Single note guitar playing can be defined as playing notes one at a time, rather than playing multiple notes at time. Chords would be an example of playing multiple notes at a time, whereas examples of single note guitar playing can be seen when a guitarist takes a solo, plays a catchy riff, or any other situations where just one note is being played at a time.
Quite often I have students who are quite adamant that they only want to learn chords. They only want to be a rhythm guitar player, after all, so why should they bother doing something that they don’t need? I totally get where this feeling comes from - it’s natural to avoid working on a skill that you’re not comfortable with or currently don’t have an interest in, and there isn’t an obvious correlation between how playing single notes could possibly help out a rhythm guitar player. But, after playing for over 20 years myself, I can tell you that this kind of thinking is only looking at the small picture. We need to look at the big picture, so here are 7 reasons why single note guitar playing should be important to you (even if you only play rhythm guitar).
Improved strength and dexterity with your fingers.
One of the biggest benefits of practicing single note guitar playing is that it strengthens and improves the dexterity of the fretting hand, promotes finger independence, and helps with stretching the fingers. This all makes it easier to control your fingers when it comes to playing different chord shapes, and can make difficult chord shapes feel much easier to play.
Better understanding of the fretboard and music theory.
Without practicing single notes on the guitar, your only reference point is strictly chords. Single note guitar playing helps you see how the notes on the guitar are related, can help you quickly jump to different frets along the fretboard, and learn your chord names more easily. Knowing your note names helps when it comes to quickly spotting barre chords along the fretboard, and can even help you put together voicing for chords you never knew existed. A guitar player who knows theory has a much easier time playing with other musicians and understanding them than one who doesn’t know anything.
Playing single note lines will better train your ear (for harmony and melody).
Without playing single note lines, your only reference for melody is either other musicians, or your voice. Practicing single note guitar lines will help you train your ear for different scales, intervals, harmony and more. All of this adds a HUGE advantage to you if you’re a rhythm guitar player. One of the things people tell me all the time is that they want to be able to ‘play by ear’. This essentially means to be able to figure out songs by themselves by just listening to them, and one of the first steps to this is being able to recognize notes and chords in different places along the guitar neck. Being comfortable playing single notes makes this a drastically easier process.
It will help you add embellishments and interesting textures to your chord playing.
Playing open chords can quickly become boring, and that’s where knowing how to add single notes into your chord playing can really make it come alive. Pretty much every rhythm player I’ve come across eventually wants to spice up their chord playing — and playing single notes will help you do just this!
Your picking hand will gain confidence when it comes to knowing where the strings are.
If you’re strumming chords all the time, it can be hard to pinpoint one single string with your picking hand with accurate precision when you need to. Practicing single notes will help your hand learn where to go by building the muscle memory of each string so that you can more readily switch between playing chords and arpeggios, or add in some interesting fills in between your chord playing.
A rhythm guitar player who can play a bit of lead guitar is much more in demand that someone who can just strum chords.
When you think about it — someone who just plays rhythm guitar (and doesn’t sing or play lead guitar) can only bring that one specific skill to the table. Some people get along just fine with this, but there are huge limitations if that’s all you know. If you’re looking for people to jam with, the skills you bring to the table is your real value. Adding another skill (such as simply being able to play a few simple melodies or guitar fills) can really elevate how you come across as a guitar player. I say similar things to a lead guitarist who can’t play any rhythm guitar — the hole this creates in your guitar playing will just grow bigger and bigger unless you tackle the problem now.
Waiting years to realize all of this and having start a new skill from the start is a terrible feeling — especially when you could have been working on it all this time.
Whether you choose to take this advice now, or later, is completely up to you — but there will be a time when you realize that knowing how to play single notes on the guitar is something that you wish you could do. Often times I meet guitar players in this situation, and the discrepancy between their skills is so vast that’s it’s very hard to get them motivated to improving their single note guitar playing at all. It’s like starting from scratch again. The only solution I’ve found to this is to encourage guitar players to work on both areas of their guitar playing right from the moment they start.
There’s a lot to think about here, but all I can add is that if you don’t currently practice single notes as part of your guitar practice schedule, slowly adding this technique in really will help you in the long run. And if you think about it, if you do it in small doses, how can it hurt you? It may be something you don’t enjoy right now, but will definitely be something you’re thankful for in the future.
About the Author: Jason Wilford is a musician and guitar instructor in mississauga.