Improvising In Different Keys With The Major Scale

Improvising In Different Keys With The Major Scale

by Marco von Baumbach


Are you one of the people who have learned the major scale without being told how to use it to actually make music, or you can only use it in one specific key (probably C major)?


If that sounds familiar to you, than you might be very frustrated about not being able to do anything with it, especially considering all those cool backing tracks on youtube you might not be able to enjoy, because you simply don’t know how to play over them, or you are limited to those who are in C major.


But don’t worry, I am going to show you now how to play over any major key or minor key backing track with the major scale.


I know the basic major scale shape on the 8thfret, but how do I use it?


If you have ever learned to play a major scale up and down the 6 strings, you probably have learned this one:


If You already know it, that’s great! If not, just take the time and memorize it. If you have learned it, or heard of it before, you might know that it is generally played beginning on the 8thfret on the low E-String, which is the note ‘C’.


The note which you are beginning the scale with, is determining in which key you are in. So when you are starting on the ‘C’ note on the 8thfret, you are playing in the key of C major.


That being said, you should know where the notes are on the low E-string, or at least be able to figure them out, because as said above, the note you are starting with is determining the key you are in.


So, how can I play the major scale over songs in different keys?


If you have understood everything that we have discussed before, you are ready to play the major scale in any key you want. As said before, the note which you are starting on is determining in which key you are in.


So let’s say you want to improvise over a song that is in G Major. All you need to do is to find out where the note ‘G’ is on the E-string (it is on the 3rdfret) and than you simply move the major scale shape (as it is in the picture above) and play it beginning on the 3rdfret of the E-string). You can do this with any major key.


Just keep in mind that the scale shape always stays the same. You move it as it is up and down the fretboard to the root note of the key you want to play in. This allows you to play in any major key you want!


What should I do if a song is in a minor key?


A lot of backing tracks on youtube are not in major keys, but in minor keys. If you have a song in a minor key, you can not play the major scale, by simply starting on the root note of the minor key. So, if you have a song in A minor do notplay the major scale beginning on the 5thfret (which is the note A). This will not sound good!


What you should do instead, is to start the major scale 3 frets higher than where the root note of the minor key is. So, if we stick to the example of A minor, you would not start the scale on the ‘A’ note, 5thfret, but you would count 3 frets upwardsto the 8thfret and start the scale from there.


Just try it out and you will find that it works. I’m not going to discuss the theory behind it for now, that’s not important for you to know at this point, just take it as it is and have fun experimenting.


My name is Marco von Baumbach, I’m a guitar teacher in Wuppertal, Germany. If you are from that area and are interested in lessons, check out my website aboutGitarrenunterricht in Wuppertal