Over the years I've heard a few musicians refer to the linear approach to melody but I'd never given it much thought until I heard a guy describing the method he used to learn guitar. This involved having only 1 string. After he had mastered the single string he graduated to 2, and then 3 and so on.
Although I had no intention of taking 5 strings off my guitar, it did start me wondering how you would go about playing melodies on a single string. I soon discovered that this is a very useful way to approach the scale. It gives you a great sense of the structure, which helps you to appreciate it as it applies to the entire fret board. It forces you to play in a more melodic way and makes shifting position a vital part of the melodic process. This constant shifting of position forces you to leave the security of the fret board; you have to make a 'leap of faith' so to speak. Another benefit of this is that you aren't allowed to hang around on a note longer than is absolutely necessary. This makes your phrasing tidy with none of that mushiness that can happen when you play phrases using a block scale. If you have to leap over 11 frets to make a major 7th there certainly isn't going to be any blurring of the 2 notes. And when you do switch back to a more efficient way of playing, i.e. grabbing notes nearby, you'll find this clearly defined way of playing will remain.
So let's get started. At this point you could of course just go and experiment with scales on 1 string. I wouldn't advise against this; I'm a great believer in the idea that the best exercises are the ones you create yourself. But if you want to stick with this article then here are some of the methods I used and some of the discoveries I made while exploring the single string technique.
One very important thing is to break up the scale into manageable chunks. Something I learned as a direct result of this exercise was that the scale has two halves which are symmetrical. This symmetry might not be obvious at first glance.
= whole step h
= half step
C D E F G A B C
w w h w w w h
This pattern of steps appears unsymmetrical. However, if we split the scale in two with the first piece being from C to F and the second from G to C we find perfect symmetry.
Incidentally, if we extended this pattern beyond the F in the top line and the C in the bottom, would the symmetry continue? No. And guess where it falls down? With the B in the top line and the F in the bottom, which when played together form the Diabolus in Musica or Devil's Interval (flattened fifth). All the other pairs form perfect fifths.
C D E F G A (B) C
G A B C D E (F) G
Anyway, back to the point. The first two useful chunks are the four-note halves of C-F and G-C, and it's the symmetry between these two parts which will prove useful when visualizing the scale.
The next set of chunks are made up of three notes and are formed by combining the notes that are in easy reach of the seven scale degrees. These chunks come in three distinct shapes; whole step whole step (w w), whole step half step (w h), and half step whole step (h w). They are as follows:
C d e D e f E f g F g a
(w w) (w h) (h w) (w w)
G a b A b c B c d C d e
Notice the further symmetry of our initial four note halves and the relationships between the groups of three-note chunks.
I like to refer to these three-note chunks using the modal names:
C d e (Ionian)
D e f (Dorian)
E f g (Phrygian)
F g a (Lydian)
G a b (Mixolydian)
A b c (Aeolian)
B c d (Locrian)
Now using these modal names we can look at the above symmetrical table and see that the Ionian, Lydian and Mixolydian share a major 2nd major 3rd tonality. The Dorian and Aeolian share a major 2nd minor 3rd tonality. And the Phrygian and Locrian share a minor 2nd minor 3rd tonality.
At this point you might be thinking "pretty patterns. So what?". Well, being able to visualize the scale in this way can be really useful when it comes to playing the scale in a practical manner. Even though you're sticking to a single string, using these manageable chunks, you're going to be very familiar with the scale from the perspective of all seven degrees. This means you'll know the scale from any note anywhere on the whole guitar!
Okay, as we mentioned practicality, let's start practicing!
As we've been referring to the C major scale, let's stick with that. The string we're going to use is the B string so the root C will be at the first fret and the octave at the 13th.
(C D E F) (G A B C)
You can see that if we place our first finger on the C at the first fret, the only notes within easy reach are D and E. This means we're going to be doing a lot of position shifts. Any of the four fingers could be the launching finger and any could be the landing finger.
Exercise 1. Scale Degrees.
