The diatonic major scale is one of the most common scales in music. In this article we will discuss how to play the major scale on the guitar.

What is a Guitar Scale?

A guitar scale is an arrangement of notes played in succession from low to high. In a scale, the starting note and the ending note are the same name but the ending note is one octave higher. The notes found in between are what determines the type of scale. 

What is the Major Scale?

If you take a piano and play all the white keys successively, from C to C, you will end up playing the major scale. The C Major Scale consists of the notes C, D, E, F, G, A, and B.

The major scale is the most common scale in Western music, upon which the Western musical system of tonality is based. It is a diatonic scale and contains seven notes. The major scale can also be referred to as the Ionian mode.

Diatonic Scales

In Western Music, the most common scale type is the diatonic scale. This scale, of which the Major Scale is a type, consists of seven notes. The scale contains five whole steps and two half steps - these are just measures of the distance between the notes.

You can use the intervals in the scale to calculate which frets to place the fingers. The intervals in the major scale are: whole step, whole step, half step, whole step, whole step, whole step, half step.

How to Play the Major Scale on The Guitar

Knowing the interval distance between the guitar strings, as well as the intervals in the major scale, can help you to memorize the fingering for the major scale on the guitar.

Here is how to play the major scale on the guitar:

Start on the 6th  string and play three notes: the first note is the tonic, followed by the supertonic which is a whole step (two frets) above the tonic, then the mediant which is a whole step above the supertonic. Repeat these same intervals on the 5th string. Switch to the 4th string and move up one fret. Now play the subtonic note followed by the tonic a half step above.

The G Major Scale on the Guitar

It's possible to play any major scale on the guitar using this fingering pattern. Here we will look at the G Major Scale, starting on the sixth string note, G.

The notes in the G Major Scale are G, A, B, C, D, E, and F♯. The tonic note, G, is found on the sixth string at the third fret.

Here is the fingering for the two-octave major scale as I learned it, taken from Classical Guitar manuals.

The C Major Scale on Guitar

The Royal Conservatory Scales and Arpeggios book contains the exact fingering for the G Major scale shown above, which contains no position changes. Unfortunately, this fingering is not practical if you want to increase your playing or memorization speed of the scale.

The diatonic Major Scale just isn't as easy to play on the guitar as on the piano. When we play the major scale on the guitar over several strings, there are an unequal number of notes per string.

This type of fingering isn't very logical. Sometimes there are two notes per string; other times there are three. Sometimes we need to use fingers 1,2,4; other times it’s 1,3,4.

There is another way to finger the two-octave major scale: using a three-note-per-string pattern and using fingers 1,2,4 for most of the scale. The fingering is simplified, but this causes larger finger stretches. 

Here is the three note per string fingering pattern for the ascending G major scale:

Why I Prefer Three Notes Per String

Notice that we now play three notes per string, instead of a mixture of one, two or three notes per string.

Thankfully at the very last page of the Royal Conservatory Scales and Arpeggios Book, we find a helpful half-page about an alternative fingering to the major scale. This is the three-note-per-string fingering favoured by both heavy metal and flamenco guitarists for blazing fast performance speed of the Major Scale.

Here is the two octave G major scale, ascending and descending, fingered this time to have the exact same number of notes per fret:

How to Play the C Major Scale on the Guitar

I recommend playing the C Major scale, or any major scale for that matter, using the three-note-per-string method discussed above.

The notes in the C Major scale are C, D, E, F, G, A, B and C. Here is the fingering for the C Major scale starting on the note "C" at the fifth string third fret.  

C Major Scale

Problems with Fingering the Major Scale

The problem is that the three note per string pattern in the major scale generates some pretty wide stretches. You can solve this either by only playing in really high positions or just growing longer fingers.

What if we could find a scale that is as nice on the fingers as the major scale is to violinists, mandolinists and banjo pluckers?

Because of how those instruments are tuned (in fourths instead of fifths) the major scale is relatively straightforward to play. There are always an equal number of notes to play per string and there are no large stretches.

Licks that Use the Major Scale

The lick that is at the end of the Sungha Jung song "Riding a bicycle" uses the notes from the G Major Scale.