1 The Empowered Musician The Infinite Guitar
The Major Scale - Getting Started with Scales and Improvisation

Published December 10th, 2003. © Chris Juergensen/chrisjuergensen.com. All Rights Reserved.

This lesson has been revised and published in THE INFINITE GUITAR. Info >>>


The major scale - No matter what genre you're into, it is essential to get the major scale under your fingers. There are basically two reasons: first, all western harmony is born from it, Jazz, Rock, Classical, Pop, you name it, its harmony came from the simple major scale. And second, If you want to get your chops together, your going to have to work on your scale playing daily and the major scale is the best place to start. We guitarists tend to learn how to play the chords for songs we're into first and then somewhere down the road realize that we have no technique. It's because we tend not to work on our technique first. Most other musicians start off working on and practicing scales and arpeggios routinely before they get into playing actual music. So I'm assuming you are at the crossroads, you have a few tunes under your belt but have come to the conclusion that if you want to get your playing together, you're going to have to learn how to play and use some scales. Let's start with the standard C major scale.

 
What is the major scale anyways - As I mentioned before, it is the mother of western harmony. Even if you are not familiar with it, you know it but didn't know that you did. It is the Do-Re-Mi-Fa-Sol-La-Ti-Do scale. Like any other scale, it is based on an unchangeable series of half and whole steps (a half step equals one fret or note while a whole step equals two). The C major scale and its series of half and whole steps:
 
 
The first two notes C and D are two notes apart so it is considered a "whole step," the same for the second and third notes D and E. But the third and fourth notes E and F are only one note apart therefore considered a "half step." The order of "steps" will never change for the major scale (even if the key does). The order: W-W-H-W-W-W-H. If you remember the order of steps, you can construct a major scale starting on any note.
 
Other Keys - Try to write out the major scale in other keys. If you stick to the pattern of half and whole steps, you should be able to figure out all the major scales. Fill in the blanks and check the answers at the bottom:
 
C
D
E
F
G
A
B
C
G
A
B
C
D
E
F#
G
D
?
?
G
?
B
?
D
A
?
C#
?
?
?
G#
A
E
?
G#
A
?
C#
?
E
B
?
D#
E
?
G#
?
B
F#
?
?
?
?
?
E#
F#
C#
D#
?
F#
G#
A#
B#
C#
Cb
?
Eb
Fb
?
Ab
?
Cb
Gb
?
?
Cb
?
Eb
?
Gb
?
?
?
?
Ab
?
?
Db
Ab
Bb
C
Db
Eb
F
G
Ab
?
?
?
?
?
?
?
Eb
?
?
?
?
?
?
?
Bb
?
?
?
?
?
?
?
F
 

Playing the C Major Scale
 
Playing the scale - Before we get going on major scale harmony, let's get you playing the scale so you can get used to the sound of it. Below is one of the five major scale patterns. The black dots are the roots (in this case C). The horizontal bottom line is the sixth string and the top, the first string. The vertical lines are the frets. Lets start by playing root to root from the sixth string to the first string. To do this, place your middle finger on the black note on the sixth string. Play the next note, which will be on the tenth fret, sixth string with your pinky. Now you are ready to move on to the fifth string. The first note you will play on the fifth string will be on the seventh fret with your index finger. The next two notes with your middle finger then pinky. Keep going till you get to the black note on the first string. If you get confused about what fingers to use, just remember this: Any note on the seventh fret will be played with your first finger, any note on the eighth fret, with your middle finger, any note on the ninth fret with your ring finger and any note on the tenth fret with your pinky (don't cheat, get used to using your pinky).
 
 
Use your ears - You should be able to here the Do-Re-Mi-Fa-Sol-La-Ti-Do thing going on here. If you don't, reread the instructions above and try it again. Try to get uses to the sound of the scale, this is not just for your fingers but for your ears too. Play it up and down and try to pick out some melodies from the scale if you can.
 

About picking - There a basically three different ways to pick:

Alternate - This is the most standard way to pick. Simply play everything with a down stroke followed by an up stroke. Down, up, down, up.................
Economy- This picking technique is used quite often by shredders. You simply take the quickest route to the next string. Using the scale above as an example, if you where to start on the lowest note on the sixth string (7th fret, index finger), you would pick: (sixth string) down stroke, up stroke, down stroke, (fifth string) down stroke, up stroke, down stroke, etc.. Players who use this technique tend to play scale patterns that have three notes per string. If you get this technique down you can achieve light speed.
Legato- You would only pick one time per string. Using the same example as above (from the lowest note on the sixth string): (sixth string) down stroke, hammer on, hammer on , (fifth string) down stroke, hammer on, hammer on , etc..
 
On Technique - I would suggest you work first on the alternate picking and try the other two later on. They are all useful techniques and the combination of them will lead to spectacular results.
 
