How the Major Scale is Built on Guitar Part 1

The Major Scale

The major scale is the starting point for many of the theoretical principles of Western music theory.  It is also the most common scale in popular music.

To have a major scale, there must be a specific arrangement of semitones and whole tones.

The C major scale consists of the following notes:

C    D    E    F     G    A    B    C

Here is what the C major scale looks like if we were to ascend the fifth string…

C major scale on 5th string

We can number each note found in the C major scale:

C    D    E    F     G    A    B    C

1    2    3    4     5    6     7    8

Notice that the eighth note of the C major scale is the same letter-name as the first.  So the major scale consists of seven different notes.

Now take a look at the C major scale on the fretboard once again.  Can you see any patterns?

C major scale with semtiones markedC major scale on 5th string with semitones















Notice how the notes E and F are one semitone apart (1 fret).  Also notice that B and C are a semitone apart from each other.  All of the rest of the notes in the C major scale are two frets (a whole tone) apart.

This means to build a major scale, you need to move up a whole tone from the first to second note.  Then move up another whole tone to arrive at the third note of the scale.  For the fourth note of the major scale, you simply move up one fret.  For the fifth note, you move up another whole tone.  For the sixth note you go up another whole tone.  To go from the sixth to seventh notes you move up whole tone.  Then finally, to arrive at the final note of the major scale, you move up a semitone.

So here is what we have:

C maj scale with st and t

A whole tone is the distance of two semitones (2 frets).  The whole tone may also be called a tone or a whole step.

The semitone is alternatively known as a half step and is the distance of 1 fret.

fretboard with semitones and whole tones

The Major Scale Formula

To build any major scale, simply proceed through the following progression of semitones and whole tones:


Major Scale Formula:

T  T  ST  T  T  T  ST


If we number each note in the major scale, here is what we get:

major scale formula 1

Often, when the notes in a scale are numbered, Roman Numerals are used.

major scale formula with roman numerals

So What Does all of this Really Mean?

It means that the major scale has semitones between the III and IV and VII and VIII notes.  All of the rest of the notes are a whole tone apart.

In our next guitar theory article, we will put this formula to use and build some major scales.