Music Theory Basics: The Major Scale

Music theory is what ties everything together, it makes sense of chords and scales and anything else you are likely to learn about as a guitarist. No matter where you are at with your playing, if you want to realise your full potential as a musician, it is important to know about this stuff. This series of posts should provide you with the basics, and will allow you to further unlock your potential.

There are 12 notes in music. They are as follows:

C  C#  D  D#  E  F  F#  G  G#  A  A# B

You will notice that every note is followed by a sharp (symbolised with a #) except for E and B. A simple way to remember this is that all notes have a sharp except B and E which spells BE! Another thing that you should realise is that every sharp note can also be called a flat which uses a ‘b’ as the symbol. For example C# is also Db. The reason for this will become clear soon, so written with flats instead of sharps the 12 notes are as follows

C  Db  D  Eb  F  Gb  G  Ab  A  Bb  B

This might seem confusing at first, but it will become more clear as we move on.

Every note is an increase in pitch from the last (more detail on this later). After you get to the B note, the next note goes back to C, but this C is a higher pitch. This is known as an octave. This might be a bit confusing, why if there are 12 notes between C and the next C is it called an octave? Well this is because if you remove the sharps/flats the next C is the 8th note. We will come back to this too. First lets get to a visualisation of where the notes are on the guitar neck:

    1         3         5         7         9              12

You will notice that this diagram only covers up to the 12th fret, this is because there are only 12 notes, so after the 12th fret the pattern just repeats an octave higher. To hear an octave practise playing any of the strings open, and then playing the same string at the 12 fret. The note is the same, but the pitch is higher.

So you will see that every fret represents an increase in pitch. This increase is called an interval. The interval or increase between two notes say C to C# is called a semitone, the interval between 3 notes, say C to D is called a whole tone—which you can think of as two semitones put together. So the fretboard of the guitar is divided at intervals of a semitone. If you play every fret on the E string moving up, you are moving up in semitones, if you just play the open string followed by the 2nd, 4th, 6th, 8th, 10th, and 12th frets you are moving up in whole tones (or just tones for short).

All of the 12 notes laid out as I have written them above represent what is known as the chromatic scale. If you play every fret moving up the string, you are playing the chromatic scale. However, if we were to take this series of notes and remove the sharps (or flats), what we are left with is the C major scale.

C  D  E  F  G  A  B  C

You’ll notice the 8th note is another C, which is the octave that I mentioned earlier. When we look at these notes in relation to each other, we will notice that they are at specific intervals. For instance the distance between C and D is a whole tone, as is the distance between D and E, the distance between E and F, however is only a semitone, F to G is a tone, G to A is a tone, A to B is a tone, and B to C is a semitone. With that in mind we can actually map the major scale in terms of the intervals, which will allow us to find the major scale from any starting point. So, if we represent a whole tone with the letter T, and a semitone with the letter S, the major scale can be mapped in terms of intervals as:

T  T  S  T  T  T  S

This might become clearer if I show you how to use this map to find a different major scale. Lets say we want to find the D major scale. We look at the order of notes as listed above, and find where D is. To find the next note we know that we have to move up a whole tone, which takes us to E, then again we need to move up a tone from E, which gets us to F#, after that we are moving up a semitone,which gives us G, then a tone which gives us A, another tone which gives us B, and another tone which gives us C#, and finally a semitone which gets us back to D. So we can work out the D major scale by looking at the intervals of the C major scale:

D  E  F#  G  A  B  C#  D

Notice that D major has some sharps two in fact. C major is the only major scale to not have any. Now lets look at why sometimes sharps are called flats. Lets use the same pattern of intervals to find the D# scale…

D#  F  G  G#  A#  C  D  D#

If you look, this scale has 2 G’s and 2 D’s! This is considered bad form! So we have to remember if we start our scale on a sharp, we want to be writing it as flats rather than sharps. Why? Because if we write the notes as their flat counterparts we get a nice neat scale with no duplicate letters:

Eb  F  G  Ab  Bb  C  D  Eb

So essentially there is no D sharp scale, its called E flat. The same applies for any scale, if you’re starting on a sharp, you need to translate it into flats! If you are starting on any of the notes from the C major scale, you use sharps.

Hopefully this hasn’t boggled your mind too much. The easiest way to get what this lesson has been all about would be to find all 12 major scales using the pattern of intervals that I have showed you. Go through the notes and write down all twelve major scales. I shall see you in the next lesson.

Things to remember:

  • There are 12 notes, once you get to the 12th note the pattern repeats an octave higher in pitch.
  • The distance between each note is an interval of a semitone, a whole tone represents an increase in two notes.
  • The pattern of intervals in a major scale is: T, T, S, T, T, T, S —you can use this to find any major scale
  • If you looking for a scale starting with a note that is not in the C major scale you need to use flats instead of sharps.


