Major Scales Explained

A great lesson for finding out the creation of major and minor scales for those that don't know what they are!

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Ultimate Guitar
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Introduction. Well, here is my next installment of the Explained series on Music Theory. In this installation you will learn how to construct a major scale, apply it into music, how to construct a natural minor scale by using the major scale, and how to apply the natural minor scale into music. For now, I hope all of you beginners into the field of music theory understand this semi-lesson on one of the first things you need to know to begin your study of the art. Constructing The Major Scale. I'm pretty sure most of you have seen the posts in this forum about the WWHWWWH or TTSTTTS stuff. Well, let me explain that to you. In the WWHWWWH example, W means whole, or whole step (2 frets distance on guitar/bass). The H means half, or half step (1 fret distance on guitar/bass). So, the WWHWWWH example basically means 2 frets, 2 frets, 1 fret, 2 frets, 2 frets, 2 frets, 1 fret. Remember, all of this 2 frets/1 frets information means that you move down the fretboard towards the bridge 2 frets or 1 fret. Now for the TTSTTTS example. The T means tone, or one whole step, or 2 frets distance on guitar. The S means semitone, or half step, or 1 fret distance on guitar. So, it's basically the same thing, but with a different wording. Most people have varying ways on how to present the major scale using the WWHWWWH/TTSTTTS example. But for this lesson, I'll be using WWHWWWH (because I was taught that way).
Fig. 1-1

G major scale on one string (low E)
The notes are above, whole/half below. 

 G A B C D E F# G
E|-3-5-7-8-10-12-14-15-|
   W W H W W W H
This box is just a starting point, it's not to be used all of the time. There are more ways then one to play a major scale, and I chose this pattern here to show you.
Fig. 1-2

G major scale box, 6 string root. 
Red notes are G, the root of this example. 

E|---------------------------2-3--|
B|-----------------------3-5------|
G|-----------------2-4-5----------|
D|-----------2-4-5----------------|
A|-----2-3-5----------------------|
E|-3-5----------------------------|
In figure 1-1 I explained the major scale on one string. The major scale on one string is probably the easiest way to envision it. But, that won't help you're playing much at all, so, I also included the major scale on 6 strings, in a box position in Figure 1-2. So, for better soloing technique and playability, use the figure 1-2 when you're messing around, not Figure 1-1. Applying The Major Scale. Without actually applying theory to your music, knowing it is useless, so, now you know what's going to be explained in this part. Hopefully those of you that are reading this know how to play the major pentatonic and atleast one of its positions. Well, the major pentatonic is just the same as a major diatonic (a diatonic scale is a seven note scale) except the pentatonic does not include the 4th and the 7th of the major sclae. Because the major pentatonic is the same as the major diatonic - minus those notes - you can play the major scale anytime that you can play a major pentatonic. So, if a chord progression is in the key of C, you can play the C major scale to give your solo, lead, or riff a little bit more color. Now, when you are making your lead or solo or riff just remember that simply going up and down the major scale is not cool, so don't do that. Going up and down the scale just removes the tastefulness and makes it sound very uncreative. To get the major scale to sound good you have to have a melody and the notes have to be juggled. To juggle the notes around, simply don't play them in order. Constructing The Natural Minor Scale. Like the major scale, there are two ways you can think about when constructing the natural minor scale. The first of which involves the W's and H's and the second looks at thinking of the natural minor scale as an altered major scale by using scale degrees. Okay, here is the first method I mentioned. To make the natural minor scale use this: WHWWHWW; instead of this: WWHWWWH. Notice that the natural minor scale W's and H's start on the sixth note of the W's and H's of the major scale. Here I'll present them in a way in which you can tell the difference.
Major: WWHWWWH
Minor: WHWWHWW
So, to construct the natural minor scale take that pattern and apply it along one string. You should be able to hear the difference between a major scale on one string, and that of a natural minor on one string. Any minor, musical melody (try saying that three times fast) will sound sad, while a major, musical melody will sound joyous and happy. Here is the second in which the natural minor scale can be presented: not everything in music can be related back to one scale of one key. Therefore when we go from the key of A to G, you don't have to go back to your scale charts to figure out the G major scale or the A major scale. You can think of it as in degrees. Doing it this way is so much easier for you to switch music to another key, or to help in your solos. So, here is a little example of the degrees of a G major scale.
G A B C D E F#
1 2 3 4 5 6 7
Every major scale has those same degrees, no matter what key it is in. But, to create the natural minor scale, we're going to have to alter some of those degrees. Any minor melody sounds lower than its major counterpart of the same note, so, one can only guess how we're going to alter these notes (flatten=lower, sharpen=higher). So, we take the scale degrees of the major scale and we're going to flatten the third, sixth, and seventh one half step, or one fret distance. Here is the G natural minor scale and then the G natural minor scale compared to the G major scale.
Major: G A B C D E F#
Minor: G A Bb C D Eb F
So, to convert to the Minor pentatonic (the most overused scale ever) just take every note except the second and sixth of the natural minor scale. Applying The Natural Minor Scale. Just as the major scale can be substituted for the major pentatonic, the natural minor scale can be substituted for the minor pentatonic. Like I mentioned earlier, the minor pentatonic is heavily used in rock music, blues music, and just about any type of music today. While it isn't the only one used, it is used more than 3/4 of the time when soloing. So, when you want to use the minor pentatonic, rethink that idea, and try the natural minor scale. The natural minor scale includes the notes that add flavor and interest to the audience's ears. The notes excluded from the minor pentatonic (2nd and 6th) are farther on in the tonal strenghts of a chord. So, playing them over the chord would add something that intrigues the listeners leaving them in shock and awe, while the notes in the pentatonic sound so dull because they're overused. Note: while the natural minor scale can be used in substitution over the minor pentatonic, there are other minor scales you might want to try as well. You have the melodic minor and harmonic minor you can use to help venture further into the depths of music. Outro. Well, you made it this far already, and there's probably no going back. So, use this information as much as you possibly can while playing. Be a sponge to music theory, soak it all up. So, after reading this semi-lesson, I want you to pull out your guitar and practice your minor and major scales (unless you know them down pat). While this is one of the easier lessons in music theory, this is the beginning to a road that doesn't lead down, but only goes up. Thanks for taking the time to listen to my ramblings on these scale, and thanks for any replies I get in advance (unless they're bad, and then I won't thank you).

