Guitar Playing On A Single String (or two)
Playing On A Single String (or two)
Whilst some of us may have first explored learning the guitar by playing on a single string, (i.e. by learning a simple melody or riff) this process is usually overtaken by practicing with the more conventional fingerboard approach of playing ‘in position’.
Once you have learned the basic CAGED chord shapes and some scales and arpeggios, playing on a single string tends to get left behind. Some guitarists even view playing on a single string as something confined only to beginners.
In this lesson I’d like to revisit single string practice, as it can really benefit your guitar playing no matter what level your musical experience. Even for quite advanced players, working with single strings can really open up your musical horizons and is especially helpful for improvising as we’ll shortly see.
Mick Goodrick’s Influence
Before I go further I have to make mention of how I rediscovered single string playing.
Some years ago I was introduced to a wonderful book by the great US jazz guitarist and educator, Mick Goodrick. ‘The Advancing Guitarist’ is a instructional book for intermediate to advanced guitar players and within it there is an emphasis on the value of playing along single strings (as opposed to playing positionally on multiple string sets)
This book had a profound and very positive effect upon my own musical practice and I soon saw the advantages to playing along single strings rather than always playing across them (in position)
One of the first realisations I came to from working with single strings was that I couldn’t play my favourite ‘licks’ very easily, as most of them relied on playing across strings sets using conventional scale patterns. When I first tried to improvise using just one string it sounded very awkward and I realised that much of what I had been playing was based on visual scale ‘shapes’ rather than using my ear to guide me whilst trying to create a melody.
Playing on a single string really made me think a lot more about what I was playing in terms of note choice. A very useful musical discovery therefore!
The Wonders of One String Playing
To offer you a practical example of this approach and how it might particularly benefit your soloing skills, try using the following fingerboard diagram to isolate the notes from the C major scale on each individual string. Play the C major scale on each string (beginning from the low E string and working upwards to the top E string) from the open strings up to the 12th fret and back down again.
Here’s a PDF of the diagram below that you can print out:
Once you have done this take the Jazz Funk style backing track below (the chords on this track just alternate between Cmaj7 and Fmaj7) and improvise for a while as you would normally using any fingerboard position or scale shape that you are familiar with (i.e. unrestricted practice)
Once you have done this, take a short break and then return to the track and do the same thing but this time restrict yourself to just a single string. Try taking the top E string for example and see if you can improvise comfortably with just that string alone. Remember you can’t change strings here, only move up and down the same string (restricted practice)
Having done that, take another break and then review what you just played.
What did you notice about playing on the single string in comparison to playing with no restrictions?
Did it sound different, better, worse?..try to analyse this.
Using Other Scales – The More Difficult Stuff
Using the approach we examined above, now try the same idea but with a completely different scale. Major scales are fairly easy to hear, but this time we are going to employ a scale from a completly different different source that may prove harder to hear at first.
The G ‘Altered’ scale is a mode of the Ab Melodic Minor scale and is commonly used when improvising over altered dominant 7th chords such as: G7#5, G7b9,b13, G7#9 etc.
Here’s this scale mapped out on all six strings for you and there is also a downloadable PDF for you here as well to print out and put on your music stand.
As we did above, you are going to start working with the new scale by having no restrictions for your soloing so you can play anywhere on the fingerboard using any familiar scale shapes you already know for the G ‘Altered’ scale.
Here’s a backing track using just a G7 ‘Altered’ chord, again in a Jazz Funk style. You can use the G ‘Altered’ scale throughout the track.
Having played a bit on the above track your next task is to just limit yourself to a single string as we did with the C major scale. If the G ‘Altered’ scale is less familiar to you than the earlier scale then take things slowly and aim towards developing some simple melodies at first. You will soon find yourself becoming more fluent with the scale.
Single String Playing – Putting It All Together
Hopefully by now you will have started to see just how useful playing on single strings can be in developing your improvisational skills. Licks are very hard to play when you don’t have access to neighbouring string sets and it’s very likely now that you will be thinking a lot more carefully about what melodies you are playing.
As a final exercise, here is a backing track for a II V I progression in C Major, (Dm7 – G7 ‘Alt’ – Cmaj7) where you can mix between the two scales we have just examined in this lesson. The Dm7 chord is held for one bar, the G7 ‘Alt’ chord for one bar and the Cmaj7 chord for two bars.
You can use the C Major scale over the Dm7 chord and also the Cmaj7 chord but you will need to switch to the G ‘Altered’ scale for the G7 ‘Altered’ chord (which is actually G7#9)
Take things slowly with all the above exercises, as playing on a single string may feel quite awkward at first, especially if you have always played just using conventional scale positions. It is very much worth persevering with this approach though, as over time you will become much more aware of what you are playing melodically.
I’ve really seen some incredible results not only with my own playing but with that of many of my students using this single string approach, so see what it does for you!