Music Theory for Guitar: Major Scales

I’ve talked before about the music theory behind guitar scales some, but for this guitar lesson, I want to back up just a bit.

In that lesson, we learned that a scale is simply a group of notes (pitches) arranged in ascending and descending order. There are different types of scales: major, pentatonic, melodic minor, harmonic minor, whole tone, etc. We’re not going to get into the differences between each one in this lesson, but we are going to look explicitly at the major scale. Most of the music we hear on the radio is based on the major scale, so if we know the major scale, this will give us a huge foundation from which we’ll learn other things in the future.

Before we talk more about the major scale, we need to know about half steps and whole steps. All of the pitches (C, D, E, F, G, A, B) are separated by whole steps except that E to F and B to C are separated by half steps.

If you start on the 1st fret of the low E string, which is an F note, and move up one fret to the 2nd fret of the low E string, which is an F#, you’ve moved up one half step. If you were to move up two frets, you would have moved up a whole step. A whole step equals two half steps.

The arrangement of these half steps and whole steps in a scale gives the scale a particular quality (e.g. major, minor). Let’s look at a C major scale on the piano for now to see how this works visually.

If we start on the C and go up, there is a whole step from the C to the D, a whole step from the D to the E, a half step from the E to the F, a whole step from the F to the G, a whole step from the G to the A, a whole step from the A to the B, and a half step from the B to the C.

This is a major scale. We can start on any note and ascend in that whole step, half step pattern and we’ll have played a major scale. You also might be familiar with: Do Re Mi Fa So La Ti Do. If you sing this, you have just sung a major scale.

Major Scale Construction

Let’s construct a D major scale. We will lay out our scale like this for now: D, E, F, G, A, B, C, D.

Once we’ve roughly laid our scale, we need to make it a major scale. We do this by keeping the whole step, half step pattern for a major scale in mind (whole, whole, half, whole, whole, whole, half) while examining the whole steps and half steps between each note of the rough D scale we’ve laid out so far.

For example, between D and E, we have a whole step, so there is nothing to change. So far, so good. However, between E and F, there is a half step. If we recall our pattern, we should have a whole step between the 2nd and 3rd scale degree of a major scale. We can make a whole step between the E and the F by raising the F a half step and making it an F#.

So now, our scale looks like so: D, E, F#, G, A, B, C, D. But we’re not done yet.

As we look at the interval between the F# and G, we see that it is a half step. This is correct. As we recall, there is a half step between the 3rd and 4th scale degrees of a major scale. From the G to A, we have a whole step, which is correct. From the A to B, we another whole step which is correct. Now, we are looking for another whole step from B to C, but there is a half step between B to C. Again, we need to raise the C a half step to a C# to create a whole step in between the 6th and 7th scale degrees. By raising the C to a C#, we then have the last half step we need to return back to the root note D.

So our fully constructed D major scale now looks like this: D, E, F#, G, A, B, C#, D.

In other words, from D to E, we have a whole step, from E to F#, we have a whole step, from F# to G, we have a half step, from G to A, we have a whole step, from A to B, we have a whole step, from B to C#, we have a whole step, and from C# to D, we have a half step. And as we recall, this whole step, half step pattern gives us a D major scale.

Does Your Head Hurt?

It might take a couple times of reading this through to fully understand it. The truth is that when you’re actually playing guitar or soloing you’re not going to be thinking explicitly about whole steps and half steps. This is just a way to describe and understand the theory behind a major scale. Chances are that you’ll probably memorize the sharps and flats of the different keys, so you won’t be constructing a major scale on the spot while you’re playing. It’ll be second nature.

In fact, one assignment for you is to try constructing major scales for all 12 keys. We’ve already done C major and D major. Lay out the notes of the scale in a rough format and then go through and check the whole step and half step pattern and add sharps or flats where needed. Once you’ve practiced that some, go to the end of this lesson to see the answers.

How to Use Theory as a Melodic Weapon for Soloing

I like the idea of music theory being used as a weapon for crafting beautiful melodies when you solo and improvise. When you understand how individual notes function and interact with each other, you have enormous power to create something beautiful. Often times the problem is that we only invest in learning scale patterns, when in reality, that won’t take us very far at all.

If you are interested in how to use theory to your advantage for soloing, improvising, or composing, then check out Craig Bassett’s guitar scale course that systematically takes you in a step-by-step process towards mastering the guitar fretboard. His course is the only online course I know of right now that doesn’t just teach you a bunch of information about scales, but rather, he applies the information in a way that makes sense and is tangible for any guitar player. Check it out.

All 12 Major Scales Deconstructed

C major: C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C

F major: F, G, A, Bb, C, D, E, F

G major: G, A, B, C, D, E, F#, G

Bb major: Bb, C, D, Eb, F, G, A, Bb

D major: D, E, F#, G, A, B, C#, D

Eb major: Eb, F, G, Ab, Bb, C, D, Eb

A major: A, B, C#, D, E, F#, G#, A

Ab major: Ab, Bb, C, Db, Eb, F, G, Ab

E major: E, F#, G#, A, B, C#, D#, E

Db major: Db, Eb, F, Gb, Ab, Bb, C, Db

B major: B, C#, D#, E, F#, G#, A#, B

Gb major: Gb, Ab, Bb, Cb, Db, Eb, F, Gb

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.