Somehow, the guitar is one of the easiest and most difficult instruments to master. Want to learn how to play hundreds of popular songs? In many cases, all you need to understand is a few basic chord shapes and strumming patterns. Remember the last time you heard “Time of Your Life” by Green Day? Yeah, the entire thing is just four chords.
But what if you want to be a lead guitarist in a band? How do you play some of those tasty licks that you’ve heard? The foundation of your favorite guitar solos is rooted in learning how to play major guitar scales.
While there are different neck shapes and sizes that could make it easier to play major scales on guitar, learning them will take a good amount of practice. But with a bit of consistency and persistence, you can learn how to play major scales on guitar. Let’s dive in.
The Mechanics of a Major Scale
Before we get into specific guitar major scales, let’s chat about how to construct a major scale on any instrument. And for this exercise, we’ll use a piano.
Let’s start with the first key in our image, which is C. When we travel to the black key directly above C, that’s what musicians consider a half step, or C to C#. Now, let’s travel to the white key next to C, which would take us to D. That’s what musicians call a whole step.
Following so far? Great. Now, let’s explore the formula for building a major scale: whole step, whole step, half step, whole step, whole step, whole step, half step.
Now we’ll unpack this by building a C major scale, which includes the following notes: C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C.
Simple, right? C major is one of the most basic scales on the planet, at least on the piano. Let’s do the same exercise, but we’ll build a D major scale this time: D, E, F# (black key), G, A, B, C# (black key), D.
Of course, you’re wondering how to learn major scales on guitar. How does this all apply to the frets on your guitar? In some ways, it’s actually easier to understand.
Want to move up a half step in a scale? Just move your finger to the next fret. Want to play a whole step? Move your finger two frets from the one you’re on. We’ll get into some more specific techniques for playing major scales on guitar later, but if you had to, you could play an entire major scale on just one string.
The 12 Major Scales on Guitar
Before you dive in, you probably have one pressing question: How many major scales are there in guitar?
Whether you’re playing the guitar, a piano, or a mellophone, there are 12 major scales that you should know how to play:
- C Major
- G Major
- D Major
- A Major
- E Major
- B Major
- F# Major
- C# Major
- F Major
- Eb Major
- Ab Major
- Db Major
We’ve curated notation and guitar tabs to help you understand what are the major guitar scales. We’ll also explore some of the basics of reading guitar tablature, including how to identify your root (or beginning) note and the fingers with which you should play each note of a scale. If you’re feeling more adventurous and want to learn how to play major and minor pentatonic scales on guitar, check out this great Skillshare class.
But if you get lost at any point, there’s a hack to help you remember how to build a guitar major scale. Skillshare instructor Chris Rupp explains that if you want to go up a whole step on a guitar, you can either travel two frets up on the same string or three frets down on the next higher string. To go down just a half step, you’ll need to travel four frets down to the next string.
This rule changes slightly when you’re playing on the third to the second string (G and B). If you need to go up a whole step on those strings, you’ll only need to travel two frets down to the next string. To play the next half step up, you’ll need to travel three frets down to the next string.
OK, ready to play some major guitar scales? Great! But first, let’s do a quick crash course on how to read guitar notation and tablature.
But First, a Note About Reading Tablature
If you’ve just begun exploring how to learn major scales on guitar, I’m willing to bet that reading sheet music is also a new adventure—and that’s OK! Guitarists use what are known as “tabs” to write music out on paper, and many beginner-level guitarists find them much easier to reference than traditional musical notation.
Here’s what the C major scale looks like when written out in guitar tablature:
Take a look at the TAB section of our sheet music. Each of the six lines represents a string on your guitar. The lowest string (low E) is at the bottom, while the highest string (high E) is at the top. On each string, you’ll find a number, which indicates the fret that you need to play. So in this instance, you’d start C major by pressing the third fret on the second string with your left hand and playing the second string with your guitar pick.
Reading tabs isn’t necessarily easy, but it is a great entry point for a beginner-level guitarist who’s looking to take their playing to the next level.
1. C Major Scale
OK, time to play some actual scales. We’ve explored C major on piano. Now let’s unpack it on the guitar.
To review, the notes in C major include C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C. Because there are no tricky sharps or flats to be aware of, the key of C is often one of the first keys that music students explore. On the guitar, you can find the root (or beginning) note of C major by pressing the third fret on the second string. Then, use the tablature above to play the rest of the scale.
2. G Major Scale
G major is also among the first scales that music students explore. The notes in G major include the following: G, A, B, C, D, E, F#, G.
