In today’s lesson, we’ll go over how to learn and use the major scale on the guitar in greater detail.
Let’s start with the theory behind the major scale.
A scale is a linear pattern of notes made from a series of intervals. (Click here if you don’t know what an interval is).
The major scale is made of a series of intervals of either a half step (one fret) or a whole step (two frets).
The pattern that gives us the major scale is this:
W-W-H-W-W-W-H (W = whole step, H = half step)
Thus, the scale of C major is made of the notes C, D, E, F, G, A, and B.
If we had to play these notes on the same string, we would get this pattern of notes:
(If you haven’t memorized the name of the notes on the guitar fretboard yet, these are given above each note).
Learning the major scale on the guitar
Learning the scale in a linear way is good for explanation purposes, as well as a good exercise to learn each scale into more depth.
It’s not the way you should learn guitar scales though since it’s impractical to use in real-life musical situations (unless you want to restrict yourself to playing on just one string).
Scales are usually learned as patterns in different positions of the fretboard.
There are two main ways major scale patterns are learned:
- The CAGED system.
- 3 Note per string patterns.
The CAGED system is a bit easier to learn because it doesn’t involve finger stretches at any point.
3 note per string patterns are much more efficient to use since they have the same number of notes on each string. This makes picking the notes easier, and particularly useful if you want to play the guitar fast.
Since being able to stretch your fingers is something you will need to develop anyway, the CAGED system doesn’t really offer any advantage over the 3 note per string system, which is what I use the latter all the time, and encourage you to do so too.
The following is the 3 note per string pattern for the scale of A major.
Memorize this scale pattern before proceeding with the rest of this lesson.
Applying sequences to the major scale
Scales are not different patterns of notes that are only useful as an exercise.
Rather, they are patterns of notes that the great composers have found to work to create great music.
Each scale has a different sound and a different flavour.
Different scales are used in different contexts to create a different atmosphere.
That said, the quality of the music is not determined by the scale, but by the way the composer uses it.
Thus, I never suggest one should learn a lot of scales at once.
Instead, learn a scale, milk it, and only then go for the next.
I’ll give you a few examples of how to do this, the first being scale sequences.
Playing scale sequences will not only help you learn the major scale more thoroughly, but they will also give you a lot of ideas when creating riffs, licks, and solos.
Scale sequences also help train your ear. It’s very useful in improvisation to know how a note is going to sound before you even play it.
In this exercise, rather than playing the notes of the major scale one after the other, we’re going to create a sequence that goes 1,2,3 – 2,3,4 – 3,4,5 – 4,5,6, etc.
You can create scale sequences of your own (ex: 1,2,3,4 – 2,3,4,5 – 3,4,5,6 etc) or go to this lesson and apply the given scale sequences to the major scale.
The next thing we’re going to do is to use the same scale sequence but change the rhythm, this time using triplets.
This exercise demonstrates more of the options available to you when it comes to creating music, this time rhythmic options.
Using the major guitar scale to make music
Though learning guitar scales does help you learn to play pieces of music faster, their most important benefit is to use them as a guide when creating your own.
I use the word guidance rather than rules because there is no hard and fast rule that tells you that if you’re playing in the major scale, using notes outside that scale will sound wrong.
As applied music theory expert Tommaso Zillio states: “There are no wrong notes. Only wrong resolutions“
This means that you can play a note outside the scale that will sound good when resolved to an accented note of the scale.
That said, if you’re a beginner in using guitar scales to make music, I suggest you stick to the scale notes. Simply be aware that notes outside the scale are not wrong if used correctly.
In the first example of using the major scale to create music, I’ve created a guitar riff made from notes of this scale, using the scale pattern given above.
Being able to use these techniques and incorporating them into your music, will improve the quality of your guitar riffs, licks, and solos much more than learning a lot of scales.
Next, we’re going to use the major scale in the context of a guitar lick.
What makes a lick different than a riff is that while a guitar riff is meant to be repeated, and serve as the engine of the music, guitar licks are meant to embellish the music with short melodies.
The following is a guitar lick using notes from the major scale. The techniques used in this lick are slides and string bending.
The final thing we’ll do with the major scale in this lesson is compose a short 8-bar solo using it.
Conclusion: Where to go from here
The next thing to do to really master the major scale on the guitar is to come up with your own guitar riffs, licks, and solos using the scale in the position given above.
The following step would be to learn the major scale in different positions on the guitar neck.
This will give you the ability to create riffs, licks, and solos all over the fretboard, and not only in the position given above.
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