The Diary Of A Guitarist: The Major Scale And Chord Construction

For Beginners: an explanation of the major scale and some very basic chord construction.

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Introduction: When I began attempting to teach myself to play the guitar, the major scale was one of the first things I researched and I discovered that the information I found was either inaccurate or poorly explained, so I will be trying to explain the Major Scale in a way that is understandable and coherent. If I am not clear on any point, then please feel free to send me a message and I will elaborate or clarify as necessary. The Major Scale (do-re-mi-fa-so-la-te-do) is a vital part of music theory for any beginning musician or vocalist. The major scale can be used in creating harmonies, chord progressions, constructing chords, etc. I will explain the musical alphabet, the major scale, as well as showing examples of the major scale, and then I will be explaining some basics of chord construction using the major scale. The Musical Alphabet:
A   A#/Bb   B   C   C#/Db   D   D#/Eb   E   F   F#/Gb   G   G#/Ab   A
# = sharp, b = flat
The musical alphabet consists of the above notes, which travel for an octave and then repeat themselves. For example, the top string on the guitar (if you are tuned to standard tuning), played open, is an E so the first fret is an F and the second fret is an F# also known as Gb and so on, till at the 12th fret you have traveled an octave and are once again at an E. The Major Scale: While explaining the major scale I will be using the terms whole step and half step. The most basic understanding you need of these two terms is a whole step is an interval of two frets, and a half step is an interval of one fret. I will sometimes be using the letter w to represent a whole step and an h to represent a half step. w = whole step = two frets = two spaces down on the musical alphabet h = half step = one fret = one space down on the musical alphabet The major scale can be represented as follows: w w h w w w h The note that we start at would be the root of the scale, sometimes I may refer to the root simply by the letter r, and the scale is named after the root. If we started the scale at the 3rd fret of the top E string, which is a G note, then G would be the root and the scale would be the G Major Scale. Following the formula for the G Major Scale would produce the following notes: G, A, B, C, D, E, F# and then return to the G and start over. Below are examples of different ways to play the G Major Scale on the guitar.
On a single string
e--------------------------------
B--------------------------------
G--------------------------------
D--------------------------------
A--------------------------------
E--3--5--7--8--10--12--14--15----
In a Box Position (called a box position because the entire scale could be played without shifting the hand up or down the neck.)
e-----------------------------------
B-----------------------------------
G-----------------------------------
D-----------------2--4--5-----------
A--------2--3--5--------------------
E--3--5-----------------------------
The previous Box Position only traveled through one active, but the scale could technically continue as shown in the following example.
e-----------------------------------------2--3--
B-----------------------------------3--5--------
G--------------------------2--4--5--------------
D-----------------2--4--5-----------------------
A--------2--3--5--------------------------------
E--3--5-----------------------------------------
For future reference, though it isn't important for this article, the major scale has 5 different box positions, which can be thought of as patterns. After the 5 patterns, then you start over as they repeat themselves. I will go over the different box patterns in a future article, but for the time being it is only important that you understand the progression of intervals that make up the major scale (w w h w w w h). Basic Chord Construction: (Major, Minor and Power Chords) There are a few formulas for chords that everyone should know, and I will try to cover three of those below, and then give examples of each. First, I want to point out that a chord, like a scale, has a root, and the root should always be the lowest tone in the chord it should be the bass note. The exception to this are inverted chords and some other odd chord types we will not be discussing in this article. The Major Chord is made up of the root, the third degree, and the fifth degree of the major scale (so, it can be thought of as 1, 3 and 5 of the scale). So looking at the G Major Scale below to formulate a G Major Chord, we would see that those notes are G,B and D.
G   G#/Ab   A   A#/Bb   B   C   C#/Db   D   D#/Eb   E   F   F#/Gb   G   
R           W           W   H           W           W        W      H
1           2           3   4           5           6        7   Octave    
Something to keep in mind when constructing chords, if that outside of the root note being the bass note, the other tones do not have to be in any specific order, and the notes can repeat themselves in the chord. To illustrate my point, below are some examples of a G Major Chord.
