How to Build a Major Scale Anywhere on the Guitar without Memorizing Patterns

Photo by: Daniel Tafjord

Many times, guitar beginners somehow get it stuck in their heads that in order to be proficient at soloing, they have to memorize scores of different “maps” of the fretboard.

I’m not saying that was me…but that was me

Tell me if this looks familiar:

Ain’t nobody got time for that

How many hours did you spend staring at fretboard maps like this one, trying to remember each and every note so you could play a scale in just one key? And then to transpose that to all other keys — madness.

Let me show you how to be able to start with just one note anywhere and build your scales from just that note.

We’ll be using the Major scale, but this method works for any other type of scale as well.

Your Formula for Success

Instead of trying to memorize individual notes, all you need to know is this:

W-W-H-W-W-W-H

The Ws stand for “Whole Note” and the Hs stand for “Half Note”. A whole note is made when you move down two frets and a half note is made when you move down one.

Here’s an example for you:

If you play those notes in that order, you will be playing the G-major scale. Isn’t that amazing! You don’t have to memorize every note of the scale, even though eventually you’ll become very familiar with them, but just how the scale is built.

And it’s built like this: W-W-H-W-W-W-H

That’s Too Easy

What if you don’t feel like just playing along one string every time? Maybe you want your fingers moving up and down like some sort of rock-n-roll spider from Mars.

Here’s how to adapt the use of that formula to work in any direction.

Whenever you’re on a note and you want to find the next note on the string above it, it always follows the same rule.

Here it is:

Notice the difference when the next string is the “B” string

Whenever you’re on a note and want to go to the next whole note on the string above where you are, you simply go up one string and back three frets. So if you’re on “A” on the 6th string, you’ll end up on the “B” note on the 5th string.

Exactly what you wanted!

But if you want to go a HALF step on the next string, just remember to go back FOUR frets.

Crazy Random Roadblock

Just remember that when the next string above where you are is the SECOND string “B”, that you’ll need to go back two frets to move to the next whole note and THREE frets to find the next half note.

Look again at that image above — where you’re moving from the F-note on the third string to the G-note on the second string — and it will make more sense. See F->G in the picture above.

Just one of those little nuances that makes guitar-playing something that you can be good at, but regular people will think there’s too many “rules” for.

Let’s Get Local

Now that you know how to get from one string to the next, how can we bring our scale closer to something we can do without sliding our left hand all up and down the neck?

We just use our same formula, W-W-H-W-W-W-H, but moving up a string after every few notes.

Like this:

Now we’re gettin’ groovy

If you compare that to the linear scale we did in the first picture, you’ll see that we’re playing all the same notes. This time they’re closer together and easier to get to without moving your hand all around.

Let’s break it down:

1. We started on the G note

2. We move one whole note (W) to the A note

3. We then moved up one string and back three frets to find the next whole note (W) and arrived on the B note. So far so good.

4. Next is a half-note (H), so we just go to the C note on the next fret.

5. Followed by another whole note (W) which lands us on the D note on the 5th string.

6. Now we want to move up again, and the next note in our scale will be another whole note (W). So we go up a string and back three frets until we land on E.

7. Following our formula (W-W-H-W-W-W-H) there’s one more whole note (W), so we move down two frets and land on F♯ (sometimes called G♭, like in the picture).

8. The last step in the formula is a half note (H), and that brings us right back to another G, thus completing the scale!

Yer gonna be a star, kid!

Let’s Get a Little Crazy with It

Now that you know how to find your scale without having to memorize each note, let’s apply that same formula to go backward on the fretboard. Are we outta control? Maybe, but let’s indulge our madness a little:

I can’t believe it’s the same scale

It’s the same scale! It uses all the same notes as the linear G scale we did on one string and the nice boxy G scale we just did a minute ago, with one small difference.

Using the pattern we learned instead of memorizing the location of every. single. one. of those notes, we can just start at the same G note and go up a string and three frets back (W), then forward two frets (W), then one little fret (H), then we can go up another string and back three frets (W) followed by another two frets (W) and this is where things get flexible.

We’re sitting on the E-note on the 4th string (2nd fret). If we go up a string now, we can’t go back three frets because there’s only two frets there.

So we go to the next step in our formula (W) on the same string. That puts us on F♯ (or G♭ — you’re totally getting this).

Now the final step in our formula is a half note (H).

There’s not one, but two options we have here. We can simply slide forward another half note and land on a G or we can go up to the next string and find a G there. Flexibility! But since we’re going “backward” in this example, let’s go up to the next string.

Remembering that when we want to go to the next half note on the next string up we have to go back four frets instead of three, that puts us — -what?! — on fret ZERO?!

I’m just messing with you. That’s just an open note, because we’re playing the G scale and we’ve landed on the G-string, so we just play that string by itself.

Outstanding.

You Can’t See Yourself Grow

Now you know how to pick any spot on the fretboard, any note whatsoever, and if you apply this formula (W-W-H-W-W-W-H) you will immediately be rocking out the major scale of whatever note you started with. Without having to memorize a bunch of dots on a map. Yay, you.

Just always remember to adjust for the 2nd string (B) when you’re going to land on it. Because we don’t want those non-guitarists to figure out all our tricks, do we?

Looking to the future, there are many other types of scales you can learn; minor (W-H-W-W-H-W-W), Dorian Mode (W-H-W-W-W-H-W) and many more!

Pretty soon you won’t even have to remember the formulas anymore, but just the relationship of the scale you want to the scale you already know and simply make adjustments on the fly.

But we’ll get there. No need to rush yourself. For now, just have some fun jamming those major scales all up and down the neck and don’t worry about finding a map…because it’s already in your head: W-W-H-W-W-W-H

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