Guitar Scales for Beginners 101

Learning guitar scales is one of the best ways to start learning how to solo and improvise over the guitar fretboard. In this guitar lesson, we will not only learn two guitar scales: major and pentatonic, but we’ll also learn when to use these scales and when not to use them.

Major Guitar Scale

In a previous lesson, we learned the theory behind a major scale. We learned exactly what makes a major scale a major scale and how to build a major scale from any starting note. For this lesson, let’s look at the C major scale on the guitar fretboard.

C Major Scale

In this diagram, the C major scale starts on the “C” on the low E string on the 8th fret. The green dots represent the root note of the scale “C.”

The notes in a C major scale are: C, D, E, F, G, A, B, and then C again. When you learn this major scale position, start on the low “C” note and as you work your way up the scale say the next note and so on. So after we play the “C” we go up two frets and then play the “D.” You don’t want to just learn the scale pattern but the actual notes you are playing.

The majority of popular music is based on the major scale. If you know what key a song is in, and you know the scale of the key on the guitar fretboard, then you can use this as a starting point for soloing. If you want to craft and improvise really good guitar solos, it’s vital you know every key’s scale position.

Pentatonic Guitar Scale

There are two different types of pentatonic scales: major and minor. For the purposes of this lesson, I want to show you the major pentatonic scale in the key of C major. Let’s check it out.

C Major Pentatonic Scale

A pentatonic scale is a five note scale. If you recall from our previous lesson on the theory behind a major scale, a pentatonic scale is a major scale without the 4th and 7th scale degrees. So a C major pentatonic scale would build as: C, D, E, G, A, and then C.

This is most likely not the first time you’ve heard of the pentatonic scale. The pentatonic scale is so popular because when you use the scale to solo over a chord progression it’s very difficult to make it sound “bad,” since you are only using five notes. Learning the pentatonic scale over the fretboard is a great start for soloing.

In case you were curious, C major pentatonic uses the same notes as an A minor pentatonic scale because A minor is relative to C major. If this sounds confusing, don’t worry. However, all to say, you could use the C major pentatonic scale not only over a chord progression in the key of C major (e.g. C, G, F) but also over a chord progression in the key of A major (e.g. A, D, E) and you’ll get a real bluesy type of sound.

This is just a tip of the iceberg and a good starting point. Start learning these guitar scale positions and learning the notes that you are actually playing in these positions. Don’t just learn the scale patterns!

If you want to take guitar scales a bit further, I would really recommend checking out Craig Basset’s Guitar Scale Mastery course. You may have noticed that I’ve recommended his course in other articles on Guitar Friendly about scales, and that is because his course is one the most comprehensive sources for learning guitar scales and knowing how to use them to improvise and create beautiful and melodic solos. Check it out.

About Brett McQueen

Brett McQueen is a musician, songwriter, and the founder and editor of Guitar Friendly and Ukulele Tricks. Learn more about him here and follow him on Twitter at @GuitarFriendly.