55 comments sorted by best / new / date

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    WindJammer
    To the theoretically slow (or just beginners) 'Pt. 1' doesn't make a lot of sense. I mean I know what you're saying, but other users really won't. You didn't even use the word 'interval' once in that part (let alone this lesson). Here are things that this lesson fell short of: 1. A decent explanation of 'WWHWWWH' (you never specified ot beginners exactly what you mean by saying that. "'W' is two frets, 'H' is one fret," doesn't really do it. And then throwing in T's and S's for no reason throws people even further off. 2. Explanation of the tones themselves (Leading tone, Subdominant, mediant, etc) You should've explained what a 'degree' is, less about what shapes to play, more about the defining characteristics of the major scale (each of the major intervals: Major 2nd, Major 3rd, Major 6th, Major 7th) as well as the perfect intervals. Lastly, the only thing that you said to explain applying the major scale is to 'juggle' it, or to not play the notes in order. I don't think that you'll find a lot of melodies (even by beginners) created by going up and down the major scale, and I also don't think that it's wise to jump all over it (from first to 7th to 3rd to 5th degree, it just would kill any flow to the melody). Would you mind if I made one of my own? It may seem redundant, but I would like to tack on any info that i feel should be covered by writing an entirely new lesson.
    iLTeo86
    Thank you! this article really helped me out with major scales, I couldnt find anything so clear and simple as this article on the whole internet!
    oh_you_freak
    mr.guitarman wrote: that's a nice lesson.. but i want a more accurate one.. i want to make my fingers faster in playing guitar,,, what are the exercises should i do so that i can achieved that stuff? plsss reply asap...
    i would recommend this lesson: All The Aspects Of Picking. Part1
    demonofthenight
    fendrix420 wrote: minor pentas are cool but i want a lesson on mixo blues scaler ideas if any one knows?
    yeah, nice scale. Here it is if anyone wants it... 1-2-b3-3-4-b5-5-6-b7 (W-h-h-h-h-h-W-h-W) Took me a quick google search Doubt if its usefull, never seen a blues song with that kind of scale in it
    ninja450
    started good, then got bad. I under stand the WHWWWH and what not one a single string. but spreading it out to all 6 no one really explains
    prosperousbum
    Fig 1-1, I think, is incorrect. If you're showing the G major scale on one string, the low E in this example, G major starts on the third fret. Followed by A on the fifth fret, which is why you hold the 5th fret when tuning your guitar to standard tuning.
    ironwolg
    a very good lesson, i'm still confused as to what makes the minor pentatonic scale minor. i think i understand but i'm just not sure. does minor mean flat and major means sharp? if that's the case then i think that a minor pentatonic scale would start on a note like A flat. i don't know, i'm so confused, someone help me!!!
    ironwolg
    mr.guitarman wrote: that's a nice lesson.. but i want a more accurate one.. i want to make my fingers faster in playing guitar,,, what are the exercises should i do so that i can achieved that stuff? plsss reply asap...
    there are several ways to do this. you can simply learn a scale and play it over and over again until you're fast or you can make up your own excercises. what it all comes down to is practice. if you practice at high speeds then you will get faster. i recomend using all 4 fingers on your fretting hand for this. go down the strings like this ---1-2-3-4----- -----1-2-3-4----- -----1-2-3-4----- -----1-2-3-4- etc. that should help your speed, i hope i've been able to help you and a few others out
    Bigironman
    prety good lesson cleared up alot of things. now that i get it, on to the next lassons
    SilentDeftone
    While the natural minor scale can be used in substitution over the minor pentatonic
    I think you may have reversed what you meant to say, IMO it should be the minor pentatonic can be substituted for the natural minor? Good lesson overall
    Trey Spruance
    Yeah, I'm another typical pentatonic minor solo freak. So glad to finally find the major scale completely explained! Thanks Mr Strat!
    Frogmelda
    milk_it_good wrote: I was lost after the first couple of sentences...
    same here, can someone writea really simple version of this and message me about it. thanks.
    Shaggy91
    very awsome lesson thank you, you know what they say it takes 10 guitarists to screw in a light bulb, 1 to do it and 9 to say how they could have done it better... anyway thanks alot man, this was really really helpful. send me a heads up if you make any more
