Major Scale

Major Scale

Jazz Guitar Lesson

The major scale is the single most important element in music. It's the most common musical "sound" we know (do re mi fa sol ...) and it's the main reference for all other musical materials (scales, chords, arpeggios, tunes, improvisations, etc.)

That scale has been around for centuries and is the "common ground" for all the music on earth,throughout history. For example, most lullabies, traditional melodies and national anthems are in the major scale. And still today, most of the pop/rock/jazz of the 20th and 21st centuries is based on the same scale, in one way or another!

It's obvious that any aspiring jazz guitarist should eventually master the major scale. And, not only on the level of mere memorization but also on the hearing, tactile and technical levels.


On the Guitar

Go ahead and familiarize yourself with the scale on your fretboard. It can be played using a combination of fretted notes and open strings (also referred to as the open position):

C-major-scale-open C D E F G A B C
[Notice open D, G and B strings]
Please refer to A Modern Method for Guitar

Or it can be played using only one string at a time (also referred to as horizontal playing):

c-major-scale-singleC D E F G A B C
[Notice the distance between E-F and B-C]
Please refer to The Advancing Guitarist


Hearing It by Singing It

I believe the most important aspect for all jazzers is to really hear the sound of this scale. Understanding the theory is optional in the beginning. I suggest you play and learn this scale from an aural perspective at first. Also, it is highly common for jazz guitarists to sing along to their playing. Try it! It helps reinforce the link between your fingers (what you play) and your ears (what you hear inside.)

This basic scale is so easy to hear and recognize that it is worth trying right now! Sing it. :-)


In Position

Finally, the major scale can also be played "in position" (one finger to a fret for the fretting hand alignment). This is usually what is taught in guitar methods. See this course:

how to play jazz guitar: painless scale positions

Painless Scale Positions: The Complete Course. In this course, you'll master scales in the common "positions system" efficiently, easily and logically. The program contains over 2.5 hours of videos, numerous PDF and FIFTEEN assignments to keep track of your progress. Plus, a friendly teacher delivers the materials to you step-by-step. (-: (watch video to learn the major scale in positions)

It is a very good way to "compartmentalize" the neck. You will get familiar with the whole instrument dealing with it chunk by chunk.

c-major-scale-position This is the "2nd position" because the index
finger of the fretting hand is aligned with
the second fret... I like to call it the
5-2 position in my articles on position playing.


Lastly, here's the free article series on Positions :
-1- How to Have Six Fingers and Control the Universe
-2- Top Must-Know Positions for Jazz Guitar
-3- Scales Polishing and Connecting


The scales can also be played in a "diagonal" way on the guitar. (but don't tell anyone!)


Theory: Scale Construction

The theoretical side of the major scale is easy to grasp. It is built of seven notes that are laid out using intervals of major and and minor seconds. See the theory section on for deeper, more thorough explanations on this.An interval is the distance between two notes; they're named by ranks (depending on how big the leap is): seconds, thirds, fourths, fifths, etc.

The half-step is a minor second the whole step is a major second. 

The half-step interval is one fret away while the whole step is two frets away.

The formula for major scale construction is :W  -  W  -  H  -  W  -  W  -  W  -  H

(W stands for whole-step and H for half-step)

For example, C major scale:

__whole step__


__whole step__


__whole step__


__whole step__


__whole step__


The half-steps are between the third-fourth and seventh-first degrees of the scale (E-F and B-C in the case of C major.)

Look at the single-string version above for frets 5-6 and 11-12.The placement of those half-steps in two specific location creates this scale's unique sound characteristics. Looking at a piano keyboard also clear things up for me:

Piano Layout: the major scale

(there's no black key between E-F and B-C)


THE Reference

The major scale is the point of reference for building other scales with a different sound. The numbers 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 are the major scale degree. We alter the major scale degree with flats (b = half-step lower) and sharps (# = half-step higher) in order to get different scales.

For example:

Melodic Minor Scale Formula : 1 2 b3 4 5 6 7
Harmonic Minor Scale Formula : 1 2 b3 4 5 b6 7
Mixolydian Mode : 1 2 3 4 5 6 b7
Dorian Mode : 1 2 b3 4 5 6 b7

...feeehhweew... ok that's all for the theory!

Once more: if you like this, please refer to the theory section on this website.

Feeling adventurous? Check out our FREE guide on chord substitutions!

Ever wonder how jazz guitarists get all these fresh and different sounds out of their comping and solo guitar playing? Well, a lot of that has to do with the use of chord substitutions. In our guide, we’ll go over the basics and even some more sophisticated techniques you can use to spice up your harmonic content!