Impatience is a key theme in the trajectory of many a guitarist, blotting their respective paths to mastery and artistic wellbeing. Very often it’s hard to motivate ourselves to put the hours in, to instil what can initially seem confusing and painstaking into our muscle memory, thus enabling us eventually to forget about it.
We will want to see results straight away, and most of all we will be seeking the immediate gratification of playing our favorite songs. Why else would we have picked up the axe dammit!
What if I were to tell you that there are a whole host of songs just so built as to allow even the earliest beginner have their way with their favorite music, a whole roster of one string guitar songs seemingly purpose built for this one scenario?
Well, it’s the truth! If it’s good enough for world renowned king of the surf guitar Dick Dale, then it’s good enough for any body. He sought in his rapid fire tremolo picking to capture the exhilaration of catching yourself in the spiritual balancing act of being inside a wild wet wave, foaming at the mouth like a rabid dog waiting to swallow you if you fall and fail, and he did so often merely with one string. Sometimes the simple things are the best of things.
Even if this isn’t the case and you are a more experienced guitarist, working on one string can be a powerful way to think about your favorite songs and to learn songs by ear on the fly. It certainly worked for me, and now I can improvise along to more or less any song!
These songs are in no particular order and should be learned and chosen depending on your interests: there’s no need to learn a song that you would otherwise have no interest in!
1. ‘Seven Nation Army’ by The White Stripes
Any such list of one string guitar songs would be utterly remiss to not mention this ubiquitous slapper of a tune, an anthem so all encompassing it almost feels as though it came from our collective unconscious (as described by Carl Jung) rather than from the fingers of a mere mortal. This isn’t to say, however, that he wasn’t acting as a conduit for such a thing…
In the mortal realm, this song began life as a guitar riff by the singer and guitarist of the White Stripes, Jack White, at the Corner Hotel in Melbourne, which is itself a music venue. The riff was born in January 2002, while the band were on tour, and when White showed it to label executive Ben Swank he was none too impressed with it, stating that he felt White could ‘do better’ and that he ‘didn’t even think that rhythm was that great, either.’
White stuck with it, however, though initially wanted to save it for use as a James Bond theme which, despite being so doubtful as to relinquish the sanctity of this riff for such a thing, he was eventually asked to do five years later, writing and performing ‘Another Way to Die’ with Alicia Keys as theme for Quantum of Solace.
The song is incredibly simple as one string guitar songs go, scarcely changing at all. The steady 120 bpm tempo and the lack of changes aside from dynamics make this ‘garage rock’ anthem ironically more reminiscent of a Detroit house or techno track. The use of open E as a baseline to return to throughout shouldn’t prove difficult whatsoever.
2. ‘Peter Gunn Theme’ by Henry Mancini
This is one of those one string guitar songs that has adopted a new life as a result of being repurposed, in this instance by the original Blues Brothers movie, and also has occupied a space larger than the sum of its parts. A mere series of notes, it has, however, come to signify two cultural monoliths, a riff to shake popular culture to its very core!
The piece was originally composed for the contemporary television program, Peter Gunn, serving as the title sequence music and consequently opening the soundtrack album too, winning Mancini an Emmy Award and two Grammys for Album of the Year and Best Arrangement.
On the theoretical nature of the song, Mancini himself states that the song is derived ‘more from rock and roll than from jazz. I used guitar and piano in unison, playing what is known as [a riff]… It was sustained throughout the piece, giving it a sinister effect, with some frightened saxophone sounds and some shouting brass. The piece has one chord throughout and a super-simple top line.’
One chord, F7, throughout, and a riff befitting only the best one string guitar songs, what could possibly go wrong? It’s simplicity itself!
The piece gained even more traction upon use as a signature theme in the Blues Brothers movie, serving as a thematic link between sequences, almost acting as the theme tune for the brothers themselves. Owing to this film’s worldwide popularity at the time, the song shot back into the consciousness of the people.
Here it still remains today, many still knowing and thinking fondly of this most ubiquitous of songs. Why not pick up the torch yourself, and carry it on to a new dawn, a new day.
3. ‘Mamma Mia’ by ABBA
No one ought to be a stranger to this pop classic, so catchy is it, so ubiquitous has this song become throughout the Western world. This mightn’t be what your mind initially goes to when thinking of one string guitar songs but, as with some of the best pop music, simplicity is key, to a toe tapping earworm and a great and well synthesised song.
This tune is, of course, by the fabled song writing institution, the pop power house, ABBA, a Swedish pop group who dominated pop charts in the 70’s and who still, to this day, occupy a warm space in Western hearts. The song began life, like many others by the group, at the home of couple Agnetha Faltskog and Bjorn Ulvaeus, the last track recorded for their third studio album, the self titled ABBA.
The name of the song comes from the popular and now overwrought Italian exclamation ‘mamma mia!’, used as an interjection in instances of surprise, excitement, anguish, or any combination of these and other similar emotions. In parallel, it corresponds to the mainland English expression ‘my, my!’, itself found in several lines of the song: ‘Mamma mia! Here I go again. My, my! How could I resist you?’
As one string guitar songs go this is rather up tempo, highlighted by the signature tick tocking sound at that begins the song (played on a marimba). However, this shouldn’t deter you as, the main riff (of the lyrics above) being located on just one string, it is my firm belief that anyone can get involved. Why let a slightly fast tempo deter you from learning and mastering some of your favorite songs?
As Samuel Beckett would say: ‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’ And though these words have been absolutely molested from their context, the point still stands and even in this context I am a believer.
