Nut-position scales

I had terrible handwriting when I was a kid, but I always wanted to make nice-looking documents. When I learned to type in about 1969, it was a revolution for me. I could finally make beautiful documents (well, beautiful within the aesthetic possibilities of a mechanical typewriter). This was deeply satisfying for me.

When I bought a copy of Finale (the music-notation computer program), I was similarly thrilled. Even when all I am making is a practice sheet for my own use, I like to do it in Finale, just because the results can be so beautiful. (Of course there are other great music-notation programs. Finale just happens to be the one I use.) And if the music is actually something I will be using a lot, it is probably worth the effort to do it on the computer instead of writing it out by hand. (For those of you who haven’t used a music-notation program, I should explain that writing music by hand is generally faster than doing it on the computer, but the latter has a lot of other advantages, like high-quality output, easy error correction, the ability to hear what you’ve written, etc.)

Since I started the banjo, I also have found it fundamental to be able to make high-quality chord diagrams. (The program I use is Neck Diagrams, available at I often combine music from Finale and chord diagrams from Neck Diagrams in the same document.

My latest masterwork is a practice sheet of major scales. As a trumpet player I was — naturally — more comfortable with scales than with chords, and I still like scales. I don’t feel in control of an instrument if I can’t play the major scales in ALL keys. The confusing thing for me on the banjo, as opposed to the trumpet, is that there are several ways to finger most notes. This means that there are lots and lots and LOTS of ways to do even the simplest scale. If, for example, I want to play this one-octave C major scale:

One-octave C major scale

all of the following — and many more — will give it to you:

One-octave C major (many versions)

I calculate that there are exactly 4,374 ways to play this one simple 8-note scale on the tenor banjo. So how to decide which to use? One could rely on books and expert advice, but banjo scales are not as standardized as, say, violoncello scales, so each expert says something different. Or one could copy the fingerings from the cello, which is a very similar instrument to the banjo in many ways … but its fingerings don’t always adapt well to the banjo, especially in the cello’s “thumb position”.

In the end I decided that, at least for now, I would use the scales that stay as close to the nut as possible. They are certainly not the most comfortable of fingerings, and I know that in the future I will learn more elegant versions, but for now at least I have a complete set to practice. Here are all 17 of the two-octave scales on the tenor banjo, as I have arranged them:

Major scales - 2 octaves - nut position
You can see they fall into groups, depending on what fret you start on.

I practice them slowly every day, just to help me feel “right” on the banjo. I really don’t expect to need B major or Gb major any time soon, but being able to play them makes me feel more at home on the instrument.

You can see a nicer version of these scales, including a few scale and arpeggio exercises, at my banjo web page,; look for “Major scales (nut position)”.

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