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Blues Guitar Institute

Guitar Scales 101: Can You Play the Major Scale Anywhere on the Neck?

How well do you know the major scale?

Maybe you were introduced to the major school at a young age like I was. Maybe when you started the guitar, you shrugged it off and dove into the Minor Pentatonic Scale. Also, me.

There’s nothing wrong with diving into the Minor Pentatonic Scale straight away. It’s great for beginners because it sounds great and gets you in the game with fewer points of failure. But if you don’t come back and fill in the gaps with the major scale, you’re missing out. Without a firm understanding of the major scale you’ll:

  • Miss the overarching construction of music
  • Leave sweet notes untouched, even in a blues solo
  • Find it hard to organize the fretboard

We don’t want any of that. So, if it’s time to circle back to the major scale or if you’re just getting started on the guitar, then this lesson is for you.

I’ll show you how the scale is constructed and how you can play it anywhere on the neck. Plus, I’ll share my favorite ways to practice the major scale that will help you know it cold.

Let’s dig in.

What is the Major Scale?

A scale is a group of notes ordered by pitch. What makes each type of scale unique is the pattern of spaces between the notes which we measure with whole steps and half steps.

The major scale follows this pattern of whole steps (W) and half steps (H):

W – W – H – W – W – W – H

A whole step is two frets on the guitar and a half step is – you guessed it – half as much, one fret.

Remember this pattern! The major scale is incredibly important and knowing it will help you in countless ways on your musical journey. Everything we do in western harmony relates to this one pattern of notes.

  • Chords
  • Arpeggios
  • Modes
  • Triads
  • Progressions

Each of these broad topics point back to the major scale. It’s hard to fully understand these things without a firm understanding of the major scale. It’s important. You should know it.

And I think one of the best ways to start learning it might be a little unconventional.

Learn the Major Scale on One String

We’re used to stacking notes across the strings. Even with basic chords like G, C and D, you’re stacking notes on top of each other. But we often overlook what we can do with a single string. And when it comes to learning scales, there’s a huge benefit to playing it along a single string.

Scales are about the spaces between notes (whole steps, half steps) and when you play the scale on one string, you actually see the spaces.

This helps you internalize the space – the interval.

Here’s the C Major Scale on the 5th string.

Using this approach, all you need to know is the pattern and the starting point. Simple as that.

By the way, if you don’t know the note names on the fretboard, try this resource: Know Your Fretboard.

Play the major scale in a different key by playing the same pattern starting from a different root note. Let’s try this with an E on the 4th string.

While I love this way of learning scales, we need to pair it with another perspective.

Learn the Major Scale Across the Strings

The pattern of spaces between notes is still the same when you move across the strings. But some things aren’t seen when we cross strings. You lose the visual element of the pattern of whole and half steps. So, let’s take a different approach to mapping the scale across the strings.

Each note of the major scale has a name that refers to how far away it is from the root note.

IntervalHalf Steps Above the RootNote
Root0C
Major Second2D
Major Third4E
Major Fourth5F
Perfect Fifth7G
Major Sixth9A
Major Seventh11B
Octave12C

Learn multiple ways to find each of these intervals from the root using this in-depth tutorial:

Intervals Lesson: The #1 Reason You’re Lost on the Fretboard

Here’s a quick run down of one way to find each of these intervals:

With these intervals under your fingers, play them in order (root, second, third…) and you have the major scale. But to get used to merging the intervals with the scale, try this exercise I call the Root Bounce:

Notice how you’re playing through each of the intervals from the root but, you’re also climbing the scale.

This will help you get familiar with the intervals in order. Next, remove the bouncing back and forth to the root and just play the scale. Like this:

We could have started with this major scale pattern. But I strongly believe in focusing on the intervals when learning scales.

Each interval has its own sound. And the better you become at recognizing that sound, the easier it is to use it. Building chords, arpeggios and even learning new scales boil down to interval selection.

Learn intervals because they are the base layer of music.

Dig into this lesson to find all the intervals in every situation – the next octave, different strings, etc.

Spoiler alert: the 2nd string is a bit of a trouble maker but we tackle that head on.

How to Practice the Major Scale Anywhere on the Neck

Devote practice time regularly to the major scale until you master it. That doesn’t mean you should only focus on it and nothing else until you master it. No, just practice it regularly and intentionally until you can play any major scale in any spot on the neck.

Here’s a quick practice plan to help you get there.

First, pick a key and stick with it over a few practice sessions. Everything is moveable on the guitar and if you know the scale on a deep level in one key, moving it will be easy.

With your key picked, split your practice into two buckets: One string and Across the Strings.

Aim to play each exercise ascending and descending five times without mistakes before moving onto the next one.

One string:

  • Play the scale along one string while singing the note names
  • Play the scale up and down on string while singing the interval names
  • Switch to a different string and repeat the first two steps

Across the Strings

  • Play the Root Bounce exercise while singing the note names.
  • Repeat the Root Bounce while singing the interval names.
  • Play the scale notes in order beginning with a 6th string root while singing the note names.
  • Repeat the previous exercise while singing the interval names.

Expand this routine over time to cover different strings, multiple octaves and all the keys.

This practice stack will help you play the scale in any position, memorize the note names and learn the sound of the intervals.

This is a win-win-win!

Good luck and Play On!

When you are ready, there are two ways I can help you:

Back Porch Blues Course:  A proven system to fingerpicking the blues.  This step-by-step course guides you through building fundamental fingerpicking skills.  Plus, you’ll learn three levels of a delta blues style performance study to put your new skills into action.

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