    Lost&FoundBox
    LMAO!!! I deff. agree with shaggy!!! But there is some truth to what windjammer said I suppose as far as a little bit more dept into detail but the w's, H's were great, and alotta people use T's, S's... So its for everyone not just certain people! Im new to scales and until your lesson I was lost and confused about them... Now I can comfortably say with a little practice and time i'll have minor and major scales down! Iv'e looked at alot of post's and this one is by far in the top 2 or 3!!! Great lesson bro and if you post any more lessons would you let me know id really like to check them out! def gotta give you a full 5 star rating on this lesson pretty easy to understand I really liked it!! Thanks alot bro keep up the good work.
    marcusgroup
    Now I why one of the greatest songs written Friend of the Devil - J. Garcia has that unique quality...its the G major scale. Over a C, G, & D chord vamp I get it. Thanks. For jamming I like your tip on trying not to play the notes in order, but changing it up with a melody. carpe diem!
    gcodom
    Reply to Windjammer: She posted your review of the lesson and what you believe should be inlcuded. Frankly, you may be right, however for some of us the additional information would have been too much, too soon. I had no difficulty understanding what was explain even with the inclusion of the tone and semitone reference. For someone more advance, you may be correct.
    Barbapapa
    it,s a nice lesson for me as a newbies it helps me a lot! for now i will focus on scales and theories cause i think it could help me improve. thanks a lot again!
    nunoband
    you need to talk to us as if we dont know anything, start from sqaure on Other than that looks like a nice lesson
    fendrix420
    minor pentas are cool but i want a lesson on mixo blues scaler ideas if any one knows?
    Green Love
    Awesome Lesson. I agree with the overused minor pentatonic. It's cliche and beat to death.
    Teddy b
    The_Strat_Man - good lesson, good read. I am new to this part of the guitar and looking to learn and your lesson is helpful. WindJammer - excellent points you raised as well as to how the posted lesson could be further improved.
    nessie my love
    the "juggle" stuff is the light at the end of the tunnel for me. I experimented on it and i can do my own version of a few song that i tried eg. sweet child o' mine by guns n' roses.
    thedankle
    I cany belive ive been so stupid. Ive taken 10 years of wind ensamble(yeah i play the tuba laugh it up) and never realised that building a mojor scale was done the same way on guitar as it is on tuba. Thanks for the little reminder that made it a hell of a lot easier.
    kdo
    nice...ohh by the way thedankle,if you learn music,intervals,notation,theory etc it works on all instruments..the hard bit is learning to play the instrument.
    cazzamia
    Windjammer - good points although I think he needed to include TTSTTTS, since in the UK thats generally what people use instead of thinking in whole and half steps, or at least I do. Also could someone please explain to me how you know what key you're in. I havent been playing all that long and in the lesson he mentions 'if you're paying in a key of C' -although how am i supposed to know that when its not fully explained in the lesson??
    Avoke
    How do you know what key a song is played in? say for instance Blink182-Adams song, how can you tell what key it is played in? and what scale to use, E Major or B Major...etc???!
    CDEFGABC
    If anyone's interested, i've submitted a lesson tittled MAJOR SCALES, hopefully it will get through, its for beginners and by the way, to play fast mr.guitarman, it takes a lot of time and practise and will take years to master, sorry.
    liam177lewis
    avoke, roll your finger up and down the e string... youll find a note that just seems to fit with the song... the note you landed on is almost always the key of the song...
    Tedrick
    Great Article, before reading this i knew absolutely nothing about scales but now i get the basic idea of them. I just hope i can apply it to my music. Though now im wondering about other kinds of scales...
    ironwill
    i got confused when the degree thing suddenly popped into the lesson, with no explanation...i think windjammer has a good point..thanks for the lesson anyway...
    crash8903
    this article explain alot of questions i had. great help. i hope you continue to make lessons like this about scales excpet a step further than this