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The Major Scale

The Basics

Although it might seem strange, (given the fact that the notes are named A through G) music theory actually begins with the key of C.

Below is the CHROMATIC SCALE starting with C:


A SCALE is nothing more than a clever way to travel from octave to octave. The word CHROMATIC comes from chroma or color. Think of the chromatic scale (because it contains every note) as one that includes all the colors.

Every other scale (there are hundreds of them) is constructed by selecting only certain notes from the chromatic scale.

The chromatic scale is the model used for the concept of WHOLE-STEPS and HALF-STEPS (sometimes referred to as WHOLE TONE and SEMI TONE).

A HALF-STEP is the distance between any two notes along the chromatic scale. If you play any note of the chromatic scale and then play the next higher note OR the next lower note, that is considered a HALF-STEP.

A WHOLE-STEP is equal to the distance of two HALF-STEPS. Therefore, if you play any note of the chromatic scale and then play, not the next note, but, the note after that, you are executing a WHOLE-STEP. (C to C# is a half-step, C to D is a whole-step etc…)

When applied to the guitar, half-step translates to the distance of one fret and whole-step to the distance of two frets. It makes no difference what the names of the notes are. The only thing that matters, is how far apart those notes are. (Understand that B and C are one fret apart as are E and F. These two pairs of notes are therefore a half-step and not a whole-step. This is a common misunderstanding that beginning students have when first learning this concept. They assume that because there is no sharp or flat between those notes that they are a whole-step apart.)

Now, before we continue, another definition:

A note that is neither sharp nor flat is considered NATURAL. The symbol used to denote NATURAL looks like this:

NATURAL is understood rather than written most of the time. In other words, unless you see a # or b attached to a note, that note is assumed to be NATURAL and therefore, does not require the use of it’s symbol. (When dealing with standard music notation however, you will encounter the NATURAL SIGN quite frequently.)

If you start on C and play only the NATURAL notes until you reach the octave, you will arrive at the notes of the C MAJOR SCALE:

C – D – E – F – G – A – B – C

Now, if we look at the whole-steps and half-steps between each note of the C MAJOR SCALE, we find this pattern:

W – W – H – W – W – W – H

This pattern of whole-steps and half-steps is the single most important part of understanding music theory.

Every major scale in every key follows this w/h pattern.

For example, if we start on G and apply the pattern, we get the notes of the G Major scale:

G – A – B – C – D – E – F# – G

The note that you start with is called the ROOT NOTE. The root note defines what is called KEY. When someone asks, “What key is this song in?”, they are asking about the root note of the scale that the song is based upon.

So, the major scale in the key of F is constructed by starting on F and following the w/h pattern:

F – G – A – Bb – C – D – E – F

That’s all there is to it! Start on a root note and follow the w/h pattern. You are now the proud owner of a major scale.

Any note from the chromatic scale can (and will) function as the root note. So long as the rest of the notes follow the w/h pattern, the scale will be a Major scale in the key of that root note.

The Fingerboard

Up and down the individual strings (key of C, square is the root note):


Across the strings (key of C, square is the root note):


Combining the two (key of C, square is the root note):

Covering the entire fingerboard (key of C, square is the root note):

The Practice

When it comes to scales, the most important thing is to be able to turn the “pattern” into “music”. There’s really no point to mindlessly running up and down the scale for hours on end. As soon as you acquire a basic understanding of how the notes lay out across the fingerboard, it’s important to start “messing around” with the scale. You need to start searching out the melodic possibilities of the scale.

Here are two MIDI files that will help you to get the Major scale under your finger tips. Both are in the key of C.

Pedal tone is a static C chord. While the chord is playing, you can play up and down the C Major scale and familiarize yourself with the sound of the various tones in the scale.

Pedal Tone

Chord progression, as the name implies, is a chord progression in the key of C. While the chord progression is playing, you can practice improvising lead lines out of the C major scale.

Chord Progression

You need to know the Major scale in every key, not just C. The best way to accomplish this is to practice a different key every day. For that day’s practice, stick to that key only. If you find yourself getting bored with the key you are practicing, it means that you are not digging into your practice deep enough. Instead of switching to a new key, make yourself come up with something interesting. That is how you will really learn to play!!

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