Introduction to the Major Scale
(Best read in a British accent)
“Hello, reader. Meet Major Scale. Major Scale, Reader.”
Guitarists are funny creatures in that it’s a coin toss how much theory ever becomes a part of a given person’s style, at least compared to other instrumentalists. However there are a few fundamentals that are simple enough for anyone to understand and at the very least should be known well enough to communicate to anyone else. One of the pinnacle fundamentals to understand is the major scale.
So why is the major scale so special? It’s simple. Everything you do in music, whether you know it or not, is derived from or compared to the major scale in some way. When you look at other scales it’s good practice to compare it to the major scale to get a real understanding of how it stands out as its own scale. The most common chords used in all of musical existence can be built from the major scale. Simply put it’s one of the most influential parts of music, so it’s worth taking the time to understand what it is.
I should go as far as to say I’m gonna be fairly layman with this, so if you’ve already got an understanding of the major scale and aren’t looking for a quick review then this probably isn’t an article for you. But if you’re looking to get into scales and don’t know where to start this is for you.
The Major Scale in Depth
Before getting in too deep I want to clearly define what a scale is. A scale is simply just a selection of notes within one octave. That means a scale can be anything from 1 note (boring as that may be) to 12 notes (better known as the chromatic scale). The major scale is a specific selection of 7 of those notes.
What makes the major scale so special above others is its interval structure. Intervals are the measured space between any two notes be it E to F, E to G, or E to the next E. In the case of the major scale every interval it uses is defined as either major or perfect.
Speaking of spaces, now for one of those things I’d mentioned that has multiple names. One thing that you’ll notice when you play a scale on the guitar is that they form patterns. Very specific shapes that become associated with the respective scale. These patterns are shaped by the spaces between notes. These spaces are the intervals and more often than not are referred to as half-steps and steps. Sometimes you will hear the terms tones and semi-tones thrown around. When you hear that this is what they are referring to.
Now to paint a grander picture. Here is a chart of all of the natural major scales with the steps and the intervals laid out:
|C Major||D Major||E Major||F Major||G Major||A Major||B Major||Intervals||Steps|
What this chart tells us is that intervals are all relative. Every note has its own major 2nd, perfect 5th, etc.
The Steps column on the right shows the distance from one note to another in a more accessible light. The W signs mean whole step (tone) while the H signs mean half step (semi-tone). In every case, no matter what from any fret a half step is 1 fret up while a whole step is 2. It’s that simple.
Playing the Major Scale on Guitar
Now that we’re in knee deep on the major scale it’s time to talk about how it lays out on the guitar. I’d mentioned above that when you play scales on the guitar patterns, or shapes, form. I could describe how these patterns lay out on the neck in the most clunky way possible in hopes that maybe someone will have the patience to decipher the message, but how about you look at the pictures instead.
Addendum: These are completely movable shapes on the neck. If you play them anywhere you’re playing the major scale… unless you change your tuning. So call that a pleasant bonus. When you get these down it’s just a matter of the position you want to play them in.