As you can see above, you can find the root note of G major by pressing the third fret on your low E string. The example above takes players through G major across several octaves, but we suggest focusing on the first seven notes in this chart before moving on to other positions along the fretboard.
3. D Major Scale
D major is a particularly useful scale to know if you’re looking to play folk or pop music. Whenever I deal with writer’s block on the guitar, I tend to improvise over D major for inspiration.
Because the third string of the guitar is tuned to D, the root note of our scale can be played by simply strumming the third string without holding any frets. The notes in D major include the following: D, E, F#, G, A, B, C#, D.
4. A Major Scale
Here’s where we really start to enter the wonderful and sometimes frustrating world of sharps, which are a semitone higher than the note written on the page. To learn how to play A major on the guitar, I’d suggest focusing less on the traditional notation and using the tablature to get started.
A major is similar to D major in that the root note can be played without holding any frets. In this case, our scale begins by playing the second string “open,” or without any frets. For reference, the notes in A major include the following: A, B, C#, D, E, F#, G#, A.
5. E Major Scale
Unless you’re reading this guide without having played the guitar at all, there’s a decent chance that E major was one of the first chords you learned how to play. Now, let’s explore how to play each note of the scale.
Again, we find our root note simply by playing the low E string without holding any frets. This is another example of tablature that takes you up several octaves of the E major scale. However, get comfortable playing the first bar of this tab before moving on to other sections of your fretboard. As we’ve done for the other scales we’ve covered, here are the notes in E major: E, F♯, G♯, A, B, C♯, and D♯.
6. B Major Scale
We’ve come to the end of the road—at least in terms of major scales that begin with open strings.
In this case, we find our root note on the second fret of the second string. Again, it’s worth emphasizing that beginners should focus on the first bar of the tablature above before moving on to other sections of the fretboard. The notes in B major include the following: B, C♯, D♯, E, F♯, G♯, and A♯.
7. F# Major Scale
There are several keys on which I’ll often cheat and use a guitar capo, which allows me to play in the right key without maneuvering along the fretboard. That’s a lesson for another day.
You’ll find your root note on the second fret of your low E string. Musicians like to joke with each other by “exploring” the difference between F# major and Gb major. If you find yourself in a conversation like this, just know that they’re essentially the same key.
As you explore the tablature, here are the exact notes you’re playing in F# major: F#, G#, A#, B, C#, D#, E#.
8. C# Major Scale
When I was playing in orchestras, I’d shout “oh no, six sharps” whenever we were handed a piece in C# major. As you progress, playing C# major might get trickier further along the fretboard. But for now, use the principles we’ve discussed here to master the basics of C# major.
You’ll find your root note by playing the 9th fret on the low E string. Then, use the knowledge you have about building major scales to play the rest of C# major. If you get lost, here are the notes in C# major: C♯, D♯, E♯, F♯, G♯, A♯, and B♯.
9. F Major Scale
F major is our first opportunity to explore flat notes, which is a semitone lower than the note on the page. In this instance, we have one flat note to, well, note.
To locate your root note, press the first fret on the low E string. As always, here are the notes in F# major: F, G, A, Bb, C, D, and E.
10. Eb Major Scale
More flats! On wind instruments like the ones I played in high school, this was often a nightmare. But like most of the tricky major scales we’ve covered so far, remember that the rules of building a scale on the guitar apply, no matter how many sharps or flats are in a key signature.
You’ll locate your root note by playing the 11th fret on your low E string. As we’ve done in previous keys, here are the notes that you’ll play in Eb major: Eb, F, G, Ab, Bb, C, and D.
11. Ab Major Scale
I’ll be honest: I don’t play a lot of songs in Ab major. If you’re looking to play pop or even most rock songs, you won’t need to master this scale right away. But to become a versatile and reliable guitarist, it’s still important to learn these less common, but critical major scales.
Locating the root note in Ab is simple. Press the fourth fret on the low E string and use the major scale formula to build from there. The notes in Ab major include the following: Ab, Bb, C, Db, Eb, F, and G
12. Db Major Scale
Our final major scale is also one that I haven’t played since high school. And like we did with our Ab major exercise, we’ll avoid showing you too many octaves of Db major for now.
To begin Db major, play the 9th fret on the low E string. As you can see in the tablature above, your fingers won’t need to stretch too far to play most of this scale. As a reference, the notes in Db major include the following: Db, Eb, F, Gb, Ab, Bb, and C.
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