How to Play the Major Scale as Five Smaller Patterns on the Guitar

By Desi Serna

The notes of the major scale are located all over the guitar neck. To make the major scale more useful, you break it into smaller positions, or patterns, that are easier to finger and memorize. You then cover the whole guitar neck by connecting these individual patterns.

For instance, here you can see all the locations of G major scale notes between frets 0 and 15.

[Credit:     Illustration courtesy of Desi Serna]

Credit:     Illustration courtesy of Desi Serna

Guitar players break up the fretboard several ways — for example, as five major scale patterns, as seven major scale patterns, as two notes per string, or as three notes per string. The truth is there’s no one correct way to learn the major scale. As long as you play a bit of the scale in each position and can connect them to cover the whole neck, you’re good to go.

That being said, the most common way to start playing the major scale is by breaking it into five patterns.

How to break down the G major scale on the guitar

Here is how to break the G major scale notes into five smaller patterns. The numbers indicate the scale degrees. Each of the five patterns allows you to play in the G scale in a particular position. When you combine all five patterns, they cover the whole fretboard.

[Credit:     Illustration courtesy of Desi Serna]

Credit:     Illustration courtesy of Desi Serna

Five Major Scale Patterns shows you how to play the five major scale patterns in G.

The five major scale patterns use a combination of two and three notes per string. As a result, each pattern covers a span of four to five frets, which most guitarists find very manageable to finger and play.

Play each pattern ascending and descending — that is, low-pitched notes to high-pitched notes and then high to low when you play in reverse — until you have it completely memorized. Take one pattern at a time and work with it for a while.

You may need only five minutes to memorize it, or you may need a whole day or more. Either way, after you master a pattern, move on to the next one. With each new pattern you learn, go back and review the ones that come before it. As you practice, notice the following:

  • A portion of each pattern is reused in the pattern that follows it. Recognizing this simple fact can help you connect the patterns and remember that all five patterns are made up of the same notes in the same scale.

  • You don’t start a pattern on the tonic, G; instead, you start on whichever note from the scale is available on the 6th string in each position. When you’re first trying to cover a whole position with a certain type of scale, play all the notes that are within reach in the span of frets you’re covering. Don’t worry about which scale degree you actually start and end on.

Basics of fingering the five major scale patterns on the guitar

Here you see suggested fingerings for playing through the five major scale patterns in G, with the numbers representing the four fingers on your fretting hand. You primarily use a one-finger-per-fret approach. In patterns that span more than four frets, you must make adjustments.

[Credit:     Illustration courtesy of Desi Serna]

Credit:     Illustration courtesy of Desi Serna

There’s no perfect or correct way to finger the major scale patterns. Your choice of fingering depends on your personal preference and any articulations or stylistic ideas, such as slides, bends, hammer-ons, or pull-offs, that you may be applying to a given piece. Ultimately, the fingering that makes you play and sound the best is the right fingering for you to use.

How to connect the five patterns to cover the whole fretboard

After you work through all five patterns, you can connect the last one to the beginning and continue up past the 12th fret. Play until you either run out of frets or can’t reach any higher (notice that you run out of frets and can’t complete the final pattern — it’s missing a 4 in what would be the 25th fret).

At that point, start where you left off and connect the same patterns backward until you return to the open position. Remember that each pattern uses portions of the patterns around it. Visualizing how the patterns overlap and fit together helps you connect them to cover the whole fretboard.