Introduction to Major Scales

Posted on September 6, 2010


Hello, happy Labor Day weekend everyone. This week I need to branch off a bit, I will still continue talking about triads in another article, but I felt the need to start some coverage of the major scale. I love the major scale, so much of what we play and hear is based or named in relation to the major scale. Even if a song is in a minor key, we will still label that key/scale in relation to its major. You may hear the natural minor scale being referred to as having a flat 3, 6 and 7. This is in comparison to the major key of the same root. However I dice it, it’s so beneficial to know these major scales and be able to build other scales from them.
Another bonus being that as a bassist we can add so much flavor to our lines by using not only chord tones but scale notes and scale passages as well. Not to mention riffs, licks and grooves which, 9 times out of 10 can be analyzed as being in a scale or series of scales.
The song “Ants Marching” by Dave Matthews has a great riff after the 1st verse. In it they are basically running up the D major scale (omitting the 2nd degree of the scale only) in a sequential pattern from the root to the octave. This is such a cool representation of a major scale at work in a rock/pop tune.

Victor Wooten’s bass line at the beginning of “Sinister Minister”, which is an older tune he did with Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, is a great use of what we call the natural minor scale.

I always like to give practical examples to help you know why I would think this important for you to know. I am not the type of student (although maybe I should be) to just “do” because I am told to do so. Once I see there is a very real application for this knowledge then it always makes more sense for me to try it. Hopefully you are not as stubborn J

Let us get into the meat and potatoes now!

There are a few approaches to learning the major scales, you can memorize the circle of 5ths, which is an actual circle of scales where every next key/major scale is a 5th away from the previous one and then you add the accidental (sharp or flat) note a 5th away every time you start a new scale.

You can memorize the order of flats and sharps and just know that with each new key you can add a sharp (#) or flat (b) from the order. There is also a formula to figuring out the scale name too with this exercise.

Lastly, and the way I am going to present it, you can take one scale a week and work on learning it and memorizing it. I like this method because you can get at least one whole week with the scale.

The first scale we will check out is the C major scale. Usually most books and teachers start here because it has all natural notes, no #’s or b’s. The reason it has all natural notes is because of the whole (W) step and half (H) pattern used. This pattern delivers these notes.

Here is the pattern of whole steps and half steps used to create the major scale :


Remembering which notes do not contain a # or b between them is crucial to easily working your way through this pattern. Now I will help you work your way through it:

I like to stay on 1 string only and move up the neck the first time through. So, let us start on C, the 3rd fret of the A string. Look above at the pattern, you’re next note will be a W away from C. A W is made up of 2 H. The first ½ step would be to fret 4 and then next to the 5th fret. This brings us to the note D, so D is the 2nd note of the scale.

Next we need another W step, this will take us from D to E on the 7th fret.

After E is the first H step of the pattern which will bring us up the 8th fret and to the note F.

The remainder of the scale will be the 10th fret G note.

The A is next on the 12th and then B and C on the 14th and 15th.

Play it again so you can start to hear the pattern. I’m guessing that many of you are already very familiar with this scale, it has been surrounding most of us our entire lives.

Now let’s work it across the neck as opposed to up the neck, up the neck is not very functional.

Using tablature, I am going to give you 3 different patterns that work the scale across the neck, memorize all three. Underneath each pattern will be the letter names and a suggested fingering. Feel free of course to use whichever fingering is most comfortable to you.



———————–2——–3——–5————————- ———–



    C      D      E       F       G     A      B       C

    2      4      1       2       4     1      3       4








   C       D      E      F       G      A        B     C 

   1       2      4      1       2      4        1     2








    C     D      E       F       G      A        B     C

    4     1      3       4       1      3        1     1



The last thing I need to make mention of here is the syllables. You may hear notes sometimes being called by their name or syllable or also their interval. I will be talking more about intervals next week. For now though here are the syllables of the major scale

C     D     E     F     G     A     B     C

Do   re   mi    fa    sol   la    ti     do

If anyone can recall the Sound of Music, you may remember Julie Andrews singing these word: “Do, a deer a female deer. Re, a drop of golden sun.” She is singing through all the syllables.

“Do” is pronounced as Doe.There are two “Do’s, the first is the root note and the second is the octave, which is the same pitch eight notes higher.

I also need to make note that I will be using what is called the “moveable Do” system of naming the syllables of the scale as opposed to the “fixed Do” in which only C is called “Do” and nothing else. In moveable Do whichever note the scale starts on is referred to as Do.

Have fun with this major scale, memorizing it in the three different positions can help give you a little more freedom over your neck. Once you feel comfortable with one octave it is a lot of fun to try adding a second octave. Try playing it with your eyes closed, see if you can hear when you play a note that is not from the scale.

Next week I will be adding a new major scale as well as some helpful techniques to go along with it.

Enjoy your BASS!


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