Play each note of the scale ascending and descending with the first finger alone. This means you're going to be executing a position shift of one scale degree every time you play a note, and you'll be using the same finger to both launch and land. Repeat this with the second, third and fourth fingers. Launching and landing with the third and fourth fingers will be tricky so take it slow and careful. Concentrate on neatness and accuracy. Forget timing and tempo; they just cause you to play notes before you're ready. Good timing and high tempo are natural bi-products of repetitively accurate finger placement.
Exercise 2. 2nds.
Play through the scale in 2nds, using the first and third fingers for major 2nds (w), and the first and second fingers for minor 2nds (h).
C d D e E f F g
w w h w
G a A b B c C d
I have written it out in this way to demonstrate the symmetry element. That's why a d has been added at the 15th fret. The caps denote the start of a position shift and should therefore be played with the first finger. Now come up with as many different ways as you can of fingering these 2nds both ascending and descending.
Exercise 3. 3rds.
Play through the scale in 3rds using the same position shifting as described for 2nds. Note the symmetry of the two halves (C-F) (G-C). Again, try as many different ways of playing the 3rds ascending and descending as you can.
Something else we can do with 3rds is add the middle note (2nd) to form our three-note chunks and play through those.
C d e D e f E f g F g a
(w w) (w h) (h w) (w w)
G a b A b c B c d C d e
In my Guitar Fitness lesson I describe some permutations for these three-note chunks that I use all the time when playing through scales in this way. Although in that lesson I suggest fingering the Tone Tone (w w) chunk with fingers 1,2 and 4. I've since switched to 1, 3 and 4, which is much more natural.
Exercise 4. 4ths.
Unlike the 2nds and 3rds, where we shifted position in order to play the next interval, with 4ths, 5ths, 6ths and 7ths, we'll need to shift position to play the interval itself. This is where the three-note chunks can prove particularly useful. So from here on I will be referring to them using their modal names.
If we take a look at the first 4th (C, F), we might at first try to play this as a stretch. But unless you're playing the two notes very rapidly back and forth, it's better to treat it as a shift. A good way to do this is to think of the C as being the lowest note of the Ionian chunk, and the F as being the highest note of the Dorian. So we play the C in the Ionian position with our first finger, then shift position to the Dorian and play the F with our fourth finger. Remember you've already made this shift lots of times in the previous exercises. You're just shifting your first finger from the C to the D and the fourth finger will naturally fall over the F at the 6th fret. Try playing around with this position shift by playing the C with the first finger and then shifting to Dorian and playing any of the three notes with the correct fingering, i.e. first (D), third (e), and fourth (f).
Next thing to do is play the (D, G) 4th using exactly the same approach. D being the lowest of Dorian and G being the highest of Phrygian. Now play all the fourths in this way.
(C, F) (D, G) (E, A) (F, B)
(G, C) (A, D) (B, E) (C, F)
Did you notice the (F, B) is the odd one out, being as how it's an augmented 4th and all the others are perfect? The devil's interval again. It's back and this time it's inverted!
Exercise 5. 5ths, 6ths And 7ths.
We can approach 5ths, 6ths and 7ths in exactly the same way in which we tackled 4ths; by treating them as a position shift using the three-note chunks as a guide. The 5th (C, G) is the lowest note of Ionian followed by the highest of Phrygian. The 6th (C, A) is the lowest of Ionian and the highest of Lydian and so on. I'm sure you can follow the logic behind this system. It's good to get into the habit of working in this systematic way because it ensures that no element is given any less attention than any other. And if you get tired or just have to go and do something else, at the start of your next session you can pick up where you left off.
Other Key Signatures
If you follow the instructions above then the result should be a thorough appreciation of the C major scale (and it's modes) as it appears on the B string. But why just the B string? You'll find all the same patterns everywhere else!
So we need to turn our attention to the other eleven keys. A good way to do this is to use the circle of fifths to systematically move through the 12 key signatures. We've already done C so the next key is G. I suggest the G string... obviously! Then D, A, E and B using the obvious strings.
For F#/Gb I use the 1st string starting at the 2nd fret.
Db (2nd string 2nd fret)
Ab (3rd string 1st fret)
Eb (4th string 1st fret)
Bb (5th string 1st fret)
F (6th string 1st fret)
C (2nd string 1st fret) back where we began!
When you've mastered all of this you can reward yourself with the addition of a second string! Have fun!