9 Major Scale Patterns For Lead Guitarists

Improvisation Challenge

Here is a backing track in the key of A major.

We’re going to improvise along with it using the A major scale pattern.

All you’re going to do here is, listen to the backing track, try out different notes from the scale and see how they come together to form a melody.

Give it a try.

Note that the aim here is not to simply play the notes of the scale in order. That would defeat the object.

What we want to do is mix the notes about so as they don’t sound like a scale, more like a melody or solo.

If you find a pattern of notes that sounds nice when you play it over and over, then you’ve just written a riff.

How to change the key of major scale patterns

Obviously not every song in the world is in A major.

So if we want to have the freedom to improvise in any song, we need to know how to change the key of the major scale pattern.

It’s fairly straight forward.

All we need is a basic grasp of the musical alphabet.

Here’s a handy diagram of ALL of the notes on the guitar:

major scale patterns
Notice how the 5th fret on the low E string in this diagram is an A note?

That’s where our A major scale starts, isn’t it?

So to change the key of our major scale patterns, we can simply use this diagram to move our pattern up or down.

For example, let’s say we want the B major scale.

If you look at the diagram, you’ll notice that B is two frets along from A, so that’s how far up we need to move the pattern.

This is called transposing.

To learn more about guitar keys, go here: Guitar Keys – An Essential Guide

How do we know what key we want the scale to be in?

major scale patterns

A scale pattern is not much use to us if we don’t know what key we need to play it in.

If a song has three major chords in it, we want to figure out which of them is chord 1 (or chord I, as it’s sometimes written in Roman numerals).

This is fairly straight forward.

Here’s a chord sequence:

| A              |D              | E              |                  |

Which of these two chords are alphabetically next to one another?

That’s right. D and E.

Our chord 1 is the other chord.

In this case: A

So the key is A.

So the key of a song is the first chord in the song?

No. That’s a common misconception.

The first chord in the song can be chord 1, but it isn’t always.

For example, if the chords are:

| D           | C             |G            |                |

Which two chords are alphabetically next to one another?

That’s right. C and D.

So the other chord is G.

So the key is G.

NB: This method of figuring out the key only works with major chords, not minor chords.

If it helps, here is a diagram of all the major and minor chords in all the keys that you can refer to:

table of keys - basicNote that the major chords are always 1, 4 and 5 (I, IV and V) and the minor chords are always 2, 3 and 6. (ii, iii and vi.)

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Still struggling? Stick to pentatonics!

If you’re struggling to figure out the key despite having this method and the above chart to help you, you can always stick to the pentatonic scales we looked at earlier.

With pentatonic scales you can pick any chord from the song and match up the pattern with it.

Eg. If the chords are D, C and G like in the earlier example, you can use either the D, C or G major pentatonic scale.

Just make sure to match major pentatonics to major chords and minor pentatonics to minor chords.

Want to learn about minor pentatonics? Check out this article: Pentatonic Scale: An Essential Guide

Some bonus major scale patterns

If you’re feeling adventurous, you might like to give these patterns a try:

Major 7 arpeggio:

major scale patterns

What we’re doing here is essentially only playing every other note of the major scale.

So we’re playing the 1st note (the root), the 3rd note, the 5th note and the 7th note. (The final note is just a repeat of the root note.)

We’re leaving out the 2nd note, the 4th note, the 6th note.

As the saying goes, less is more!

You’ll probably find the major 7 arpeggio has a very mysterious sound… or a very jazzy sound.

Three fingers per string scale pattern:

major scales on guitar

This pattern will sound identical to the intermediate pattern, but because it uses three fingers on each string, you’ll find it’s ideal for fast playing, especially if you just pick the first note on each string and play the other two as hammer-ons.

This example is in G.

Obviously for a pattern like this, our earlier one finger to a fret method of playing isn’t going to work.

The best thing to do is start each string with the 1st finger and end each string with the 4th finger.

For the notes imbetween, use either the 2nd or 3rd finger, depending on what’s nearest and easiest.

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