One of the first scales you encounter when learning how to play guitar is the major scale.
The major scale is used to solo over major family chords, especially tonic major chords, such as major, maj7, maj9, 6, and 6/9 chords.
Though it’s called the major scale, it’s also referred to as the Ionian mode, so knowing both names prevents confusion in your studies.
In this lesson you learn how to build the major scale, how to apply it to your solos, essential positions and fingerings, major scale patterns, and classic licks.
Major Scale Quick Facts
What are the 12 major scales? There are 12 major scales, one for each note in the chromatic scale. These root notes for each major scale are C, C#/Db, D, D#/Eb, E, F, F#/Gb, G, G#/Ab, A, A#/Bb, and B. The notes that are doubled, like C#/Db, are the same note spelled two ways, one with a sharp and one with a flat.
How do you build a major scale? The formula for building a major scale is W-W-H-W-W-W-H. W is a whole step, two frets on a guitar, and H is a half step, one fret on the guitar. You just start on any note, the root of the scale, add the interval formula and you have the notes in the scale. For example, starting on A you get A (W) B (W) C# (H) D (W) E (W) F# (W) G# (H) A.
How do you write a major scale? You can write a major scale with the numbers, 1-2-3-4-5-6-7, since no notes are altered, the major scale is the base scale for intervals. You can also write it out in notes like C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C for the C major scale. You can also use Solfege such as Do-Re-Mi-So-Fa-La-Si-Do for each note in the major scale.
How do you use the major scale? You use the major scale to create licks, riffs, melodies, and entire solos over chords in the major key. So, if you have a progression in the key of G major, such as G-Em-C-D, you use the G major scale to solo over those chords.
What are the chords in a major scale? The chords in a major scale are always Imaj-iimin-iiimin-IVmaj-Vmaj-vimin-viidim. Or, for four-note chords you have Imaj7-iim7-iiim7-IVmaj7-V7-vim7-viidim7.
What is a relative minor scale? A relative minor scale has the same notes as the major scale, though it starts from the 6th note. For example, in C major the 6th note is A, so Am is the relative minor scale. C major is C D E F G A B C and A minor is A B C D E F G A. Same notes, different starting note.
Major Scale Construction
The major scale contains seven notes and has no sharps or flats 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 interval symbol would be:
- P = Perfect Interval
- M = Major Interval
You can also think of the upper notes as extensions, 9-11-13, rather than lower notes, 2-4-6.
This means that you think of the scale with this pattern:
I prefer this way of thinking, as it helps you visualize the upper chord extensions.
Here’s how the C major scale looks on the fretboard as both notes and intervals.
Play this shape in C to get the sound of the major scale into your ears, then move it to other keys to see how it sits on the fretboard.
You can use either system, 2-4-6 or 9-11-13, or a mixture of both depending on the situation.
Try both out and see which one you prefer to think about when visualizing, applying, and writing the major scale.
Major 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:
- Maj6 (also written as just 6)
- Maj6/9 (also written as 6/9)
These chords are all built from notes taken from the major scale.
Here’s a major scale and three chords that are built from that fingering to see how they relate to each other on the fretboard.
To apply this knowledge, put on a maj7, maj9, 6, Add9 etc. backing track and solo over those chords with major scale shapes from this lesson.
To help you get started, here’s a C major backing track to use for any exercise in this lesson.
C Major Backing Track C Major Scale Backing Track
Major Scale Chords
Here are 8 more major scale chords that you can learn and add to your playing.
Each of these chords is built from the major scale, and therefore are used to comp when playing in a major key.
Work these shapes on your own, then apply them to tunes and chord progressions when ready.
Here are four 5th-string major scale 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.
Major Scale One Octave Fingerings
Here are a number of one-octave major scale shapes to work on in your practice routine.
When soloing, one-octave scales are effective over fast-moving chords and key changes.
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 allows you to work major scales from both a technical and improvisational standpoint.
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.
Lastly, here are four major scales that begin with your pinky finger, except the last one which starts on your ring finger.
Once you have all three sets of major scales under your fingers, move between each of these scales in your practice routine.
Over time you’ll learn all 12 fingerings, but that doesn’t mean you always have to have these shapes under your fingers.
It’s ok to pick your favorites and work them into your playing, while others you won’t use that much.
Major Scale Two Octave Fingerings
You can take this scale a step further by learning two-octave major scale shapes.
Two-octave major scales come in handy when soloing over longer chord changes or key centers.
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.
Major Scale Patterns
You now check out major scale patterns over the positions that you learned so far.
To begin, here’s an ascending pattern that expands your technique and fretboard knowledge.
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 play 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 key backing track and add these 3rds to your solos.
You don’t have to play them in every line, but adding thirds will spice up your improvised phrases.
3 Major 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 guitarist, and the material in this lesson gives you everything you need to introduce this scale into your playing the right way.