Using single string scales to deepen understanding of position playing

This is a blog post from my personal website ( in 2014 that I am reposting at

You can also check out these videos I made more recently on a similar topic:

This is the first in a series of posts to follow with my approach to the guitar, topics I have been discussing with students, theoretical rants, and more. I hope these posts will help aspiring beginners and give more seasoned musicians a fresh outlook on their own approach. Feel free to leave any questions or comments below, share on social media, or use this material with your own students.
Copyright Lane Garner 2013

While first learning scales on the guitar I, like many students, was presented with positional scales. While this was a beneficial way to start improvising I did not feel like I had a thorough understanding of each scale. This lead me to practice single string scales as described by Mick Goodrick in The Advancing Guitarist as the “Science of the Unitar.” Instead of relying on pre-developed muscle memory I now had to to think more specifically about each note in the scale.

Begin by learning the key of C major on each string to familiarize yourself with the “white notes.” Next, practice improvising over drones on each scale degree to practice the modes of C major. This allows you to hear the relationship of scale to bass note for each mode/chord. For example play over a C drone for Ionian/Maj7, D for Dorian/Min7, E for Phrygian/Esusb9, F for Lydian/Maj7#11, G for Mixolydian/G7, A for Aeolian/Amin7b6, and B for Locrian/Min7b5.

Spend lots of time studying C major as all other keys will relate back to it. Practice each string by itself then begin to combine strings. First practice consecutive strings then try string skipping. For example, challenge yourself to play only on the fifth and second string. When combining strings you will begin to see more clearly how notes fit into each position.

C major first string:

C major second string:

C major third string:

C major fourth string:

C major fifth string:

C major sixth string:


After firmly grasping C major you can begin to expand to the remaining keys around the circle of fourths. For example learn F major by flatting all B’s and practicing in the same way as C major. Next learn Bb major by flatting all B’s and E’s; learn Eb by flatting all B’s, E’s, and A’s; learn Ab by flatting all B’s, E’s, A’s, and D’s, etc. Learn all major scales in this way. You can also try this approach with other scales such as melodic minor, harmonic minor, and harmonic major.

Key Signatures
C major: no sharps, no flats

Flat Key Signatures
F major: Bb
B-flat major: Bb, Eb
E-flat major: Bb, Eb, Ab
A-flat major: Bb, Eb, Ab, Db
D-flat major: Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, Gb
G-flat major: Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, Gb, Cb

Sharp Key Signatures
G major: F#
D major: F#, C#
A major: F#, C#, G#
E major: F#, C#, G#, D#
B major: F#, C#, G#, D#, A#


Once learning each scale on single strings I found myself further exploring position playing. The guitar is a pentatonic instrument- meaning that each scale can be played in five positions on the neck. The guitar can be broken into five “modal positions”- Ionian, Dorian, Lydian, Mixolydian, and Aeolian. We exclude the modes beginning with half steps, Phrygian and Locrian, because they are positionally redundant to Lydian and Ionian. While many teachers and students prefer relating these scale fingerings to the sixth string I prefer relating to the fifth string. The sixth string will have the same notes as the first string so by relating to a fifth string root there is less material to learn. If you are already accustomed to sixth string roots don’t fret- they are the same fingerings starting on different strings (5th root Ionian=6th root Mixolydian, 5th root Dorian=6th root Aeolian, 5th root Lydian=6th root Ionian, 5th root Mixolydian=6th root Dorian, 5th root Aeolian=6th root Lydian). The dedicated student may want to familiarize his or herself with both fifth string and sixth string root modal fingerings. Discovering as many possible angles to view a topic deepens understanding.

After a detailed study of single string playing it is now easier to understand how each of these positions functions theoretically rather than just using muscle memory while improvising. Another benefit to studying each key on single strings is the ability to connect the modal fingerings smoothly and play all over the neck.

I- Ionian


IV- Lydian

V- Mixolydian

vi- Aeolian