C Major Scale for Guitar

The major scale is made up of the following sequence of notes, or steps, whole, whole, half, whole, whole, whole, half. You’d do well to remember that. This is where knowing piano has some use, as it’s the “white keys” starting on C.

The notes are C – D – E – G – A -B

This is a 2 octave scale in “box form”.

C Major Scale Guitar
C Major Scale Guitar

Many guitar forms will show the B note before the first C as part of the pattern (as well as the D after the final C.)

Typical C Major Scale Pattern
Typical C Major Scale Pattern

While this is a prettier looking form, it is extremely misleading if you aren’t familiar with theory. While “yes” B and D are notes in the key of C Major, typically when people say C Major they mean the C Ionian Mode. You start at C and play the 7 notes in the scale (or 8 notes if you are going to the C of the next octave.) If you started the pattern on B, and played the C Major Scale, you would be playing in B Locrian. And even if playing B Locrian is what you wanted, you’d probably want to end on the B of the next octave, not D. This is totally arbitrary and misleading!!!

There is some merit in doing this to build muscle memory, but my guess is that the first person to publish this had a reason (legitimate or otherwise) and everyone else just copied this printing, and now it’s a “standard” unfortunately.

Basically, to solo in the C Major Scale for Guitar just play any of these notes and nothing else!

Only notes in C Major
Only notes in C Major

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Is that too hard? What do we notice to make it easier? First, any open string is allowable. Since the 12th fret is identical to the open strings, ditto for those. No notes on the 11th fret are allowable. Also, any string on the fifth and tenth fret are allowable. The only thing allowable at the fourth fret is the B on the 3rd string. And on the sixth fret, the F on the 2nd string.

Notice on the 8th Fret, you can’t play the two middle strings, they are shifted up a fret (the E and B.) On the 1st fret, the 3rd, 4th, and 5th strings are shifted up a fret (A,E and D.) Also for the 3rd Fret, the 3rd string is shifted up a fret.

first two strings of C Major
first two strings of C Major

You might also notice a fingering pattern across each individual string. Look at the 2nd string starting with C. It’s whole-whole-half, whole-whole-whole, and then half back to C. (Whole means skip a fret, half means the next fret.) If you can find C on each string, you can just follow this pattern across individual strings. Soloing on one string isn’t the most exciting, but it’s a place to start.

The root notes in C Major
The root notes in C Major

Notice how the root notes are 2 frets and 2 strings apart from one another.

One octave

How amazing would it be to just learn the first two strings? You’d be able to do a half-way decent solo in C Major fairly quickly. Try this fingering to play the scale up the fretboard on the first two strings. The pointer finger plays C, then the ring finger plays D. Then slide the ringer finger up to play the E, and play the F with the pinky. Now use the pointer finger to play the G and the ring finger to play the A. Slide the ringer finger up to play the B, and then the pinky to play the C, and octave higher from whence you came.

Soloing on the first two strings.
Soloing on the first two strings.

Pretty cool isn’t it? Did you notice that you played the same pattern on each string, just moving up a whole step?

Now let’s try a slight variation on the descent (three actually.) Play the C on the 1st string with the pinky, then the B with the ring finger and the A with the pointer. Rather than play the G on the first string, you can play it on the second string with the pinky. Then play the F with the middle and the E with pointer finger. Now slide the pointer finger down to play the D, and then down again to play the C. This may not be ideal, but it works and keeps you from getting too locked into “box playing”. (And if you are playing slower and give those last 3 notes vibrato, it’ll look and sound really cool.)

Descent variation 1
Descent variation 1

Here’s a variation that uses the C from the 3rd string. This makes it a bit less tedious since you don’t have to move your hand twice.

Descent variation 2
Descent variation 2

The next variation uses both the C and the D on the 3rd string. This is the most efficient in that you don’t have to move your hand (and probably best for studio recording, or if you’re nervous on stage.) You can play it fast with precision and no chance of losing your place.

Descent variation 3
Descent variation 3

The 2nd variation is probably my preferred method. Since you are sliding into the 2nd to last note, it adds a little bit of flash and a slight delay on your timing, which gives it a “swing”. If I had to “shred” for a recording, I’d probably opt for the 3rd variation.

If you are just starting out, check out our article on the Notes on a Guitar.

Two Octaves

Another variation of the C Major scale.
Another variation of the C Major scale.

Here’s another variation of the C Major Scale on guitar. It covers two octaves. Often you’ll start on the 8th fret for box patterns in C. Here’s another option to the typical box pattern. Use your pinky to play the root note on the 6th string. You’re kind of starting in one box pattern and then sliding to another. But everyone’s hands are different. If this is uncomfortable to you, you can decide to switch positions elsewhere. If you have long fingers, you may want to stretch more if have no problem reaching across 5 frets (with only 4 fingers) instead of the traditional 4 frets.

yet another variation of the C Major scale.

Here’s a variation that doesn’t use the 6th string, but still gives you two octaves. After playing the G, move your hand so that the pointer can play the A on the 7th fret. This gives you a “pause” as you move your hand, which may or may not sound good. Many guitarist do have pauses in their phrasing, so this is usually fine. It’s good to practice jumping around a bit so your playing doesn’t sound stale. This is where knowing the notes rather than the patterns can give you an edge over many guitarists.

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