A lot of beginning guitar players don’t really know what a major scale is. Today we are going to explain exactly what scales are and what they are really used for. Then we will look at making sense of guitar scales on the guitar fretboard.
What are Scales?
When you hear a singer sing, the notes that they sing come from a scale.
When you hear a guitar solo, the notes being played come from a scale.
The chords that accompany a singer or guitar solo come from a scale.
Just as a painter will select and mix certain colours to create a specific mood, a musician will pick certain notes or combinations of notes to create the desired affect.
Scales represent the foundation for essentially all music theory. So as you can probably guess, having a good understanding of scales and how to apply them is essential for all guitarists.
The word scale comes from the Italian word “scala”, which means ladder. A scale is simply a collection of pitches that have been arranged into a specific ascending and descending order. Scales are used as a basis for writing songs and also for soloing over chords.
Make sense? Ok, let’s take a look at the major scale…
The Major Scale
The major scale is by far the most common scale used in popular music. In order to have a major scale, there must be a specific arrangement of semitones and whole tones. A semitone is the distance of one fret on the guitar. The whole tone, also known as a tone, is the distance of two frets.
The C major scale consists of the following notes:
C D E F G A B C
Now let’s take a closer look at this scale. Let’s start by playing these notes on the 5th string.
Here is the C major scale played up the fifth string:
The T represents a tone and the ST represents a semitone.
Now let’s take a closer look at this scale. The distance from C to D is two frets or a tone. So the distance from D to E is a tone. The distance from E to F is a semitone (one fret). The distance from F to G is a tone. The distance from G to A is a tone and the distance from A to B is also a tone. Finally, the distance from B to C is a semitone.
To recap here is what we have:
C -T- D -T- E -ST- F -T- G -T- A -T- B -ST- C
The Major Scale Formula
We now have the formula for building any major scale:
T T ST T T T ST
So now you can build any major scale you want. All you have to do is pick a starting note and then simply plug in the formula.
All right, so let’s put this to use. Let’s say that you want to know the notes in the D major scale.
So you start with the note D and apply the formula. This means you start with D and move up a tone. This takes you to the note E.
D -T- E
Next you need to go up a tone from the note E. Now you should recall that E to F is a semitone apart. To follow the formula you need a tone so that means that you should raise the note F by one fret. This will give you an F#.
D -T- E -T- F#
How do you know whether to call the note F# or Gb? For you to have a major scale all seven notes must be present. In other words, there must be some sort A, B, C, D, E, F, and G in the scale. Also, the notes need to be there in successive order. So you wouldn’t be able to do D E Gb, because the F is missing.
So let’s continue with the formula. So far we have done T T, so now we need our semitone:
D -T- E -T- F# -ST- G
Next we move up a tone:
D -T- E -T- F# -ST- G -T- A
Now it’s up a tone again:
D -T- E -T- F# -ST- G -T- A -T- B
Next it is up a tone yet again:
D -T- E -T- F# -ST- G -T- A -T- B -T- C#
And finally, we move up one semitone:
D -T- E -T- F# -ST- G -T- A -T- B -T- C# -ST- D
So we now have the notes in a D major scale:
D E F# G A B C#
Let’s take a look at one more example. Let’s say you want to build a major scale off of the note F. If you apply the formula, here is your result:
F -T- G -T- A -ST- Bb -T- C -T- D -T- E -ST- F
F G A Bb C D E F
As you can see there is one flat in the F major scale. How do we know that it is a Bb instead of an A#? Remember our rule: to have a major scale all seven notes must be present. There can’t be any doubled notes (except the first and last notes in the scale). So you wouldn’t be able to do F G A A#, because there would be two A’s present.
Below you will find a table of all of the major scales.
C major C D E F G A B C
G major G A B C D E F# G
D major D E F# G A B C# D
A major A B C# D E F# G# A
E major E F# G# A B C# D# E
B major B C# D# E F# G# A# B
F# major F# G# A# B C# D# E# F#
C# major C# D# E# F# G# A# B# C#
F major F G A Bb C D E F
Bb major Bb C D Eb F G A Bb
Eb major Eb F G Ab Bb C D Eb
Ab major Ab Bb C Db Eb F G Ab
Db major Db Eb F Gb Ab Bb C Db
Gb major Gb Ab Bb Cb Db Eb F Gb
Cb major Cb Db Eb Fb Gb Ab Bb Cb
So there you have it. You now understand the basics of the major scale. For a quick and easy way to learn, memorize and apply the most common guitar scales, check out Guitar Essentials: Scale Master Expanded Edition.