Guitar Basics: How to Build Scales on Acoustic Guitar, Part I (Major Scales)

In this acoustic guitar lesson, Gretchen Menn breaks down the basics of scale formation and shows you how to apply that knowledge to the fretboard.

From The Way Music Works | BY GRETCHEN MENN

You’re at the mercy of the scales you’ve memorized by rote learning or what you can decipher by ear. You don’t understand how the scale patterns are built, what functions the notes have, or how to transpose them.

Look at the basics of scale formation, and then apply that knowledge to the guitar.

This lesson builds upon the Elements of Pitch, the first lesson in this series. If you haven’t already checked it out, I suggest taking the time to do so. The goal of this set of lessons is to build a solid knowledge foundation, so I don’t recommend skipping over any piece—even things that may be review. Whenever I revisit something I think I already know, I invariably reach a more nuanced insight, greater clarity, and ultimately a deeper understanding.

As always, we begin with the theory.

A scale is a pattern of intervals that span an octave. In Western music, the smallest interval is a half step. On guitar, that’s the distance between any two adjacent frets; on a piano, it’s the distance between keys right next to each other, white or black. A whole step is the equivalent of two half steps, or the distance between two frets.


Learn the Formula

The major scale—a very practical place to start, as it’s found everywhere—will be your entry point for understanding scales in general. Once you’ve wrapped your mind around it, you’ll be able to learn other scales and modes with just slight alterations to what you already know. The major scale owes its characteristic sound to a pattern of half (H) and whole steps (W): W W H W W W H. So, to spell a C major scale, start on the note C (1), add the note a whole step higher, D (2), then another whole step, E (3), and so on. The complete scale is spelled C D E F G A B C. There are just seven different notes, with the tonic, C, starting and ending the sequence. All of this is shown in notation in Example 1.

Now spell an E major scale. Start on the first degree, E, and go up a whole step to get F#. (Remember, E–F is a half step, so add the sharp for a whole step). Add another whole step (G#), and then continue finding the correct pitches using the major scale pattern until you reach the tonic, E. If you applied the formula correctly, you’ll arrive at this sequence of notes: E F# G# A B C# D# E.

Scale the Heights

Example 2 shows the E major scale played entirely on the low E string. Use the fretboard knowledge you gained from the first lesson in this series and visualize not just each note but its relationship to the tonic (E). The purpose of playing all the notes on one string isn’t because it’s the most practical fingering, but so you can see most clearly how these principles apply to your instrument—and to encourage you to get out of the habit of flying through memorized shapes.

Go through the same process with the A major scale. Starting with the tonic (A), spell out the scale using the formula and you get the following collection of notes: A B C# D E F# G# A. Now find those notes up the neck on the A string, as depicted in Example 3, before doing the same on the D, G, and B strings (Examples 4–6). If you like, repeat Ex. 2 on the high E string—the notes are of course the same, just two octaves higher.

So far you’ve worked only with keys in which the accidentals are sharps, so for good measure, spell an F major scale (hint: there’s one flat, Bb), and play it on the sixth string, as shown in Example 7. When going through all of these scales, be mindful of which note is which—both in terms of pitch name (C, F#, etc.) and each pitch’s relation to the tonic (2, 5, etc.). And don’t forget to listen deeply so that you can connect your mind, your ears, and your fingers.

Explore Further on Your Own

Using this same method, you can derive every other major scale. It’s that easy. Just go slowly, and remember these three things: the half steps that occur in a major scale are between scale degrees 3–4 and 7–8, the half steps that occur between natural notes are between B–C and E–F, and there will be one and only one of each letter (A through G) in every major scale. So you won’t have both the notes Gb and G, for example, but F# (remember, the enharmonic equivalent of Gb) and G.

In the next lesson, I’ll explain how you can express the major scale in guitar-friendly shapes all over the fingerboard. Until then, I highly encourage this mission, should you choose to accept it:


Find scale patterns for yourself, using the process outlined below.

1. Pick a scale—start with C major.

2. Write down the scale pattern with scale degree numbers and corresponding half and whole steps. Then label the note name above each scale degree.

3. Transfer the note names to notation on a standard staff. If you don’t have staff paper, you can download a free PDF at (The staff paper is included in the free Notation Guide)

4. Grab your guitar, start on the low E string, and map out all of the notes in the C major scale in the open position using two or three notes per string, as shown in Example 8.

5. Once you’re sure of the notes, find comfortable fingerings. Play the scale ascending and descending. Come up with melodic ideas within it.


6. Move up to the next note in the scale—in this case the fourth scale degree of C major, F on fret 1 of the E string. With your first finger on F, find the notes of the scale across the strings, again using two or three notes per string, and using no open strings (Example 9). If you forget which note you’re on, work it out using your knowledge of the fretboard. The more often you can challenge yourself to reorient when you get disoriented, the more deeply you’ll be learning.

7. Continue to work out the patterns starting on each note of the scale and moving up the neck so you cover each position. Try starting on different fingers and see how new shapes and patterns unfold. Then try doing the same thing with different major scales.

You will—and should—eventually memorize each pattern. But going about it this way means it will be an outgrowth of actual understanding. And it will be so much more meaningful, memorable, and ultimately useful.



This article originally appeared in the October 2018 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.

the way music works by gretchen menn
Gretchen Menn
Gretchen Menn

Gretchen Menn is a guitarist and composer. She is the author of The Way Music Works.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *