Guitar Scale Anatomy: the Theory Behind a Major Scale

Note: This is Part 2 of “Guitar Scale Anatomy.” Guitar Scale Anatomy: Part 1 can be found here.

In Part 1 of Guitar Scale Anatomy, we started to look at how guitar scales function, so we can have a better understanding of how these scales relate to the songs we play. We provided a working definition of a scale and looked at how half steps and whole steps between notes contribute to the formation of a scale.

As you can recall, the way the half steps and whole steps are arranged between notes in a scale are one of the ways that give the scale a particular quality such as major or minor.  

For this part, I’m going to reference back to our previous examples in which I gave you two “E” scales. While both were “E” scales, one was an “E” major scale and the other was an “E” minor scale. This was because of the way the half steps and whole steps between notes (or scale degrees) were arranged.  For now, let’s just look at the major scale.

The Major Scale

A major scale is a seven note scale with half steps between the third and fourth and the seventh and eighth scale degrees.  If we look back to our previous “E” major scale, we’ll notice the following pattern of whole steps and half steps: whole step, whole step, half step, whole step, whole step, whole step, half step.  

Let’s take a look.  Here’s our example of an “E” major scale tabbed out.  

e ----0--2--4--5--7--9--11--12-----
b ---------------------------------
g ---------------------------------
d ---------------------------------
a ---------------------------------
e ---------------------------------

Without worrying about names of notes, we can see that between the open “E” and the 2nd fret we have a whole step. Between the 2nd and 4th fret, we have another whole step. Then between the 4th and 5th fret, we have a half step. After that, between the 5th and 7th fret, we have a whole step. Then, between the 7th and 9th fret we have another whole step. Yet again, we have another whole step between the 9th and 11th fret, and then lastly, between the 11th and 12th fret, we have a half step.

You can play this pattern on any string and play a major scale. The particular pattern above of whole steps and half steps is unique only to the major scale and will not fully be seen in any other scales. You can duplicate this major scale pattern on any other pitch.  

What about Sharps and Flats?

When a particular note is raised one half step, we usually say that it is sharp. In music notation (NOT tab), a sharped note will be represented by a ‘#’ symbol.  When a note is dropped one half step, we usually say that it is flat. In music notation, a flatted note will be represented by a ‘b’ symbol. A note that is in its natural state, without a sharp or flat, is called natural. Sharps and flats are referred to as “accidentals.” I have really no idea why they are called that!

The only major scale without any sharps or flats is the C major scale.  The C major scale has the following notes: C  D  E  F  G  A  B  C.

Can you tell me where my half steps and whole steps are? As you might recall, half steps are located between the 3rd and 4th notes, the ‘E’ and the ‘F,’ and between the 7th and 8th notes, the ‘B’ and the ‘C.’  

Because the C major scale is the only scale that matches the whole step and half step pattern for a major scale without sharps or flats, we will have to use sharps and flats to create the proper amount of half steps and whole steps between notes in other keys.  

Let’s Build a Major Scale

Applying what we now know about major scales, we are going to build our own major scale. Let’s build a G major scale. Keep in mind, we’ll have to use accidentals (sharps and flats)!  

First, let’s just write out the letters of the notes of a G major scale without any accidentals:

G  A  B  C  D  E  F  G

As we remember from earlier, for a major scale, we need half steps between the 3rd and 4th and the 7th and 8th scale steps.  First, let’s look at our 3rd and 4th notes–‘B’ and ‘C.’  Is there a half step between these notes? As we recall from our C major scale, there is a half step between notes ‘B’ and ‘C,’ so we don’t need to add any accidentals.  

What about the 7th and 8th notes? ‘F’ and ‘G.’ Is there a half step between these notes? Again, as we recall from our C major scale, there is actually a whole step between ‘F’ and ‘G.’ Because of this, we’ll have to raise the ‘F’ up one half step. To do this, we’ll make it sharp into an ‘F#.’  

We’ll now note that there is the correct half step and whole step pattern for a major scale.  So our G major scale is:

G  A  B  C  D  E  F#  G

You might ask, “Why didn’t we turn the ‘F’ note into a ‘Gb’ instead of an ‘F#’? Aren’t they the same thing?”

While an F# and a Gb sound the same in pitch, they are still very different notes. If we substituted a ‘Gb’ for an ‘F#’ in a G major scale, we would get a scale like this: G  A  B  C  D  E  Gb  G

If you count the letter names of the notes (without accidentals), you only get six notes (G, A, B, C, D, E) instead of seven (G, A, B, C, D, E, F). A major scale is only a major scale if it has seven different note letters. Yes, it’s tedious, I know. That’s the exact nature of music theory! (Does your head hurt?)

If you keep in mind the half step and whole step pattern of a major scale, and remember how the half steps naturally fall between ‘E’ and ‘F’ notes and ‘B’ and ‘C’ notes, you can create major scales based off of any pitch!

Wrap-up on Major Scales

Congratulations if you made it this far! You’re a trooper for reading all of this! If you have any questions about any of this, feel free to post a comment and we’ll look at your question together.

I’ll be honest with you. Music theory can get really tedious and just out right boring at times. Again, while still being honest with you, if you can press into this and absorb as much of this cerebral “garbage” as possible, you’ll be much better off than the next guy! I know we’re not playing a lot of guitar while learning this, but this really helps us connect the dots when we do go to put the guitar in our hands.

Guitar Scales Explained

Further Resources

While we’ll be sure to dig into more music theory in the future (I’m sure you’re enthralled), there is an excellent guitar scale course out their taught by a guy named Craig Basset called Guitar Scale Mastery.  If you are serious about learning guitar scales and the theory behind it, Craig’s program is excellent. I like how he takes all the theory “garbage” and puts into playing. It’s very easy to follow. I wrote a review awhile back on it here

About Brett McQueen

Brett McQueen is a musician, songwriter, and the founder and editor of Guitar Friendly and Ukulele Tricks. Learn more about him here and follow him on Twitter at @GuitarFriendly.