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How to Apply the Major Scale on the Guitar

When applying the major scale to music on the guitar, you have to pick music that’s drawn from the same scale. To determine what scale a song is drawn from, follow these simple steps:

  1. Identify the song’s basic chords.

  2. Fit those chords into a harmonized major scale, better known as the I-ii-iii-IV-V-vi-viif5 chord pattern.

For example, say the music in question is based on the chords E, A, and B. When you play these three chords as standard barre chords on the fretboard, you can tell they all fit into an E chord pattern. They’re I, IV, and V. They fit into the E chord pattern because they’re all drawn together as a progression from the E major scale.

What if a song is based on the chords E, A, and D? If you play these three chords on the fretboard, they don’t all fit into an E chord pattern. But they do fit into an A chord pattern. In this case, E, A, and D are V, I, and IV in A. So you play A major scale patterns over the whole progression.

Progressions like B-A, Csm-B-A, and Fsm-B all use the E major scale. Even though E isn’t present among the chords, each set of chords is still drawn from the E major scale.

In addition to providing great accompaniment for your major scale practice sessions, many songs also feature melodies, riffs, lead guitar solos, and bass lines that are based in major patterns. The following songs all use major scale patterns as an opening, riff, or lead guitar solo:

“Down on the Corner” by Creedence Clearwater Rivival
“Wild World” by Cat Stevens
“Centerfield” by John Fogerty
“Island in the Sun” by Weezer
“Caught Up in You” by 38 Special
“I Love Rock ’n’ Roll” by Joan Jett and the Blackhearts
“Mama, I’m Coming Home” by Ozzy Osbourne
“I Want Candy” by Bow Wow Wow
“Lie in Our Graves” by Dave Matthews Band
“Stay Together for the Kids” by Blink 182
“The First Cut Is the Deepest” by Sheryl Crow
“Satellite” by Dave Matthews Band
“I Need a Lover” by John Mellencamp
“Ventura Highway” by America

When applying the major scale, you have to consider the whole chord progression to determine the proper parent major scale from which it’s drawn. You can’t just go off of the tonic chord in a progression, because the song may use a chord other than I as the tonic.

When using the major scale, you don’t have to use all five patterns or touch on every position on the fretboard. Most players settle on a few patterns and positions that they feel most comfortable using. Learning all five patterns is really just a way to explore your options. As long as you can locate a tonic note and play a pattern that corresponds to it, you’ll be fine.

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