e----3-------3-------3-------3-----
B----0-------3-------3-------3-----
G----0-------0-------4-------4-----
D----0-------0-------5-------5-----
A----2-------X-------5-------------
E----3-------3-------3-------------
All of the examples above are G Major Chords, all of them have a G note as their root or bass note, all of them are made up solely of the notes G, B, and D but those notes repeat in each of the examples differently. This is referred to as voicings, so you could say that above we have illustrated 4 possible voicings for a G Major Chord. There are other voicings for the G Major Chord, which you can construct if you want to test this knowledge. Keep in mind, that you would just use the corresponding scale for whatever chord you are trying to construct, an A Major Scale for A Major Chord, etc. The Minor Chord is made up of the root, the FLATTED third degree, and the fifth degree of the major scale (1, b3, and 5). When I say a flatted third degree, this means one half step lower than the third degree. When someone uses flat or flatted as a verb or adjective in music theory it means to lower the tone by one half step. Still using G as our example, this would make a G Minor Chord made up of the following notes G, Bb, and D. Again, the root note should be the bass note, but otherwise as long as all three notes appear in the chord, they can repeat themselves. Below are some different examples or different voicings of the G Minor Chord.
e----3---------------3-------3-----
B----X---------------3-------3-----
G----0-------0-------3-------3-----
D----0-------0-------5-------5-----
A----1-------1-------5-------------
E----3-------3-------3-------------
Keep in mind that you can test this knowledge by working out even more voicings for the G Minor Chord. The Power Chord, also known as a 5 chord (i.e., a G power chord could be written as G5) is made up of only the root note and the 5th degree of the major scale. Power chords are predominately (almost exclusively) rooted on the E or A string, though a power chord can be rooted on any of the top 5 strings. Again, the root must be the bass note and after that the 5th degree of the scale and the root can repeat each other in the chord. The G power chord, or G5 would be made up of the G and D notes. Below are some different examples of the G Power Chord, or G5 chord.
e-----------------------------------------------------10------
B------------------------------------------3----15-----8------
G--------------------0---------------7-----0----12------------
D------------5-------5-------12------5------------------------
A----5-------5-------5-------10-------------------------------
E----3-------3-------3----------------------------------------
The power chord is a great sounding chord with distortion and/or palm muting. Also, the fingering of the power chord is easy, which makes them great for songwriting as a novice guitarist. Even if the finished song doesn't use power chords it is easier to initially create the song and come up with the chord progression and rhythm with power chords. Final Thoughts: Hopefully, I have explained the major scale and chord construction in an easy to understand and coherent manner. While this is very simple and basic theory it is very often poorly explained. If you have any questions, criticism or advice, then please comment or send me a message. Thanks!

22 comments sorted by best / new / date

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    AeolianWolf
    KG6_Steven wrote: I view inversions from the point of the guitarist and pianist. I have no knowledge of their use in an orchestral setting, so I won't even attempt to address it.
    this is the only thing i take issue with. the only thing relevant in the classification of inversions is the bass note. a second inversion Cmaj chord doesn't have to be in the other G, C, E - G, E, C is also (or, rather, could also be, depending on context) a second inversion Cmaj chord. orchestration aside, you'll find the same thing to be true in four-part harmony. guitar, piano, orchestra, chorus -- it really doesn't matter what instrument it's on. the theory behind inversions doesn't change - the first thing you determine is the chord, then you look at the bass note. that bass note determines what inversion the chord is in.
    katalyzt13
    KG6_Steven wrote: Haven't read the entire lesson yet, but one thing did jump out at me. When I saw your example of G Major chords, the second one, 3x0033, is wrong. This is no longer a G Major chord. Why? It's missing the 3rd interval! There's no B in that chord! If you change it to 320033, then we have a G Major chord.
    Ouch, thanks for catching that - I'm seeing a lot of little mistakes since I've posted this. You're right, the second example I have for a G Major is actually a G5. I also wanted to apologize as I've offended some people with referring to P5's and power chords as actually being chords, but when I look at it, for all practical purposes for a guitarist, they are used as chords. There are entire songs made up of power chords, whether the technically meet the definition of a chord or not.
    KG6_Steven
    AeolianWolf wrote: KG6_Steven wrote: don't patronize me. i'm glad you teach guitar. i compose for orchestra. i think i understand why "we play notes other than the root in some chords". i think you need to listen to more classical music, rather than trying to teach me about open chord voicings like i'm some kind of rank amateur. i know you're trying to help, but you limit yourself to inversions seen only from the viewpoint of a guitarist (b/w bassist) and not from the viewpoint of a musician. in classical music, the order of notes does not matter. if you have an instrumentation of a woodwind quartet, horn quartet, and string quartet (with contrabass), and you orchestrate a Cmaj chord so that the lowest note, an E, is played by the tuba, bassoon, and cello/contrabass, but the second lowest note, a C, is played by the trombone, it is still a first inversion Cmaj chord. all inversions can be made into slash chords. all slash chords are not necessary inversions (Gm/C#, for example).
