How To Learn (and use) Guitar Scales On One String

Guitar scales are usually taught using either the CAGED system or 3 note per string patterns.

3 note per string scale patterns are much more efficient than CAGED. Tommaso Zillio explains perfectly why this is the case. Click here if you’re undecided which system to use to learn scales.

Guitar scales on one string are not an alternative to either system. You still need to choose whether you use CAGED or 3 note per string patterns to learn your scales.

Rather, learning guitar scales on one string is a different way of visualizing scales and achieves goals of its own:

  • You see scales horizontally rather than vertically. This opens a lot of opportunities when soloing and improvising.
  • It helps you see connections between scale patterns.
  • It helps you visualize scale theory applied to the guitar.
  • It helps with ear training since you’re visualizing and hearing the scale at the same time.

In this lesson we’ll be working on one scale: The A minor natural.

The same process can then be applied to any scale or mode you are learning.

A minor natural scale on one string

The A minor natural scale is made of the notes A, B, C, D, E, F and G. (In this lesson I show you how to learn it using 3 note per string patterns).

First we’re going to lay it out on one string using the open A string as the root. (Go to this lesson if you haven’t yet memorized the notes on the guitar fretboard. By doing so you’ll find it much easier to apply music theory to the guitar).

Practice this slowly and let your ears recognize the sound of this commonly used scale while it’s laid out neatly on one string.

Next, we’re going to play the A minor natural scale in one octave on all other guitar strings.

On the low E string the first A note is on the 5th fret, and reaches an octave on the 17th fret.

On the D string, A is on the 7th fret and reaches an octave on the 19th fret.

On the G string, A is on the 2nd fret and reaches an octave on the 14th fret.

On the B string, the first A is on the 10th fret. An octave higher would be the 22nd fret, which cannot be reached on all guitars.

Thus, after we reach the note D on the 15th fret, instead of going to the next note, E, we go down an octave to the note E on the 5th fret, and continue the scale from there.

Finally, we have the A minor natural scale on the high E string.

One string scale sequences

The first thing we’re going to do with this scale is to play it in sequences.

In the following examples, we’ll be sequencing the minor natural scale with the open A string as the root. The same process can be applied to the other strings.

In the first sequence we’ll be moving in groups of three notes – 1,2,3 – 2,3,4 – 3,4,5 – 4,5,6 etc.

In the next sequence, the notes move in intervals of a third.

Finally, we’ll sequence the scale in groups of four notes: 1,2,3,4 – 2,3,4,5 – 3,4,5,6 etc.

To avoid awkward finger movements, you’ll be sliding between some of the notes.

Since your finger movements are limited when playing scales on one string, you’ll be using sliding technique a lot when improvising.

Note: Limiting your playing to one string is a restriction. Improvising with a restriction makes very good training since the restriction forces you to explore things you may not have focused on before.

For instance, if you don’t usually use slides, the one string restriction will push you to use slides since you will need them to reach some of the notes.

Restrictions can be rhythmic (ex: playing only sixteenth notes), melodic (ex: using only 4 notes of the scale), as well as others such as practicing with very low volume (which forces you to strike the notes harder and improve your articulation).

Guitar triads on one string

We deal with triads in more depth in this lesson.

What you need to know for the purposes of today’s lesson is that a triad is the chord made of the 1st, 3rd and 5th notes of a respective major or minor scale.

Thus the triad for A minor is made of the notes A, C and E.

This is how it is laid out on one string:

The notes of the triad are the most consonant in the scale, something we’ll use in the next step: Improvising.

Improvising on one string

Improvising on the guitar means coming up with melodies on the spot.

“On the spot” shouldn’t be taken too literally though and there’s nothing wrong with doing some planning.

There are two ways you can go about improvising on one string.

The first is to ignore the triads and play any notes from the A minor natural that sound right for your melody.

The second method is to place the notes of the triads on the strong beats and fill in with other notes from the scale.

You’re basically adding another restriction by improvising this way but it should also help your music sound more melodic and prepare you for a more advanced level of improvisation: Chord tone soloing.

In 4/4 time the strong beats are the first and the third beat, the first being the strongest.

The following is an 8-bar melody and the first note of each beat is a note of the triad. The rest of the notes were chosen freely from the A minor natural scale on the A string.

The improvisation above uses three guitar techniques: slides, vibrato and double picking.

Think of these techniques (and others) as tools you have at your disposal when improvising on the guitar.

Conclusion: Where to go from here

Your next step is to start creating improvisations of your own.

I suggest that you use both methods suggested above, that is by placing the notes of the triad on the strong beats and filling in with other notes, as well as to come up with tunes without this “restriction”.

Once you’re comfortable improvising in the A minor natural scale on one string, you should do the same using different minor keys (Ex. E natural minor).

These will have different notes, but follow the same pattern.

From there, you can take it to other scales such like the major or the harmonic minor scale.

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