What existed before the guitar? The Ukulele? The Lute? The Balalaika? I’m not sure, but there are examples of guitar-like instruments stretching back 4000 years. Even then, what existed before that? Eventually, if we go back far enough, I’m sure we will discover a stringed instrument which only had one string. At that point they hadn’t even thought of having multiple strings. This amazing one-stringed instrument would have had a name, let’s call it a Unitar.
What could possibly be done with that one string? Unfortunately, for most of us, the answer would be not much. Because most of us are pattern and position players, we know the minor pentatonic scale like the back of our hand. We can play that familiar pattern with our eyes closed. Playing across the strings in that way is not too hard, but playing along the string is a mystery. A single stringed instrument should be at least 6 times easier to play, but we just don’t think of the guitar in that way.
When we view notes on a piece of sheet music (even if we don’t read music) we see the notes work in a linear fashion. They run in a straight line down the stave; the high notes at the top and the low notes at the bottom. Similarly, the notes on a guitar work in a linear fashion. But they run in a horizontal line along the fretboard, the low notes towards the nut and the high notes towards the bridge. Each note is one successive fret higher
As guitarists, we are not taught to think or play in this way. Instead, we rely on common scale shapes and patterns, which we can regurgitate at a moment’s notice. Even when I took guitar exams I could rely on playing patters, just start on the right note and play the relevant pattern – easy! I didn’t even know which notes I was playing or which degree of the scale it was, I only had to know the pattern.
Mastering a single string will benefit you
Back to the Unitar. What if you viewed the guitar as 6 unitars next to each other? What would you gain from learning how to play scales, solos and arpeggios along a single string.
Learning note locations
How well do you know the fretboard? Most guitarists will learn the notes on the 5th and 6th string by playing barre chords. From there, using octaves, it is possible to work out any other note. But that is not really knowing the fretboard. Can you quickly name the note on the 9th fret of the 2nd string? Or the 8th fret of the 3rd string? Hmm . . . took a bit of thinking, eh? By learning to play the notes along a single string it will open up the whole fretboard. You will know where you are and where you want to go to.
Better ear training
Have you tried to transcribe a melody on guitar? It’s tough. Moving across strings messes with the mind. But when there is only one string to use, it becomes much easier. There is now a common distance between notes for every musical interval you hear. It does not matter which finger you are playing with or which string you are using, an interval of a 3rd is always 5 frets higher. Your ear will start to automatically associate intervals with the distance in frets, so transcribing songs becomes much faster.
Break out of position playing
Wouldn’t it be great to break out of those boring scale shapes explore the notes around it? Taking on a bend or a slide knowing that you’re going to hit a valid note. This can be achieved if you know the notes along the string. Even if you want to keep playing shapes, that’s fine, but it would now be possible to join those shapes together in a seamless way.
How to master one string.
To learn to play guitar this way it’s important to take it slowly and practice in small chunks of time, I recommend no more than 5 minutes per day. You can’t change your approach overnight, it will take time.
- If you’re not sure where to start, try following these principles:
- Focus on one string at a time, completely master it before moving onto the next. This may mean spending months just working on a single string.
- Start with the key of C, then learn each key thoroughly before moving onto other keys.
- As you practice, say aloud the name of the note or the degree of the scale.
- Play over common chord progressions, playing the chord tones on each beat. So, if you’re playing over an A chord, play A (on the first beat), C# (on the second beat), E (on the third beat), then back to C# (on the fourth beat). As the chord moves to D chord the notes to play will change to D (on the first beat), F# (on the second beat), A (on the third beat), then F# (on the fourth beat).
- Having mastered the chord tones, try soloing over the same chord progressions, firstly trying to get any note in the scale, then later trying to play a chord tone on beats 1 and 3.
Playing your guitar like a unitar for just a few minutes each day will fundamentally change your approach to guitar playing. It will change you from a position player to an anywhere player, and from just a guitarist to a complete musician. Unfortunately, I didn’t think up of this concept myself, I learned it from The Advancing Guitarist by Mick Goodrick. Click the image below to purchase your own copy.