Practicing the scale - You can practice your scales while watching TV if want to just want to improve your chops. You don't have to play the notes of the scale in any particular order and you should try to work out mathematical sequences if you can. But if you really want to become a great soloist you will have to practice to chord changes. You can use a sequencer or make yourself a backing track or get together with one of your guitar pals. The problem is; what chords do you make the chord progressions with? We'll have to get into major scale harmony here.

Harmonizing the Major Scale
 
Harmonizing the major scale - Chords are born from scales. When you stack the first, third and fifth note in the C major scale on top of each other, you get a chord, a C chord. Since this chord is built on the first note of the major scale we can call it the "one" (I) chord. Check out the example below.
 
 
A family of diatonic chords - We can do the same thing for all the notes of the major scale. Let's do the same thing for the second note, D in the C major scale. We'll just stack every other note on top of each other and we'll get a D minor chord. Since this chord is built on the second note of the major scale it gets named the "two" (ii) chord:
 
 
The whole diatonic chord family - If we do the same thing for each note of the C major scale, we will get seven chords, one for each note of the scale. These chords are called triads because they only contain three notes ("tri" as in triangle or tripod):
 

 
These are the chords that work with the scale, any one of them can be used as a backing chord and any combination. Anything goes but these are some common progression for the C major scale:
 
C - Amin - F - G
Dmin - G
F - G
Amin - F - G
C - Emin - F - G
Amin - F - C - G
C - Dmin - F - G
 
More patterns - When you get the one pattern of the C major scale under your fingers, try moving on to the other four: They will all work over the chords above. The black notes will all be C. I'll point you in the right direction just in case: For Pattern 1, the black note on the fifth string will be on the 15th fret (pinky). For pattern 2, the black note on the fifth string will be on the 3rd fret (middle finger). For pattern 3, the black note on the sixth string will be on the 8th fret (pinky). For pattern 4 the black note on the sixth string will be on the 8th fret (you already know this one). For pattern 5 the black note on the fourth string will be on the 10th fret (middle finger).
 
Pattern 1
Pattern 2
Pattern 3
Pattern 4
Pattern 5
 
Other keys - When you have the C major scale down you can try to move to other keys. All five patterns will stay the same only the frets will change. If you want to play the five patterns in G simple make all the black notes G notes. For the proper chords, use the chart below:
 
Key
maj
min
min
maj
maj
min
dim
C
C
D
E
F
G
A
B
G
G
A
B
C
D
E
F#
D
D
E
F#
G
A
B
C#
A
A
B
C#
D
E
F#
G#
E
E
F#
G#
A
B
C#
D#
B
B
C#
D#
E
F#
G#
A#
F#
F#
G#
A#
B
C#
D#
E#
C#
C#
D#
E#
F#
G#
A#
B#
Cb
Cb
Db
Eb
Fb
Gb
Ab
Bb
Gb
Gb
Ab
Bb
Cb
Db
Eb
F
Db
Db
Eb
F
Gb
Ab
Bb
C
Ab
Ab
Bb
C
Db
Eb
F
G
Eb
Eb
F
G
Ab
Bb
C
D
Bb
Bb
C
D
Eb
F
G
A
F
F
G
A
Bb
C
D
E
 
What to look forward to - When you get control over the major scale, you'll be able to get into the major scale modes and a whole new world will open up for you. Take your time but work on the scales a little everyday. The next lesson in this series will be dedicated to playing sequences using the major scale. Untill then.....

Test Answers
 
C
D
E
F
G
A
B
C
G
A
B
C
D
E
F#
G
D
E
F#
G
A
B
C#
D
A
B
C#
D
E
F#
G#
A
E
F#
G#
A
B
C#
D#
E
B
C#
D#
E
F#
G#
A#
B
F#
G#
A#
B
C#
D#
E#
F#
C#
D#
E#
F#
G#
A#
B#
C#
Cb
Db
Eb
Fb
Gb
Ab
Bb
Cb
Gb
Ab
Bb
Cb
Db
Eb
F
Gb
Db
Eb
F
Gb
Ab
Bb
C
Db
Ab
Bb
C
Db
Eb
F
G
Ab
Eb
F
G
Ab
Bb
C
D
Eb
Bb
C
D
Eb
F
G
A
Bb
F
G
A
Bb
C
D
E
F
Have a question or a suggestion for a lesson, e-mail chris.
Click here to get an e-mail everytime a new lesson is posted.
If this lesson was just what you were looking for, consider making a donation. Only through your support are they made possible.
 

Rather than a donation, help support these free lessons by buying one of Chris' CDs, you'll be happy you did!

Information on the newly published, 266 page "THE INFINITE GUITAR" based on these lessons.
Information on the newly published book, "THE EMPOWERED MUSICIAN" based on these articles.