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Rut Buster: Playing On Just One String

Break free of your usual habits by using just one string to play -- you''ll be surprised at the results.

Download Example 1
Guitar on E String Only
Download Example 2
GuitarViol on B String Only

Time for another rut-buster! Sometimes we get into the habit of following patterns on the guitar and it can be difficult to break out of that rut. It’s easy to get caught up in familiar playing positions on the fingerboard because they feel good. That’s why on a lot of used and vintage guitars you can see more fingerboard and fret wear on the 5th, 7th, and 12th frets as well as in the root-chord playing areas. People tend to favor them because of either the way they learned or because they focus around the key signatures many of us play in. But it doesn’t have to be that way all the time, and it’s easy to get out of that zone.

This month I was forced out of my comfort zone big time when asked to play a part on a track that required me to completely relearn technique. Rather than a guitar I was asked to play a GuitarViol [reviewed November ‘08], which is a 6-string, fretted violin/guitar that is bowed. Because my technique wasn’t up to snuff and my bow continuously bumped the adjacent strings and caused too much noise, I had to alter the instrument by pulling off all but one string. Playing the single-stringed instrument solved the problem of sounding off accidental notes with the bow but it created a new challenge—playing the entire melody on a single string. Because I wasn’t able to use adjacent strings to play the melody, all of my typical scale patterns were gone and it forced me to think horizontally. It was actually a lot easier than anticipated as the fingerboard was simplified greatly because there was only one way to play each note…like a piano.

The experience of playing horizontally was inspiring and, though I used a GuitarViol, the technique easily translates to a guitar. Keep in mind you don’t need to remove strings from the guitar in order to do this, it can be accomplished on any instrument as long as you discipline yourself to stick with one string at a time. With a standard tuned guitar there are five different open notes to experiment with (six if you count the duplicate E in the lower register). These come in handy if you’re in the key of A, D, G, B or E since you’ll get the widest range of available notes for that key. Of course you don’t have to use an open string to designate the key signature, you just won’t have the root note as an open string. I find it easiest to begin with a comfortable open note key as you’ll be more familiar with the notes when starting from the root. As you play more in this method, you’ll notice that the fingerboard will open up to you in ways you’ve never experienced.

Another helpful tip is to tune an open string to the key you’re playing in. For one example I was in the key of C, so I just tuned the B string up a half step to accommodate a full two-octave range. Using a slide can also open the range up beyond the fretted area of the fingerboard if you need to access notes higher than the string goes. For a 22-fret neck guitar this is great because you can hit that second complete octave easily and never even have to bend a note.

To give you a feel for what you can do with one string, I’ve included some examples of soloing and melodic phrasing with single strings, both on the guitar and the GuitarViol, since it was the catalyst for this topic.

So, if you’re stuck in the old playing patterns and want to try something fresh, concentrate on one string for a day and see what kinds of new areas you find. You might be pleasantly surprised how much more you’ll find if you dig a little deeper.

Steve Ouimette

Steve is best known for his recent work on Guitar Hero III, the

multi-platinum selling video game that is turning gamers into

guitarists by the thousands. A guitarist/composer/producer, he holds a

B.A. in Music Performance and Composition and spends his days and

nights writing music for games, film and television. He’s also a rabid

tone fanatic and amp enthusiast always looking for a unique sound. His

original music can be found on iTunes and at