How to Play the D Major Scale on Guitar?

Published Categorized as Guitar lessons, Scales

Diligent and intelligent practise is key for learning in all its forms, and nowhere is this more evident than in the study of a musical instrument. The guitar especially lends itself to this ethos of success through repetition which, when harnessed intelligently and consciously, aligns in a seemingly post-human way all of these various aspects of the human mind, body, and sensory perception.

When a guitarist is so sufficiently practised, these aspects all align to such a syzygic extent that it’s not difficult to understand how some musicians once thought, and still do think, themselves conduits for some higher power or message, the music flowing from their fingers of someone or something else’s accord.

Of course, to achieve such heights of musicianship that your abilities can be mistaken by yourself and others as the communications of some higher power requires a considerable amount of practise, wanting hours and hours and hours of dedication sunk into it, though it is not beyond the realms of possibility for anyone to do so.

It is precisely in this force of dedication that many find themselves not so well constituted as to take their abilities and skills all the way to said heights. We must all start somewhere: even if just learning a simple D major scale, this very major scale in its varying forms and keys is the foundation upon which the entirety of the Western classical tradition is based. From over half a millennium ago right up until the present day, we are still haunted for good or bad by the same keys and chords and scales and progressions.

So, we must all start somewhere, and if you are seeking to practise and perfect your place in this Western musical tradition, then the major scale in any of its guises will be a vital stepping stone on your journey of ascension.

What Is The D Major Scale?

At its most basic, we can view the D major scale as simply the notes in the key of D major. There are seven of these notes, as with every standard major scale, and we would call this scale diatonic for being exclusively of its key.

As with all major scales of this variety, we can follow a basic formula to construct them: working from the root upwards, we can calculate each note sequentially using the following formula, where a whole step is worth two semitones on the guitar fretboard, and a half step is equivalent to just one: Whole – Whole – Half – Whole – Whole – Whole – Half.


We can see this in action with the example of the D Major Scale below:

Scale DegreeI
Tonic
ii
Supertonic
iii
Mediant
iv
Subdominant
V
Dominant
vi
Submediant
vii
Leading Tone
IntervalRootMajor 2ndMajor 3rdPerfect 4thPerfect 5thMajor 6thMajor 7th
NoteDEF#GABC#
Steps (from previous)HalfWholeWholeHalfWholeWholeWhole

What Does This Mean for The Guitar?

Translated onto the guitar, this doesn’t make a whole lot of difference, other than the need to cater for the specific nature of the guitar and how notes are played on the fretboard etc.


As mentioned above, if we are travelling up the fretboard from the root, the structure of the scale will work like so, wherever you choose to play it in terms of pitch:

  • From the root D to the following note E we travel a whole step of two frets,
  • followed by a whole two fret step from E to F#,
  • then there is our first half step of one fret, F# to G;
  • next there is a run of three whole two fret steps:
  • G to A, A to B, then B to C#.
  • Finally, the second and last half step measure takes us from C# to D.
  • In this way, we can loop back around again and again ad infinitum.

How Do We Go about Translating This to The Guitar?

There are two methods that I would recommend grappling with initially. No doubt you are aware that there are near endless numbers of ways through which to tackle and play this scale and all others, but for now these will get you started, and ought to find application in all sorts of musical scenarios.

Open Position D Major Scale

The first will be an open position, perhaps more familiar to those still used to playing basic open chords. There will be a significantly less involved amount of action on the fretting hand, as much of the scale finds itself on the open strings anyhow. Thus, no matter your progress on guitar, this will be a vital moment to either learn anew or stop and reflect on that which you might otherwise have been taking for granted, e.g., the place of the open strings and their relation to other notes, or the place of these notes in any of the scales you are currently learning, not just this one, not to mention simply warming up your picking hand to going up and down the length of the strings.

You can play this scale in whichever manner you see fit, and whichever suits you best in terms of your comfort. However, I would suggest sticking to assigning a certain fret to a certain finger, at least to begin with, so that the fingers come to associate these notes with these positions with repeated practise.

Once you are comfortable in ascending and descending the scale repeatedly, try adding a metronome into the mix. Playing in time will be vital if you have any intention of playing with others or even to a backing track, so introducing a metric element at this early stage is a sure-fire way to instil this into the subconscious and muscle memory as second nature, particularly when first learning this scale.

An added challenge would be to close your eyes and choose a spot from the scale at random, and then to work your way from there to the root or the corresponding octave, above or below. A particular idol of mine, Robert Fripp, swears by practising in a darkened room, to reduce considerably the amount that one needs to rely on sight, preferring to dedicate his vision to watching other members of the band while he plays.

Seen below is a diagram detailing all of the notes in the D major scale as playable in this flexible, open position, from lowest E to G on the high E string. Familiarising yourself with these shapes, especially in their relation to the key and chord of D major, will be of much use to you; see if you are able to spot which notes are more vital than others in the construction of the D major chord, and which might be considered more extraneous, more for the use of colouring.

Try only to move onto this next exercise when you are totally comfortable with the previous patterns:

As with before, practising this repeatedly to a metronome, as well as intelligently assessing your mistakes and rectifying them so as not to perpetuate, are key to fully unlocking these scales for your own use, whether for improvisation or composition etc.

Barre Position D Major Scale

This position will be more familiar to those already accustomed with the D major in its barre shape, with its root on the 10th fret of the E string. We will first begin with outlining how this might be played across two octaves in a fairly rigid series of shapes, across the width of the fretboard, from the pole of low E to the opposite pole of high E:

As all of the notes here must be fretted to be played, this is somewhat of a step up from the previous shape, though with repeated ascensions and descensions through the shapes, preferably along to a metronome with a tempo adjusted for your comfort and a drone in the key of D major, you will be perfecting it in no time.

If it isn’t quite sounding as you would like it to and you aren’t exactly sure what is wrong, in the absence of a friend who might be able to listen and offer advice from outside your person, you can always film or otherwise record yourself playing the scale, practising your ear as well as your mind and fingers.

For an added challenge, following on from the logic of the open chord shape, I have affixed below the extended spectrum of notes that can be played from this position of the fretboard, offering plenty of points through which to switch shape from open to barre and back again:

D Major = B Minor

Fun and utterly seminal fact: every major key has a relative minor! Because of the guitar’s repetitively structed fretboard, this can be easily calculated in seconds! From the root note of your major chord, you descend in pitch three frets, and boom! For our example of D major, we go back three frets and we have B minor.

This means that both the B minor and D major scale feature the exact same notes, the difference lying in the fact that they begin on different root notes. If you don’t believe me, try playing the D major shapes we have been learning throughout today’s session along to this B minor drone. You’ll notice that it sounds perfectly normal, and in fact very interesting, almost like viewing the tonal landscape through a mirror…

Final Tones

So, if read and practised thoroughly, you ought to be somewhat the wiser about the D major scale, and hopefully better prepared to deal with any other scales that you wish to play. As always, the guitar fretboard’s sameness is a secret weapon for all aspiring guitarists, for every shape, whether of chord, scale, or mode. Also, to transpose guitar chords, you just need to move up and down the fretboard. Thus, I would encourage you to pick a favourite key, or one at random, and try, with the formula and/or the shapes above, to work out its major scale.

By Nate Pallesen

Nate is just your average (above average) guitar player. He's no Joe Satriani, Jimi Hendrix or Jimmy Page - wait this site is about acoustic guitars (sorry) He's no Django Reinhardt, Chet Atkins, or Michael Hedges, wait? who!? He's no Robert Johnson, Eric Clapton or Ben Harper - more familiar? Anyway you get the point :-)

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