C Major Scale: the guitarist’s secret weapon

For someone who is learning to play piano or keyboard, they always start with pieces in the key of C Major – there are no black notes in that key, so it’s easier to get to grips with.  As guitarists, we tend not to start with C Major – we stick to the modern hedonistic pleasure of E Major or the spark and satisfaction of A Major.  Both of these keys are suited to the sounds of a guitar.

But, the innocence and purity of C major (because it has no natural sharps or flats) is one of the first keys that most musicians learn.  Get to know the basics of how to play the C Major scale and you’ll find it easy to hook up with other musicians whatever their instrument. Think of it as a lingua franca.

Yes, you can always clip on a capo to match up with other people, but at some point you’ll benefit from pinning in the musical theory that lies behind C Major.

Why do I need to know scales?

As a musician, you need to know keys and scales so that you can play with other people and so that you find it easier to decode and pick up new songs or tunes. The sooner you have an understanding the basic building blocks of music, the sooner your playing will improve.

Once you recognize and are familiar with the keys people are playing in, you’ll more easily be able to drop in to their sessions. You’ll have a much wider range of material available to you.

As a guitarist, you’ll also at some stage expect to be asked to play some kind of solo melody on top of the accompaniments. This is where the scales come in. If you are clear about what notes come in the key you are using, you’ll be able to improvise a little sequence of notes that fit nicely with the piece you are playing. Build on the little sequence until you have shredding solos at your fingertips.

Chords in C Major

The base chords of C Major are: C, F and G.  You’ll also be able to use Am, Dm and Em. That gives you the basis of the “sound” of C Major.

Here are the basic chord shapes as a reminder:

C Major Scale

Playing along the fretboard, these are the finger positions for a simple C Major scale.

This gives us one octave working across only the middle four strings on the guitar.

But we can get a much bigger spread by moving up the fretboard a little and playing the scale like this:

You’ll commonly see this shape drawn like this along the fretboard:

The black dots show the note C at three different positions. Each string has only 3 notes played on it as you progress up and down the scale.  When you play scales, it helps to lock the fingering into a specific fret. In this case, we mean put your index/first finger onto fret 5 and lock it there – no matter which string you are playing, if you are sounding the note on fret 5, press down with your first finger. So, in the above diagram, we start on the bottom E string at fret 8 – use your third finger to press the fret (it sounds C).

Let’s sketch that up a different way to add an indication of which finger is recommended to press the strings to the frets.

Once you have this sequence of notes hard-wired into your fingers and linked with your musical brain, you can use the shape to play in any key.  Move so that your first finger is locked on to the 7th fret and you are in D Major. Move to lock on to fret 9 and you have E Major. If you need the pomp of B Major, slide down to lock on fret 3. Once basic moveable set of fingering and you are equipped to solo along with anyone.

C Pentatonic

Here is a slight variation on the scale of C Major which is very common in rock and pop music. You can use this “cut down” version to excellent effect up and down the fretboard, in any key, just like the full C Major scale.

Here is the sequence of frets to use – note we are again locking your first finger on to fret 5.  The critical difference here is that each string only has 2 notes available. This makes the scale a little easier to use.

When you compare the notes of the scales – C Major to C Major Pentatonic, this is what you see:

C MajorC D E F G A B C
C Major PentatonicC D E   G A   C


Sometimes, the key of C Major is seen as a beginner’s key – after all it only uses the white notes on a piano keyboard! But, it does form one of the basic building blocks of the language of music. It’s worth getting to grips with its ins and outs.

As guitarists, we have a special trick up our sleeves.  Once we master this scale and know how to use it up the fretboard, we can suddenly play in any key – that is the power of the guitar. One of the reasons why so many people want to pick it up and play it.

Master the C Major scale and you’re well on the way to mastering the guitar.