    Stop. I think you misunderstood my intentions just as much as much as I was unaware of your ability to compose for orchestra. Your initial comment came off as one from someone who didn't understand why the chord tone is in the root - and that's the angle I approached it from. I assumed you knew nothing of slash chords and inversions. There was no intent to patronize. I'm here to help. No thanks. Classical does absolutely nothing for me. I don't listen to it, there's absolutely no demand from any of my students to teach it, so I don't play it. I prefer classic rock. jazz, pop and country. Thanks. I was trying to help. However, I disagree. I view inversions from the point of the guitarist and pianist. I have no knowledge of their use in an orchestral setting, so I won't even attempt to address it. Again, no knowledge of classical music and not much interest, but thanks for the explanation. Regarding slash chords and inversions in your last statement - We're both in agreement.
    AeolianWolf
    KG6_Steven wrote: If you understand the reason behind the root of the chord being the lowest tone, then it makes sense. Listen to your favorite song. Pay close attention to the bass. Unless the bass player is jumping around and playing different intervals of the chords, you will usually hear him play the chord root. Most of the songs I listen to follow this structure - figure out the note the bass player is nailing and you've figured out the root note of the chord. He's playing a C, so I know it's going to be a C something... C Major, C Minor, C7, Csus... C something. So, the lowest note of my C chord needs to be a C. Let's say he's playing a vanilla C Major. The formula for a C Major dictates that we need a C, E and G. We can easily play an open C starting on the 5th string (x32010). Notice the lowest tone is a C and the 6th string is not played at all. Now, let's say our bass player gets a little tricky and he plays an E. It's not unusual for bass players to use the root, b3, 3 and 5 of chord tones. You, thinking that he's playing an E, fret and play an E Major, but it sounds like crap. You play an E Minor, but it doesn't sound much better. What's going on here? You play the C Major again and it works, however the C you're playing in the lowest position doesn't match his E. Now, you can play a standard open C, but play the open 6th string (032010). It's still a C chord, but now we've turned it into a slash chord, or C/E. The slash chord means that we're playing a C chord, but we're playing an E in the bass or root. What if the bass player were playing a G over the guitar player's C? Simple! Now we're playing a C/G, or 332010. Some guitar players will call these inversions, but we have to be careful. An inversion must follow a strict order of note placement. Take our C Major (C E G). To a piano player, the first inversion of C Major is E, G, C. The second inversion is G, C, E. Notice how the order of the notes stays the same, we just take the first note and make it the last. Eventually, we get back the same C, E, G that we started with. On guitar, it's not always possible to do a true inversion. Let's look at the open C. It uses these notes: C, E, G, C and E. If we make this a slash chord with E in the root, we have E, C, E, G, C and E. This is NOT a true inversion, hence it's called a slash chord. Same thing happens if we use a G in the root (332010). Still not a true inversion. I teach guitar on the weekends. I hope this has helped you understand why we play notes other than the root in some chords.
    don't patronize me. i'm glad you teach guitar. i compose for orchestra. i think i understand why "we play notes other than the root in some chords". i think you need to listen to more classical music, rather than trying to teach me about open chord voicings like i'm some kind of rank amateur. i know you're trying to help, but you limit yourself to inversions seen only from the viewpoint of a guitarist (b/w bassist) and not from the viewpoint of a musician. in classical music, the order of notes does not matter. if you have an instrumentation of a woodwind quartet, horn quartet, and string quartet (with contrabass), and you orchestrate a Cmaj chord so that the lowest note, an E, is played by the tuba, bassoon, and cello/contrabass, but the second lowest note, a C, is played by the trombone, it is still a first inversion Cmaj chord. all inversions can be made into slash chords. all slash chords are not necessary inversions (Gm/C#, for example).
    KG6_Steven
    AeolianWolf wrote: KG6_Steven wrote: I view inversions from the point of the guitarist and pianist. I have no knowledge of their use in an orchestral setting, so I won't even attempt to address it. this is the only thing i take issue with. the only thing relevant in the classification of inversions is the bass note. a second inversion Cmaj chord doesn't have to be in the other G, C, E - G, E, C is also (or, rather, could also be, depending on context) a second inversion Cmaj chord. orchestration aside, you'll find the same thing to be true in four-part harmony. guitar, piano, orchestra, chorus -- it really doesn't matter what instrument it's on. the theory behind inversions doesn't change - the first thing you determine is the chord, then you look at the bass note. that bass note determines what inversion the chord is in.