Things I Wish I’d Learned Earlier As A Self Taught Guitarist

Teaching yourself guitar is an awesome experience that can give you enormous amounts of freedom and pride. It is not without it’s pitfalls. In teaching yourself you can ingrain mistakes and bad habits as well as missing out on important stuff that you skipped over. You probably will end up catching up with it all at a later date, however in the interests of helping out people who might just be starting out teaching themselves. I thought I would describe a few things that I wish I had learned earlier when teaching myself. Please note that this post is describing mistakes that I picked up with the intention of helping people who might not be aware of potential mistakes, though I will briefly describe solutions to correct these mistakes these are probably better learned through searching for specific lessons elsewhere.

Music theory

This is the main thing that I am still working on. It’s something that I completely skipped in favour of the more immediate goals of being able to play riffs that I liked or learning some out of context scales. I have an intuitive grasp of certain aspects of theory, however I do not have the knowledge to put it all together. I am still a long way off with this one, but with over 10 years since I started playing it is something I really wished I had learned earlier.

Why should you learn theory? Because it allows you to understand what you are doing and therefore improve it. Knowing the positions of the blues scale for example is one thing, understanding the chords and intervals etc will allow you to go beyond the memorized positions so that you can know which notes to add when, and which non-scale notes will work to add flavour etc. My advice to people teaching themselves guitar would be to find a resource that suits your learning style and dedicate some of your time to learning music theory. You don’t have to become a super jazz nerd or anything (unless you want to of course), but a competent level of theory knowledge will help a great deal.

I’m not even close to a competent level of understanding and I really regret it! Hopefully I will be rectifying this soon.

Bending strings properly

One of the major things that I recently had to work on with my playing was bending notes. The way I initially learned to bend strings was to just bend upwards by pushing the string using mostly a single finger for strength. This resulted in weak, out of tune bends. Once I realised this mistake and corrected it, my playing improved drastically. I made this error because I essentially learned from tabs, which would instruct me to bend strings, but I had no teacher to tell me how to do it properly, thus I simply intuited it wrongly.

First off, lets start with technique. The strength for a bend comes from the wrist. You use your finger to hook the string and hold it during the bend, but most of the strength used comes from the wrist. That is not to say that the fingers do not move, however their movement is not the main force of the bend, this comes from the wrist and hand. Try bending a string using only the strength of your finger, then compare this to engaging your wrist. Engaging your wrist allows for stronger, bigger bends with more control.

Another thing to do is to use more than one finger to support the bend. Essentially this just means avoiding using your index finger to do bends. They are much easier to do if you have one or two fingers behind the fretting finger to support it. There is of course no rule saying you can’t bend with one finger, however you will find that it is much easier and puts less strain on your hand if you support your bend with multiple fingers.

The most important thing aside from proper technique is to learn how to bend to the right tone. More often than not you will bend a note to the next available scale note. For example if you are playing in A minor pentatonic in the 1st position and you wanted to bend the G string at fret 7 you would most likely bend it to sound like fret 9 played on the same string. To practise this all you need to do is find the target note of where you want to bend (in this example 9th fret on the G string), hit that note, then bend on the actual note (7th fret on the G string) until it sounds the same as the target note. You can then reverse this (doing the bend, and then checking if it hit the target note) to make sure you’ve got it down. After a while you will be able to do bends to the proper note without effort.

Correcting sloppy technique

Another thing that can occur if you learn a lot from tabs is that you neglect to learn proper technique when it comes to picking, muting strings, and so forth. I actually became quite advanced (in some respects) with my guitar playing before I thought about correcting sloppy aspects of my technique. Aside from the aforementioned string bends, I was terrible for sounding unwanted strings because I never learned proper muting techniques. Essentially the idea is that the strings above the one you are picking can be muted with your palm, and the strings below can be muted with fingers from your fretting hand. Your solos will greatly benefit from not having unwanted notes ringing out from time to time.

One thing that I still struggle with is using my pinky to fret notes. Whilst it is not essential in that it won’t prevent you from playing well, it does give you more options if you use all 4 fingers. Making a conscious effort to employ your pinky will develop it’s strength and help your technique. I believe that if I had employed my pinky from the start it would be enormously strong by now. Alas it is still a long way off.

That’s about all I can think of for now. Hopefully any guitarists reading this who maybe learned a lot from tabs, written lessons, etc. without any consistent one to one instruction from a teacher will know some potential pitfalls to avoid, or recognise some possible areas to work on in their playing. I wrote this post purely because with each on of the things mentioned I really wished I had picked up on it earlier and corrected it, so hopefully this will help others in a similar position.