Major Scale (and an explanation of modes!)

Guitar Lesson

Medium
120

In this guitar lesson I will introduce you to the Major Scale which is a necessary starting point before we get into the fun topic of modes!
Guitar Lesson Objectives:
  1. Understand the definition of a Major Scale
  2. Learn to play a major scale in various positions
  3. Visualize how a major scale appears throughout the fretboard
Ok, got it - just take me to the exercises for this lesson!

Perhaps you have been playing guitar for a while, have learned some riffs, and in general know how to come up with some decent sounding lines.  Maybe you feel like you are ready to take your guitar knowledge to the next level. Well, you landed in the right guitar lesson - the exciting world of scales and modes.

For many guitarists scales and modes is a scary topic, but in this guitar lesson I am going to break scales down into their essence - which is not complicated - and like with my other guitar lessons show you how to use visualization to reinforce your newly gained knowledge.

For starters, we are going to focus just on the Major Scale and I will talk a little bit about modes. In subsequent lessons I will cover modes in detail. There is just too much to cover in one lesson!


Let's get some basic theory down so that you will understand the essence of scales and modes (and see that it is not a scary topic!). Below is a C Major Scale in standard notation:

The C Major Scale  - also known as the C Ionian Mode - is made up of the notes C, D, E, F, G, A, B. We could then continue from the next C, which would then have us playing a C Major Scale in multiple octaves. In fact if you hit every white key on a piano in succession , starting from a C, you would be playing a C Major Scale across several octaves. 

There is a certain formula at work here that generates the C Major Scale and any major scale for that matter. Between each note above you see the spacing between the notes - either a whole (W) or half step (H). The formula for any major scale is W, W, H, W , W, W, H. So you could start from any note, say G, and build the major scale using this formula. A G Major Scale would then have the notes G, A, B, C, D, E, F#.  It is that simple!

What isn't so simple is developing the muscle memory and knowledge to play any major scale anywhere on the fretboard. But in this guitar lesson I am going to show you how to visualize major scales throughout  the fretboard.

Before you move on to the exercises in this guitar lesson, let me just give you a brief introduction to modes. A Major Scale is said to have 7 scale degrees. One for each note. Each degree corresponds to a mode.  To form a mode, we simply start a new scale from a given scale degree and go up 7 notes. They are the same notes as in the major scale, but the pattern of whole and half steps is different, which is what creates the unique sound of each mode.

You can try it for yourself, and you will notice that for any major scale, its modes are formed based on the below formulas:

Major Scale and Modes, and Formula for their Construction
Scale Degree and Mode Name         Formula  
1. Major/Ionian     W, W, H, W, W, W, H            
2. Dorian     W, H, W, W, W, H, W
3. Phrygian     H, W, W, W, H, W, W
4. Lydian     W, W, W, H, W, W, H
5. Mixolydian     W, W, H, W, W, H, W
6. Minor/Aeolian     W, H, W, W, H, W, W
7. Locrian     H, W, W, H, W, W, W


The above table tells you how to form any mode from any note. Say you want to know the Mixolydian scale/mode in the key of G. Well, since Mixolydioan is the 5th degree of a major scale, you would start from the 5th note of the G Major Scale, which if you refer back above, you will see it is D. Since you already know the notes of G Major, there is really no sense in applying the above Mioxolydian formula. You would just start G Major Scale from D. D, E, F#, G, A, B, C is D Mixolydian in the key of G Major. But say you just wanted to build a Mixolydian Scale from some random note - how about F. If you don't know which major scale has F as its 5th note, then you could just use above formula for Mixloydian, which is W, W, H, W, W, H, W.

You then form F Mixolydian by going a whole step to G, whole step to A, half step to Bb, whole step to C, whole step to D, half step to Eb, whole step to F. You end up with F Mixolydian having the notes F, G, A, Bb, C, D, Eb.

The other important thing about modes is that each mode corresponds to a certain type of triad or 7th chord. I talk about this in my Triad Arpeggios Guitar Lesson, so please take a look if you need to review. The next logical step from Triad Chords is 7th Chords, which are formed in a similar way - you just take a given triad, and go up two notes from the last note in the triad (this amounts to stacking yet another third interval on top of the triad).

Consider the C Major Scale for example:


Based on the type of third interval between each note (minor or major third), we see that there are 4 unique 7th chords that arise out of a major scale. The below table summarizes:

Scale Degrees7th Chord TypeIntervals between notes
1, 4Major 7thmajord 3rd - minor 3rd - major 3rd
2, 3, 6Minor 7thminor 3rd - major 3rd - minor 3rd
5Dominant 7thmajor 3rd - minor 3rd - minor 3rd
7Minor 7th(b5)minor 3rd - minor 3rd - major 3rd


So take the Cmaj7, for example. It has notes C, E, G, B. From the above table, we can see that for a Major 7th chord, we have a major 3rd from C to E, minor third from E to G, and major third from G to B.

We could apply above to any scale. For G Major, we know how to determine the notes from above formula, and we also now know how to form the corresponding 7th chords for each mode. We end up with the following:

Scale Degree/Note7th ChordChord Notes
1 - GGmaj7G, B, D, F#
2 - AAm7A, C, E, G
3 - BBm7B, D, F#, A
4 - CCmaj7C, E, G, B
5 - DD7D, F#, A, C
6 - EEm7E, G, B, D
7 - F#F#m7(b5)F#, A, C, E


The above explanation is just a brief intro to modes. We are going to get into modes in much deeper detail in other guitar lessons, including how modes relate to chords/arpeggios.  For now it is enough that you understand that modes simply come about from starting a major scale from each note/degree of the scale, and that the resulting series of whole and half steps produces a unique sound - the mode's sound.

Ok, now that we have some basic theory behind us, let's have you play a G Major Scale in various positions on the fretboard, which will give you foundation for mastering any major scale thanks to the guitar's symmetry!


Exercises in this Major Scales Guitar Lesson

Major Scale (Ionian Mode) - On One String

Medium
47

There is no better place to start learning about scales and modes than the Major Scale - so let's get started.

Major Scale - Shape 1

Medium
19

In this exercise, I will show you a shape for a Major Scale in one octave that we will use throughout the fretboard to help you see scales everywhere!

Another Useful Major Scale Form - Shape 2

Easy
9

In this exercise, you will continue visualizing and practicing a Major Scale in several positions on the fretboard, to help you further make linkages between scales and the fretboard.

Playing a Major Scale Across 6 Strings Using 3-Notes-Per-String

Hard
10

In this exercise, you will see one way to play a Major Scale across 6 strings, which will be the basis for a lot of future scale exercises that you will see on this site.