    I see your point. However, my experience and my discussion will only cover the point coming from that of a guitarist or pianist. In that small cross section, the order of the notes is relevent and important in making the distinction between a slash chord and an inversion. Were the article written from an orchestral standpoint, your viewpoint would be highly valid. It's valid anyway, but you have to remember, this is Ultimate-Guitar, not Ultimate-Orchestra. 99.9% of the people who visit this site are only interested in music from a guitarist's viewpoint. Okay, so maybe it's not quite 99.9%, but you get my idea. From that standpoint, the statements made by the author, as well as mine, are correct. I would encourage you to write an article explaining it from your viewpoint. I would read it in its entirety.
    KG6_Steven
    katalyzt13 wrote: KG6_Steven wrote: Haven't read the entire lesson yet, but one thing did jump out at me. When I saw your example of G Major chords, the second one, 3x0033, is wrong. This is no longer a G Major chord. Why? It's missing the 3rd interval! There's no B in that chord! If you change it to 320033, then we have a G Major chord. Ouch, thanks for catching that - I'm seeing a lot of little mistakes since I've posted this. You're right, the second example I have for a G Major is actually a G5. I also wanted to apologize as I've offended some people with referring to P5's and power chords as actually being chords, but when I look at it, for all practical purposes for a guitarist, they are used as chords. There are entire songs made up of power chords, whether the technically meet the definition of a chord or not.
    Hey, mistakes happen. They even creep into smoothly written magazine articles. No need to apologize. Technically, they're not chords, however, we guitarists have decided to call them chords. Walk into a room full of guitar players and ask them to play an E5 power chord, and you'll get a room full of guitarists playing an E5, or E power chord all at once. Not one of them will call you out on the carpet for having called it that. Just like the many guitarists who call the whammy bar a tremolo. Again, it's not the right name, but they'll know exactly what you mean. Call it a vibrato arm, which is the right name, and we'll still know exactly what you're talking about.
    MaggaraMarine
    that guy Strife wrote: Do-R-Mi-Fa-Sol-La-Si-Do ouatte de phoque is ''te'' doing there instead of Si ?
    "Si" is French name for "te". In Finland we use "te" instead of "si" and "so" instead of "sol". We have a reason for that because if you want a "so" sharp it's "si" and then you would have two "si"s. I don't know how it's in other countries but in Finland "so" sharp is "si". (And other sharps are Do->Di Re->Ri Fa->Fi La->Li.)
    braineater.
    I've been trying to understand basic chord construction for YEARS and could never understand it no matter who or what was explaining it, but this article really dumbed it down enough for me to get the gist. Thanks, bro.
    KG6_Steven
    AeolianWolf wrote: ...the root should always be the lowest tone in the chord it should be the bass note. The exception to this are inverted chords... i think it's ridiculous to say things like this. basically what you're saying is "yeah, the root should always be the lowest tone in the chord, except when it's not." other than that, good explanation. just remember that the power chord is not technically a chord and is a misnomer -- a chord must consist of 3 or more notes. a power chord should be considered a dyad (or interval, but in contexts, dyad is usually better).
    If you understand the reason behind the root of the chord being the lowest tone, then it makes sense. Listen to your favorite song. Pay close attention to the bass. Unless the bass player is jumping around and playing different intervals of the chords, you will usually hear him play the chord root. Most of the songs I listen to follow this structure - figure out the note the bass player is nailing and you've figured out the root note of the chord. He's playing a C, so I know it's going to be a C something... C Major, C Minor, C7, Csus... C something. So, the lowest note of my C chord needs to be a C. Let's say he's playing a vanilla C Major. The formula for a C Major dictates that we need a C, E and G. We can easily play an open C starting on the 5th string (x32010). Notice the lowest tone is a C and the 6th string is not played at all. Now, let's say our bass player gets a little tricky and he plays an E. It's not unusual for bass players to use the root, b3, 3 and 5 of chord tones. You, thinking that he's playing an E, fret and play an E Major, but it sounds like crap. You play an E Minor, but it doesn't sound much better. What's going on here? You play the C Major again and it works, however the C you're playing in the lowest position doesn't match his E. Now, you can play a standard open C, but play the open 6th string (032010). It's still a C chord, but now we've turned it into a slash chord, or C/E. The slash chord means that we're playing a C chord, but we're playing an E in the bass or root. What if the bass player were playing a G over the guitar player's C? Simple! Now we're playing a C/G, or 332010. Some guitar players will call these inversions, but we have to be careful. An inversion must follow a strict order of note placement. Take our C Major (C E G). To a piano player, the first inversion of C Major is E, G, C. The second inversion is G, C, E. Notice how the order of the notes stays the same, we just take the first note and make it the last. Eventually, we get back the same C, E, G that we started with. On guitar, it's not always possible to do a true inversion. Let's look at the open C. It uses these notes: C, E, G, C and E. If we make this a slash chord with E in the root, we have E, C, E, G, C and E. This is NOT a true inversion, hence it's called a slash chord. Same thing happens if we use a G in the root (332010). Still not a true inversion. I teach guitar on the weekends. I hope this has helped you understand why we play notes other than the root in some chords.
