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Major Scale for Guitar – Fingerings, Patterns, and Licks

When learning how to play guitar, one of the first scales you encounter is the major scale.

The major scale is used to solo over major family chords, especially tonic major chords.

Though it is commonly called the major scale, it’s also referred to as the Ionian mode, so knowing both names will prevent confusion in your studies.

In this lesson you’ll learn how to build the major scale, apply it to your solos, memorize fingerings, practice scale patterns, and jam Ionian licks.



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Major Scale Construction


The major scale contains seven notes and has no accidentals in its construction when played in the key of C.

These seven notes can be written a number of ways, such as intervals:




Or you can think of them as specific intervals like this:




In this case, each symbol would be:


  • P = Perfect Interval
  • M = Major Interval


You can also think of the upper notes as extensions rather than lower notes.

This means that you think of the scale with this pattern:




I prefer this way of thinking, as it allows you to visualize the upper chord extensions.

Here is how the C major scale looks on the fretboard as both notes and intervals.


ionian scales


You can use either system, 2-4-6 or 9-11-13, or a mixture of both depending on the situation.



Ionian Scale Application


Now that you know how to build the major scale, take a look at how to apply this scale to a guitar soloing situation.

The major scale is used to solo over any chords in the major family.

Major family chords include:


  • Maj7
  • Maj9
  • Maj6 (also written as just 6)
  • Maj6/9 (also written as 6/9)
  • Maj7sus4
  • Add9


These chords are all built from notes taken from the major scale.

Here’s a major scale and three chords that are derived from that fingering to see how they relate to each other on the fretboard.


ionian scale 2


To begin using this knowledge, put on a maj7, maj9, 6, Add9 etc. backing track and solo over those changes with scales from this lesson.

To help you get started, here’s a Cmaj7 backing track that you can use for any exercise in this lesson.


YouTube Preview Image


Ionian Chords


Here are 8 more Ionian chords that you can study and add to your playing.

Each of these chords is built from the Ionian scale, and therefore is used to comp when Ionian would be applicable.

Work these shapes on your own, then apply them to backing tracks over tunes and progressions when ready.




Here are four 5th-string Ionian chords that you can learn and apply to your rhythm guitar playing.

After working out these shapes, apply them to progressions and songs in your studies.






Ionian Scale One Octave Fingerings


Here are a number of common one-octave shapes that you can work on in your practice routine.

When soloing, one-octave scales are effective to move between fast-moving chords and key changes in your lines.

There are three sets of fingerings for one-octave shapes, starting with shapes that use your index finger on the first note.

Work these shapes in 12 keys and solo over jam tracks using these shapes as the basis for your phrases.

This ensures that you work major scales from a technical and improvisational standpoint.


ionian scale 3

You can also learn major scales with your middle finger on the first note.

Once you have these shapes down, move between the first four and these four in your improvisational practice routine.


ionian scale 4


Lastly, here are four major scales that begin with your pinky finger.


ionian scale 5


Once you have all three sets of scales under your fingers, move between all of these scales in your practice routine.

Over time you’ll explore all 12 fingerings, but that doesn’t mean you’ll always have these shapes under your fingers.

You’ll pick your favorites and work them into your playing, while others you won’t use that much.



Ionian Scale Two Octave Fingerings


You can take this scale a step further by learning two-octave shapes.

Two-octave major scales come in handy when you’re soloing over longer chord changes.

There are a number of ways to build two-octave major scales, here are four of my favorites to get you started.

Learn these shapes one at a time, then combine two or more as you dig further into these important scale shapes.


ionian scale 6




Ionian Scale Patterns


You’ll now check out scale patterns over the major scales that you’ve learned so far.

To begin, here’s an ascending pattern that you can use to expand your technique.

The pattern is built by playing the scale in ascending 3rds.

This means that you play 1-3, 2-4, 3-5, etc. as you work your way up the scale, in this case a two-octave G major scale.

Go slow with this pattern, work it through one and two-octave shapes and in different keys as you take it around the fretboard.


Click to listen to Ionian Scale Pattern 1




You can also work this pattern descending through any major scale fingering.

Again, you’re playing every second note to create the pattern, as you work your way down the fingering.


Click to listen to Ionian Scale Pattern 2




Once you have both of these patterns under your fingers, put on a major backing track and add these 3rds to your solos.

You don’t have to play them in every line, but adding thirds in here will spice up your improvised phrases.



3 Ionian Scale Licks


As well as learning scale patterns, you can also study licks to build your understanding of this scale in a soloing context.

This first lick uses a common jazz rhythm in the second bar, which you can hear in many of Wes Montgomery’s solos.


Click to listen to Ionian Licks 1




The second major scale lick features a pattern that works down the scale, with a slide into the E in the first bar and B in the second bar.

Adding something as simple as a slide to one or two notes can really lift a phrase to the next level of creativity your solos.


Click to listen to Ionian Licks 2




The final lick features another common jazz rhythm, an 8th note followed by two 16th notes, which you can add to your soloing vocabulary outside of this line.


Click to listen to Ionian Scale Licks 3




Once you have these licks down, write out 3 major scale lines of your own to build your soloing vocabulary with this important melodic device.

The major scale is essential learning for any modern guitarist, and the material in this lesson gives you everything you need to introduce this scale into your playing the right way.

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