The 5 Major scale shapes you need to know on guitar

Learning scales are a fundamental part of music because we use them to play melodies, riffs, or solos. There are many scales worth learning but the Major scale is one of the most essential scales you need to know on guitar.

Although this scale can be played in one position of the guitar, the same set of notes can be played in different areas of the fretboard. To help you effectively learn the Major scale, this lesson covers the 5 scale shapes you need to know on guitar!

Learning the shapes will help you connect the notes on the fretboard and give you the freedom and flexibility to explore musical ideas without limiting yourself to one position.

We’ll first go over the music theory to understand the Major scale, look at examples in different keys, and then learn the 5 Major scale shapes on the guitar. Let’s get started!

Major Scale Formula

The Major scale is made up of 7 notes that have a specific whole and half step formula between each of the notes. The Major scale formula is whole, whole, half step, and then whole, whole, whole, half step (see the chart below). For example, the C Major scale has the notes C, D, E, F, G, A, and B.

See the following formula below.

Major scale formula examples

You can also think of the notes in the Major scale in terms of intervals related to the root note. The intervals in a Major scale are unison (with the root note), perfect 2nd, Major 3rd, perfect 4th, perfect 5th, Major 6th, and Major 7th.

Another method that you can use to learn Major scales is to simply memorize the key signature which tells you the sharp or flat notes in a key.

Major scale examples

Here are some different Major scales using the whole and half step formula in music notation with guitar tabs and audio. If needed, check this link for more on how to read guitar notation symbols.

These examples are in one octave but we’ll also cover how to play beyond one octave later in this lesson.

C Major scale

C Major scale example
C Major scale audio

Ab Major scale

Ab Major scale example
Ab Major scale audio

E Major scale

E Major scale example
E Major scale audio

This other lesson covers all of the shapes for the E Major scale.

Major scale chart in all keys

The following chart includes the notes of the Major scale starting on every root note.

Major scale1234567
C Major scaleCDEFGAB
D Major scaleDEF#GABC#
E Major scaleEF#G#ABC#D#
F Major scaleFGABbCDE
G Major scaleGABCDEF#
A Major scaleABC#DEF#G#
B Major scaleBC#D#EF#G#A#
Db Major scaleDbEbFGbAbBbC
Eb Major scaleEbFGAbBbCD
Gb Major scaleGbAbBbBDbEbF
Ab Major scaleAbBbCDbEbFG
Bb Major scaleBbCDEbFGA

Now that we covered the music theory for Major scales, let’s start learning the 5 scale shapes throughout the guitar fretboard.

5 Major scale shapes on guitar

This section covers each Major scale shape throughout different sections of the guitar. Each scale shape includes music notation with guitar tabs to show you how to apply them in the key of C Major. However, you can still use these same shapes to play any other Major scale.

Afterward, you’ll see how all of the 5 shapes connect.

How to read the scale charts

For the charts below:

  • Charts on the left side show you the scale notes and charts on the right show you the suggested fingering.
  • The lowest horizontal line represents the thickest string (Low E) and the top horizontal line represents the thinnest string (high E). 
  • The green circles represent the root note of the Major scale and the blue notes are every other scale note.
  • The numbers inside the circles represent the suggested fingering to use on your fretting hand.

If needed, check out how to read guitar notation symbols.

Major scale shape 1

C Major scale shape 1 chart

For the notation below, the numbers above the notes suggest what fingers to use for your fretting hand.

C Major scale shape 1

Major scale shape 1 (all fretted notes)

If you’re guitar is suitable to play past the 12th fret, you can also play shape 1 like this:

Major scale shape 1 fretted notes
C Major scale shape 3 (fretted notes)

Major scale shape 2

C Major scale shape 2 chart

Major scale shape 3

C Major scale shape 3 chart

For the notation below, this shape may not be ideal if your guitar isn’t suitable for playing past the 12th fret. If that is the case, see the next image which includes open strings instead.

C Major scale shape 3

Major scale shape 4

C Major scale shape 4 chart
C Major scale shape 4

Major scale shape 5

C Major scale shape 5 chart
C Major scale shape 5

One thing to highlight about using these shapes is that whenever you have scales that use notes with open strings, you have to rearrange your fingers to play the shape. For example, if the shape uses the fingering 1, 3, and 4 on one string, you can play (open string), 1 and 3 instead.

