Chapter 2 - Major Scales on One String

Objectives: In this chapter, you'll learn what scales are and how to play major scales across any string.

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What's a Scale

A scale (in music) is a sequence of notes played in a specific order. You can take any set of notes, play them in order, and invent your own scale. But there are many pre-defined scales in music. The most familiar scales have seven notes. (When played, we usually play the first note again at the end of the scale at a higher pitch to make the scale sound complete. This makes the scale sound like eight notes.)

Unless you have a well-trained ear, many of these scales will sound the same. It's hard to really hear the differences in the scale alone. You often need to hear them in context - like in a song with other instruments. There are hundreds of scales, including:

...and a ton of modal scales such as...

...and exotic scales like...

...and more. There are hundreds of scales across Western, Eastern, and other cultures. The major scale is the most basic to Western music and the one we'll start with in this chapter. The others are advanced and we won't get to those for a while. The major scale is also the scale that all others are based on and compared to.

By the way, Western music doesn't mean country music, music from the Ol' West, or music from California. Western music is music originating from the Western hemisphere of Earth (North America, South America, and the western parts of Europe, Africa, Oceana, and Antarctica.) Eastern scales and music often sound weird to people who have heard only Western scales and music throughout their lives.

What's a Major Scale?

A major scale is a seven-note scale that adheres to a specific formula. Before I share the formula, we need to learn about scale degrees.

Scale Degrees

Each note in a scale is referred to as a degree. The first note of a scale is the first degree, the second note of a scale is the second degree, the third note is the third degree, and so on. As a major scale has only seven notes, there are only seven degrees. Let's look at the notes in a C major scale as an example.

Note C D E F G A B
Degree 1 2 3 4 5 6 7

The Major Scale Formula

What makes the major scale sound like a major scale, the diminished scale sound like the diminished scale, and the Romanian Minor scale sound like the Romanian Minor scale is the scale formula. Every scale has a unique formula that creates a unique sound. The formula for a major scale is a sequence of half-steps (H) and whole steps (W):
W W H W W W H

When combined with the degrees, you can see the half-steps fall between degrees 3 to 4 and 7 to 8. (The 8th degree doesn't really exist. It's simply the 1st degree repeated an octave higher. It's labeled as 8 rather than another 1 to indicate it's a higher pitch.)

Degree 1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8
Steps   W   W   H   W   W   W   H  

Add the notes to the chart and you get the C major scale (a major scale with C as the 1st degree).

Note C   D   E   F   G   A   B   C
Degree 1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8
Steps   W   W   H   W   W   W   H  

Notice how nicely things work out with the C major scale:

C Scale on One String

When the term scale is used by itself with only a note name, it's understood it's a major scale. For example, C scale means C major scale and F scale means F major scale. If we want a different scale, we have to use its full name, like C melodic minor scale. So - let's play a C scale on one string. Grab your guitar and follow the steps:

  1. Since we want a C scale, we need to find a C note to start. Let's choose the 2nd string at the 1st fret. We'll also label the degree below the note. Play it and say out loud, "First degree, C".
  2. Now, say out loud, "From one to two is a whole step. A whole step higher than C is D." Move up a whole step (two frets) and play the D.
  3. Now, say out loud, "From two to three is a whole step. A whole step higher than D is E." Move up a whole step (two frets) and play the E.
  4. Now, say out loud, "From three to four is a half-step. A half-step higher than E is F." Move up a half-step (one fret) and play the F.
  5. Now, say out loud, "From four to five is a whole step. A whole step higher than F is G." Move up a whole step (two frets) and play the G.
  6. Now, say out loud, "From five to six is a whole step. A whole step higher than G is A." Move up a whole step (two frets) and play the A.
  7. Now, say out loud, "From six to seven is a whole step. A whole step higher than A is B." Move up a whole step (two frets) and play the B.
  8. Finally, say out loud, "From seven to eight is a half-step. A half-step higher than B is C." Move up a half-step (one fret) and play the C.

A Different C Scale

Now let's play another C scale, but at a different location on the neck. The steps are the same. First, find your starting note. Let's use the C note at the 3rd fret of the 5th string.

  1. Say, "My starting note is C" and then play it.
  2. Say, "From one to two is a whole step. A whole step higher than C is D." Move up a whole step (two frets) and play the D at the 5th fret.
  3. Say, "From two to three is a whole step. A whole step higher than D is E." Move up a whole step (two frets) and play the E at the 7th fret.
  4. Say, "From three to four is a half-step. A half-step higher than E is F." Move up a half-step (one fret) and play the F at the 8th fret.
  5. Say, "From four to five is a whole step. A whole step higher than F is G." Move up a whole step (two frets) and play the G at the 10th fret.
  6. Say, "From five to six is a whole step. A whole step higher than G is A." Move up a whole step (two frets) and play the A at the 12th fret.
  7. Say, "From six to seven is a whole step. A whole step higher than A is B." Move up a whole step (two frets) and play the B at the 14th fret.
  8. Say, "From seven to eight is a half-step. A half-step higher than B is C." Move up a half-step (one fret) and play the C at the 15th fret.