    AeolianWolf
    Tell most of the musicians on this site to play a perfect 5th with A as the root, and they'll give you the headlight stare. Ask them to play an A5 power chord and they can do it in their local Guitar Center all day long.
    musicians know what a P5 is. guitarists (or an instrumentalist in general) might not. i see nothing wrong with calling it a power chord, but it should be understood that it is not a chord, but a dyad. telling someone to play a perfect fifth with A as the root is simply not as practical as telling someone to play a P5 interval or dyad. i'm glad the term exists for ease of communication. i'm not so glad that it's a misnomer.
    AeolianWolf
    ...the root should always be the lowest tone in the chord it should be the bass note. The exception to this are inverted chords...
    i think it's ridiculous to say things like this. basically what you're saying is "yeah, the root should always be the lowest tone in the chord, except when it's not." other than that, good explanation. just remember that the power chord is not technically a chord and is a misnomer -- a chord must consist of 3 or more notes. a power chord should be considered a dyad (or interval, but in contexts, dyad is usually better).
    katalyzt13
    Sorry, I just realised that in the article I spelled "active" when I meant "octave". I will try to proof read better in the future.
    sooperduper19
    Guitarlicker wrote: Told me some of the stuff I missed when learning this stuff. Please keep going, You can be my theory teacher and save me money.
    Ditto. simplest theory explaination i've seen thus far
    Guitarlicker
    Told me some of the stuff I missed when learning this stuff. Please keep going, You can be my theory teacher and save me money.
    jamesnotjimmy
    It was pretty well and simply explained, and helped quite a bit, major and miner chord construction is what the title said and the article gave it, so it helps. You may want to edit it a bit, "rooted on the top 5 strings" and things like that and spelling, it's pretty obvious what you mean but since the rest is so simply good and it is for beginners you may want to fix those up. maybe there should be some more, until you can construct almost any chord. simple but very helpful.
    slasher2169
    Yeah great article man, kinda wishing I had this as a beginner would have made life so much easier. Please do post more
    KG6_Steven
    Haven't read the entire lesson yet, but one thing did jump out at me. When I saw your example of G Major chords, the second one, 3x0033, is wrong. This is no longer a G Major chord. Why? It's missing the 3rd interval! There's no B in that chord! If you change it to 320033, then we have a G Major chord. Reading the other comments... There is such a thing as a "power chord" or "5 chord." Technically, it's not a chord, but it's still referred to as one. To say it's a Perfect 5th is true, but pedantic. Tell most of the musicians on this site to play a perfect 5th with A as the root, and they'll give you the headlight stare. Ask them to play an A5 power chord and they can do it in their local Guitar Center all day long.
    mrddrm
    UGHHHH! There is no such thing as a "power chord" or a "5 chord" It is a Perfect 5th. It is an interval. Even if you put the octave on top of it, it still remains a Perfect 5th! You obviously know some theory, please, don't let this atrocity continue of mislabeling an interval as a chord! This aside, I was a little disappointed when you got to the major chord and chord progression section that you basically said, "Use P5 and mess around until you find something you like for a progression!" Whilst this is a good thing to do when you are new, chord progressions are easy to configure with basic theory. Scale degrees ^1-^7 each have a set maj/min. ^1, ^4, and ^5 are major the rest are minor except ^7 which is diminished because of the leading tone. Knowing this, it is just a matter of "hmm... let's put a ^1 followed by a ^6 then a ^5 then a ^7" Easy. No need to use P5s only unless you want that type of timbre. Good beginner lesson, but also misleading.
    zionflux8k
    i have been playing guitar for 3 years and i've been searching for lessons on chord construction and major/minor scales out of curiosity, and i must say after reading this i can proudly say i've learnt it after 3 years since i started playing guitar! Its a wonderful lesson and very helpful. Cheers!
    MWriff
    Very good lesson for begginers, especially those wanting to play rythm aswell as lead like Hendrix or Frusciante, nice base knowledge.