The Major Scale: Variations On A Theme

The Major Scale: Variations On A Theme

By James Hill

There are a million ways to play the major scale. Once you get the hang of it, your students won’t even know that they’re practising the same skill over and over again.

Right from the first measure, Rattle on the Stovepipe (the free arrangement included in this issue), is full of major-scale passages. In fact, most of the music we know and love is based on that familiar eight-note pattern: Do, Re, Mi, Fa, So, La, Ti, Do. Learning to play the major scale is as fundamental as learning to say the alphabet.

I've seen it happen many times with students of all ages: "playing chords is fun," they say, "but I can't hear the song." Once they learn to pick the melody, they can finally "hear the song." When young students come up to me and say "I know how to play the Super Mario Brothers theme or Smoke on the Water," what they usually mean is "I can play the melody." Sure enough, when I ask to hear it, that's what they play. They want to play the melody. To them, that's the song.

When it comes to teaching the scale to your students, be patient and persistent. They'll get it. And when they do, they'll never forget it. As always, varied repetition is your best friend. There are a million ways to play the major scale. Once you get the hang of it, your students won't even know that they're practising the same skill over and over again.

To that end, here are some tried-and-true major-scale variations for you to use with your students. All variations shown below will harmonize when played together. They are shown roughly in order of increasing difficulty. To see these examples in C6 tuning (g, c, e, a), .

1. D major scale:


2. Harmonizing strum: 


3. D major scale in "running" thirds: 


4. D major scale in "broken" thirds:


5. D major scale in "harmonic" thirds:


6. Melody and chords together (The "Harmonized" scale)


What's more, you can apply the following challenges to any of the major-scale variations above:

  • Pick the scale with your eyes closed.

  • Pick a given rhythm on each note of the scale.

  • Pick with the index finger instead of the thumb.

  • Pick one octave higher.

  • Tremolo using a flatpick.

  • Pick on the off-beats only.

The possibilities are virtually endless. In other words, regardless of skill level, there should be something for everyone in the examples above. If you let your students choose the part that's right for them, those at a beginner level won't get discouraged and those at a more advanced level won't get bored.

Time spent working on scales is never wasted time. But don't spend more than 5-8 minutes on scales in a given class. The key is consistent effort over time. Keep your lesson moving, reward student progress, and revisit these skills with every lesson.


James Hill is editor of Ukulele Yes! and co-author of Ukulele in the Classroom. His online video-lesson program, The Ukulele Way, is used by thousands of students around the world. Visit for more.