Bluegrass Basics: The Major Scale

Bluegrass Basics: The Major Scale

Marcel Ardans

Marcel Ardans

If you’re going to do anything with music you should make sure you’re clear on a few fundamentals.  Yes, even bluegrass requires a little music theory. Don’t worry though! This isn’t one of those guitar articles that starts with, “when playing Lydian Dominant over a #11 bVI chord that you’re using for a tri-tone substitution in a circle of fifths chord progression try using the chromatic note from a major Bebop scale to unlock your 12th Chakra and bask in the light of your new lord Olidammara, crusher of worlds, devourer of souls.”


Wait a second? Is this a magazine about electric guitars!?

No, this article will be far more palatable. In fact, this article will only be covering the construction of a major scale, specifically the G major scale. Nothing else. Not how to use it. Not when to use it. Just how it’s made. You know, like that show? How It’s Made.

The Chromatic Scale

So a good place to start with scales is the granddaddy of all scales: the chromatic scale. It’s got all those other fancy scales inside of it and it doesn’t even go bragging about it with some fancy name like Phrygian. In fact, if you follow Jazz and Grass on Instagram you’re probably familiar with my friend Lyman Lipke and his wonderful jazz guitar playing. I once asked Lyman what scale he was using, he said:

I just use the chromatic scale, it has all the notes in it.

Lyman Lipke, Technically Correct Jerk

Obviously, Lyman is a jerk but a technically correct jerk.

Because the chromatic scale is all 12 notes in western music. If you want to play an octave of the chromatic scale start at your open G string, then fret and play your G string on every fret up to the 11th fret. Playing 12th fret on the G string would start the pattern over with another G. Like that song, “From G to shining G?” The notes you end up playing are as follows: G, G#/Ab, A, A#/Bb, B, C, C#/Db, D, D#/Eb, E, F, F#/Gb, and back to G.


This is a picture of Francis Scott Key, who wrote The Star Spangled Banner. Which doesn’t include the line “from sea to shining sea”.

The distance from one note to the next in the chromatic scale is always the same, a half step. A half step is the distance between notes on adjacent frets and the chromatic scale has 12 notes with a half step between every note. Like any scale there will be multiple ways to apply this scale to the guitar. Our first example will be easier to visualize because it only uses one string but will be harder to apply because it’s highly impractical. Our second example splits the same notes across three string for a more comfortable application.


Hey look! All the notes in order! Looks pretty, but hard to play.


If we fold the notes up so we can stay in the same part of the neck we end up with something much more useful!

Just like the chromatic scale, our major scale has a set number of notes and certain distances between each pair of notes. Once you know the formula you can calculate it easily. It will be a little harder than the chromatic scale though. I mean relatively speaking, all scales will be harder to think about than the chromatic scale.

The Major Scale

Okay, so how many notes and what are the distances in-between? Well a major scale is a heptatonic scale, that is to say it has 7 notes. But to tell you about the distances in-between notes we have to define a new distance. So far we know half steps, that’s fancy music school slang for adjacent frets. Then how far would a whole step be? Well hold onto your fretboard because a whole step is when you skip a fret. For instance, playing 1st fret on any string followed by 3rd fret on the same string would be a whole step. We skipped over 2nd fret in the middle.


Easy there Tony Rice, it’s time to learn about half steps and whole steps.

That should be easy to think about but the major scale does use half steps and whole steps so we’re going to need to memorize a pattern. This pattern is: whole step, whole step, half step, whole step, whole step, whole step, half step. Or better yet: W,W,H,W,W,W,H. Let’s put that on our fretboard across one string so we can visualize the pattern and become one with it. Praise by unto Olidammara.


Remember the pattern is WWHWWWH. It always helps to come at something from different directions.
Try this: skip a fret twice, two notes right next to each other, skip a fret three times, two notes right next to each other.

After that, we need to do the same thing we did with our chromatic scale. Take this out of a shape that’s impractical and put it in a shape that’s more accessible to human hands. That means this scale is going to fall across our G, B and E strings just like before.


Nothing like a G major scale.

Try this starting on any new note. All you need to know is that the scale is going to have 7 notes before it repeats and in-between those notes the distances will be whole, whole, half, whole, whole, whole, half. Count your steps carefully, Olidammara forbid someone accidentally plays a mode of harmonic minor out there. No one is going to invoke the wrath of Phrygian Dominant on my watch.


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