Any Scale on Any String

At this point, you don't even have to know the note names to play a scale. As long as you follow the pattern of whole steps and half-steps, you'll get a major scale. One more thing - the term root note is the same as the 1st degree. The first note is the start, or root, of the scale. It's common to label the 1st degree with the letter R (for root) rather than with the number 1.

  1. Play the 3rd fret at the 3rd string and just say "Root note" as you play it.
  2. Say, "From one to two is a whole step," move up a whole step and play the 2nd degree.
  3. Say, "From two to three is a whole step," move up a whole step and play the 3nd degree.
  4. Say, "From three to four is a half-step," move up a half-step and play the 4th degree.
  5. Say, "From four to five is a whole step," move up a whole step and play the 5th degree.
  6. Say, "From five to six is a whole step," move up a whole step and play the 6th degree.
  7. Say, "From six to seven is a whole step," move up a whole step and play the 7th degree.
  8. Say, "From seven to eight is a half-step," move up a half-step and play the 8th degree.
  9. You just played a B♭ scale because you started on a B♭ note and followed the pattern!

Your Turn

Now play a scale of your choosing. Pick any fret on any string as your starting point (root note). Follow the pattern of WWHWWWH to play the major scale. Finally, go back to the root note and figure out what note it is so you know what scale you just played. You'll need to use your ears and really listen as you play to make sure it "sounds right" and that you didn't mix up the formula. Do this now. I'll wait...

Looking Ahead

In the next chapter, you'll figure out the note names for every major scale! Until then, try this chapter's Challenge.

Challenge 1

If you've done everything this chapter asked you, you've played at least three different major scales: C, B♭, and one of your choosing. In this Challenge, you'll play every major scale there is.

Recall there are 7 natural notes: ABCDEFG. Let's write those in a table so we can see where the half-steps and whole steps occur naturally. (Half-steps between E-F and B-C.) Remember these are the white keys on a piano.

Note Name A whole
step
B C whole
step
D whole
step
E F whole
step
G whole
step
A

Now between each pair of notes a whole step apart, let's write in the "in between" note. Remember those notes are the black keys on a piano and have enharmonic names.

Note Name A A♯/B♭ B C C♯/D♭ D D♯/E♭ E F F♯/G♭ G G♯/A♭ A

Notice our table starts and ends with the note A, so we'll only count the first one. This leaves us with a total of 12 different notes - the entire musical alphabet. We have seven natural notes (A, B, C, D, E, F, and G) and five accidental notes (A♯/B♭, C♯/D♭, D♯/E♭, F♯/G♭, and G♯/A♭). That's all the notes there are. Just twelve.

Do This

Your challenge is to play a major scale starting from each of the 12 notes. You've already played C, B♭, and one more that you chose. Now play all 12 scales. Play the scales in the following order.

  1. C
  2. G
  3. D
  4. A
  5. E
  6. B
  7. F♯/G♭
  8. C♯/D♭
  9. G♯/A♭
  10. D♯/E♭
  11. A♯/B♭
  12. F

Be sure to follow these guidelines for each scale, filling in the ♫ symbol with the correct note name. When naming notes in a scale that starts with an enharmonic accidental - like D♯/E♭ - choose to start with the ♭. The only exceptions are F♯/G♭ and C♯/D♭. In those cases, start with either one. Why? If you start with the ♯, you'll end up needing to use one or more double sharps (double sharp) somewhere in the scale, which can be confusing right now. F♯/G♭ and C♯/D♭ are the only ones that won't require a double sharp if you start with the ♯.

  1. Say, "My starting note is ♫" and then play it.
  2. Say, "From one to two is a whole step. A whole step higher than ♫ is ♫." Move up a whole step (two frets) and play the 2nd note.
  3. Say, "From two to three is a whole step. A whole step higher than ♫ is ♫." Move up a whole step (two frets) and play the 3rd note.
  4. Say, "From three to four is a half-step. A half-step higher than ♫ is ♫." Move up a half-step (one fret) and play the 4th note.
  5. Say, "From four to five is a whole step. A whole step higher than ♫ is ♫." Move up a whole step (two frets) and play the 5th note.
  6. Say, "From five to six is a whole step. A whole step higher than ♫ is ♫." Move up a whole step (two frets) and play the 6th note.
  7. Say, "From six to seven is a whole step. A whole step higher than ♫ is ♫." Move up a whole step (two frets) and play the 7th note.
  8. Say, "From seven to eight is a half-step. A half-step higher than ♫ is ♫." Move up a half-step (one fret) and play the 8th note.

Challenge 2

Challenge 2a - Play It Backwards

Repeat this chapter's regular challenge - but play each scale backwards. Every starting note should be at or above the 12th fret.

Challenge 2b - Improvise

To improvise means to play what you feel without reading music. When you're on stage jamming with a band and the bandleader looks at you and says, "Take it away!" - you'd improvise. Try this:

Summary

After completing this lesson, you should be able to answer these questions/do these things:

Answer These

Play These