Playing Guitar on a Single String
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 quickly 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 a single string (as opposed to playing in position 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 and practicing 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 Single String Playing
To offer you a practical example of this approach and how it might benefit your soloing skills, try using the following fingerboard diagrams to isolate the notes from the C major scale on each separate string. Play the C major scale on each string (beginning from the low E string and working upwards to the high E string) from the open strings up to the 12th fret and back down again.
Once you have learned the single string scale sets, take the Jazz Funk style backing track below (the chords on this track just alternate between Cmaj7 and Fmaj7..) and improvise freely for a while – as you would normally using any fingerboard position or C major scale shape that you are familiar with (i.e. unrestricted practice)
Once you have completed the first exercise, 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 at a time playing the C major scale. 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 to review what you just played.
Q: What did you notice about playing on a single string in comparison to playing with no string restrictions?
Q: Did it sound different, better, or worse to your ears?..really try to analyse this carefully.
Using Other Scales
Using the approach we examined above, now try the same concept 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 completely 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. The scale can also be referred to as a ‘Diminished Whole Tone’ scale or the Superlocrian mode.
Here’s this scale mapped out on all six strings for you.
As with the previous exercise, you are going to start working with the new scale by having no restrictions, so you can play anywhere on the fingerboard using familiar scale shapes you may already know for the G Altered scale. If you don’t know any G Altered scale shapes as yet, now is a good time to learn one!
Here’s a backing track using a G7 Alt. chord vamp, once again in a Jazz Funk style. You can use the G Altered scale throughout the track if you’d like, although the sound can be quite tense if played for a long period of time. Try to really get the sound of the scale into your ear despite the tension it creates.
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 major scale, then take things slowly and aim towards developing some simple melodies at first. You will soon find yourself becoming more fluent with the new scale.
After completing the exercises above, try converting some of the other scales you use regularly. Take different scale types and learn them on single strings. You could use pentatonic scales, blues scales or any of the various modes for this.
Once you have the scales mapped out on single strings, then try improvising with them in a similar manner to the above exercises. If you really want to delve into this single string approach a bit further, you can also try mapping out arpeggios on single strings.
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.
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 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 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. I’ll expand upon these single string exercises much more in a future lesson.