as each strategy has its limitations.

CAGED System

To show you how the CAGED system works, we’re going to use the C Major scale as an example. 

However, keep in mind that the important detail here is keeping track of your root note, since the catch is being able to move these shapes around and targeting the root note of the scale you wish to play.

The name “CAGED” comes from the open chord shapes that correspond to the “enclosures” or “boxes” in which you divide the fretboard (C, A, G, E and D played with open strings).

Position 1

The first position is based on the C Major chord, played on the open strings as the following diagram demonstrates:

The next diagram illustrates the position of all the notes that belong to the C Major scale that exist within this fretboard region:

Now, here’s the same notes, but with the scale degrees instead of the note names:

The tab that you’ll find below shows you how to play all of the notes in this enclosure.

Notice that it doesn’t start on the C – you don’t necessarily need to start all of your ideas with the root note, and it is great to be aware of where the rest of the notes are inside of whichever box you’re in.

This tab shows you how to play this shape both ascending and descending, you should always practice it both ways in order to be comfortable regardless of the direction you’re following.

It is also recommended to start practicing these patterns very slowly (start at 60bpm, one note per beat).

What matters the most is that you interiorize the location of each note, knowing what intervals are involved, and developing muscle memory slowly.

Once you’re comfortable with 60bpm, start increasing little by little (increments of 10bpm at a time).

Position 2

The second position of the C Major scale on the guitar is based on the A Major open chord shape, as illustrated in the following diagram:

The following diagram illustrates the fretboard region where you can find the “box” that corresponds to this A Major shape, but transposed to C Major.

This corresponds to the frets between the 2nd and 6th fret. 

Once again, you’ll notice that this enclosure starts on the note G, which is the fifth of C Major. 

You can start to play this shape on the 5th fret and start on the root note, but once again, it is good to be aware of where all the notes are when improvising.

The tab below shows you how you should practice this enclosure, ascending and descending.

Use the same method to practice this – start slowly, build up your muscle memory, and increase the tempo as you start to interiorize this shape.

Position 3

The third position of the C Major scale is based on the G Major open chord shape, just like you see in the diagram shown below:

When transposed to C Major, this shape is going to be located between the 4th and 8th frets.

Here is the location of each note within this enclosure:

Notice that you’ve got the root note in the 6th string. You can start playing this shape with your pinky on the C, or you can start either on the A or on the B that are immediately behind it.

The tab below will show you how to play through this enclosure:

Position 4

The fourth position is based on the E Major open chord shape, as shown below.

When transposed to C Major, this enclosure will be located between the 7th and 10th frets.

Here is the fretboard diagram illustrating the region where you’ll find this enclosure:

Once again, you have your root note in the 6th string, and you can take advantage of the B (Major 7th) on the fret directly behind it to play a chromatic approach into the scale, which sounds great in improvisation too.

The tab below shows you how to practice this enclosure. 

Remember to try moving it around the fretboard, targeting a different root note, so you can practice what this system is really all about – being able to move comfortably around the fretboard, regardless of the key.

Position 5

The fifth and last position of the C Major scale is based on the D Major open chord shape, which you can see in the diagram below:

After transposing this shape to C Major, you’ll find this enclosure between the 9th and 13th frets. Here’s the diagram showing you the location of every note in this region.

You’ll notice that this enclosure already steps a little past the 12th fret – this is one of the points of connection between enclosures, as you can easily connect it to the first example we’ve seen (C Major shape).

Your first root note appears only on the 4th string, but as always, it pays off to learn the remaining strings and being aware of the intervals that are present there.

Here is the last tab, to help you practice this box.

As always, try to practice these shapes individually, and then, try to connect them to one another, so you can start getting more comfortable moving around the neck in a way that makes sense.

Don’t rush these – the important thing is to memorize where each note and shape can be found, not to play them as fast as possible right away.

Connecting the Enclosures

Don’t forget that the main objective of learning scale patterns and fingerings is being able to move freely around the fretboard, and connecting the different enclosures seamlessly.

If you can only play these enclosures separately, you’re going to be limiting yourself immensely without the need to do so.

Here is a visual representation of how you can connect the different enclosures that you have just seen (III, V, VII, IX and XII refer to fret numbers):

Connecting the different CAGED shapes can be done in a variety of ways, such as slides, shifting your hand, combining two distinct enclosures, and more. 

Focus on mastering all the individual boxes first, and being able to start playing a random enclosure in a random key, which is part of the main objective of mapping out the fretboard this way!

Conclusion

To wrap it up, you must know that a scale is a sequence of notes that are organized by pitch and played individually, unlike chords. 

There are several types of scales, most with 7 notes, but there are exceptions, such as the pentatonic scale or the diminished scale (5 and 8 notes, respectively).

The major scale follows the same formula regardless of the key you’re playing in, and it is based on the intervals between each note of the scale.

You can describe it as “W – W – H – W – W – W – H”, in which W and H correspond to whole step and half step, respectively.

There are a lot of other more advanced musical concepts that sprout from the major scale itself, which makes it a must-know for any musician. Invest some time in mastering it and you will definitely not regret it later on!

Andrew Bell

I don't think I'll ever stick to one instrument - but the great thing about life is you don't have to.

Andrew Bell has 90 posts and counting. See all posts by Andrew Bell