Although you will need to change some fingerings if you include open strings, once you move over to the next shape where you’re fretting all the notes, you will get back to the original shapes we covered.

Connecting the Major scale shape shapes on guitar

To show you how the Major scale shapes connect, here are all of the C Major scale notes across the guitar fretboard below.

C Major scale on the guitar fretboard

Easily look up scales with the Essential Major Scales Guitar Chart!

This chart shows you the 5 essential Major scale shapes on guitar and how to play the Major scale starting on all 12 root notes.

There’s no need to stumble on what notes to play… Get the Essential Major Scales Guitar Chart printable to motivate and guide you on your musical journey!

👉 Get it here!

3 tips for memorizing the Major scale shapes

Here are 3 quick tips to help you memorize the 5 Major scale shapes.

1. Master one shape at a time

The way I recommend learning and memorizing any scale is to start with one shape that feels most comfortable for you. Try to really get the shape under your fingers to the point where you don’t have to look at the chart. Use the first shape you master as a guide to learn the other scale shapes around it.

2. Look for repeating fingering patterns

You want to look for patterns such as what strings repeat the same fingering within a shape.

Quick tip: The notes on the first and sixth string will always be the same.

For example, in shape 4 we see that the 1st, 5th, and 6th string follow a 1, 2, and 4 finger pattern. The 3rd and 4th string follow a 1, 3, and 4 finger pattern. The 3rd string has the unique finger pattern of fingers 1 and 3.

Knowing where fingering patterns repeat will help you build a mental map of a scale shape.

3. Connect shapes around the ones you learned

After learning one of the scale shapes well, either learn the shape that comes before or after it to see how the notes connect on the fretboard. Again, try to master one shape at a time and make sure you can play it without looking at the chart.

This will make the process more approachable by breaking it down into smaller sections before moving on to the next shape.

Major scale across one string

Another fun challenge is to try playing a scale horizontally, meaning on one string. Even though you wouldn’t naturally play it this way, this is to check whether you know all the notes that are included in a scale you’re working on. Go through one string at a time and start playing the notes consecutively.

After playing lower to higher notes on one string, also play it in the opposite direction (higher to lower notes).

For example, if you’re learning the C Major scale, you would play these notes on the 6th string:

Major scale on 1 string

Improvising with the Major scale

After getting comfortable with the minor scale shapes, try creating melodies or musical phrases with the notes in the scale. We don’t want to just play a scale mechanically but be able to make music with it as soon as possible.

A way to do this is by first humming or singing a short melody line and then try figuring out what those notes are on your instrument. This is the first step to being able to improvise on your instrument. The goal is to try playing what you want to hear. To learn more about this you can also check out this post on how to develop ear training.

You can also take a short melody or phrase and try shifting it to another key. You know you have a scale down when you can play it in any given key and any part of the fretboard.

I also recommend challenging yourself to play a scale with good timing by using a metronome. Or you can play the scale in different patterns and sequences which I cover in this lesson on how to practice scales.

Relative minor scales

Did you know that by learning the Major scale you also end up learning the minor scale as well? If you were to start and end on the 6th degree of the Major scale, you’re actually playing the relative minor scale. For example, the C Major scale and A minor scale are related because they share the same set of notes.

The whole and half step formula gets shifted and it looks like this:

Wrapping up

Learning the Major scale shapes will help you gain a better understanding of the guitar as you learn to play the same set of notes throughout the fretboard. Although it’s easy to stick to a comfort zone or one area of the guitar, learning these shapes will challenge you to approach the instrument with a fresh perspective.

Also, learning the scale shapes gives you confidence in choosing the right notes when playing melodies or when improvising. They will help you to create musical ideas more naturally and allow you to play more comfortably throughout the fretboard.

If you want to dive deeper, I recommend checking out this guide on how to practice scales on guitar.

After learning the Major scale, check out other closely related scales like the pentatonic scale or blues scale. You can also see an overview of the Major scale modes and their related emotions here or learn the specific scales below:

I hope you found this material helpful so that you can start applying it to your playing!

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All the best,

JG Music Lessons

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