4. ‘Eye of the Tiger’ by Survivor
This song, too, for its marked simplicity and placement alongside a veritable popular culture power house has become one of those one string guitar songs very much attached to a particular mood. This song still froths at the mouth with the power to motivate, to encourage survivors of all types to push that bit further, to push athletes that extra length of a climb or of a mile.
Contrary to some one string guitar songs previously listed, this song was written and recorded by Survivor specifically for the film that made it so famous and so synonymous with its motivational mood, Rocky III. Writer, director, and star of the film, Sylvester Stallone, explicitly requested the song himself. Who knew he directed the damn thing? His initial intention was to use the Queen song ‘Another One Bites the Dust’, though this was firmly denied him by the band themselves.
The version used in the film isn’t even the full version of the song! Stallone decided to use a demo version, complete with roars of an actual tiger, as if the message and lyrical content weren’t enough of a smack over the head of the literal already. This literality is mirrored in the actual content of the song, with the simple, linear, one dimensional message plucks its way along, the signature chugging of the note C present throughout almost the entirety of the song.
Simplicity is, however, the name of the game, and it’s all in the details. Co-writer, Jim Peterik, had this to say about their writing of the song:
‘At first, we wondered if calling it ‘Eye of the Tiger’ was too obvious. The initial draft of the song, we started with ‘It’s the eye of the tiger, it’s the thrill of the fight, rising up to the spirit of our rival, and the last known survivor stalks his prey in the night, and it all comes down to survival.’ We were going to call the song ‘Survival’. In the rhyme scheme, you can tell we had set up ‘rival’ to rhyme with ‘survival’. At the end of the day, we said, ‘Are we nuts?’ That hook is so strong, and ‘rival’ doesn’t have to be a perfect rhyme with the word ‘tiger’. We made the right choice and went with ‘Eye of the Tiger’.’
5. ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’ by The Rolling Stones
Another of those utterly ubiquitous and all encompassing one string guitar songs that has completely exceeded its meagre bounds, the sum of its parts procreating and giving birth to something entirely larger.
A direct result of Keith Richards and Mick Jagger’s iconic and seminal song writing partnership, this song was released first as a single in the June of 1965 (in the US anyway). It was an instant hit, landing the Rolling Stones their first number one hit in the United States. Since the song was considered too sexually suggestive, the song was initially only played on pirate radio stations in the UK, though it eventually became their fourth UK number one.
Guitarist Keith Richards allegedly wrote the song in his sleep, claiming that he woke up in the morning to find two minutes of acoustic guitar on his cassette player followed by about forty minutes of snoring. Its simplicity would certainly indicate this, being so simple as to infect a dream from inside or from without.
The song was quickly recorded, though it was subsequently recorded again just days later with the now iconic beat and use of the Gibson FZ-1 Maestro Fuzz Tone to achieve that signature sound. Richards actually intended this now renowned riff’s tone to be replaced with an actual horn section: ‘This was just a little sketch, because, to my mind, the fuzz tone was really there to denote what the horns would be doing.’
6. ‘Misirlou’ by Dick Dale & his Del Tones
This is certainly one of those one string guitar songs that on paper is relatively simple, though when combined with the signature elements that make it the song that it is it becomes something entirely. Very few can play this piece quite how Dick Dale himself did, so I guess we will have to make do.
Funnily enough, this song has origins far before Mr Dick Dale assumed the reigns. The melody itself is based on a traditional folk song from the Eastern Mediterranean region, with some purporting origins in the Ottoman Empire. It’s original author is unknown, though Jewish, Greek, and Arabic musicians were playing it by the 1920s. There are many, many different versions of the song, both recorded and in classical traditions, where music is passed from generation to generation by ear.
The song became a popular song among Arab American, Armenian American & Greek American communities from the 1920s onwards, as more and more of said communities emigrated to the United States to live and forge new lives for whatever reason. The song was a hit for the self taught pianist and xylophonist Jan August in 1946, though of course the song would go to even greater climes at the hands of surf guitar virtuoso and progenitor Dick Dale.
In 1962, Dale was bet by a young fan that he could not play one string guitar songs. Since his father and uncles were Lebanese American musicians, Dale remembered seeing one of these uncles play a version of ‘Misirlou’ on one string of the oud (a short necked, lute type, pear shaped, fretless string instrument found all around the Middle East). Thus Dale took the song for his own, rapidly increasing the tempo to make it more legitimate as a rock and roll track.
And the rest is history, especially since the song was used in Quentin Tarantino’s popular culture fetish gear Pulp Fiction in 1994, featured over the opening titles. The song was even selected by the Athens 2004 Olympics Organizing Committee as one of the most influential Greek songs of all time, heard in venues at the closing ceremony.
7. ‘Another One Bites the Dust’ by Queen
Queen are a band who ought to be familiar to all, not least because they are masters of composing one string guitar songs so catchy as to implant themselves on the psyches and toes of even the most stoic music enthusiast. They sure do have a knack for an ear worm, lathering into their most popular songs all the ingredients that make a pop song a great pop song.
The song was an instant smash hit for the already world wide and popular band. Bassist John Deacon’s bass line was heavily inspired by Chic’s iconic disco tune ‘Good Times’, incidentally one of the most sampled songs in the history of music, interesting as this band has had its fair share of sample disputes. Bass player for Chic, Bernard Edwards, alleged ‘that Queen record came about because [John Deacon] spent some time hanging out with us at our studio.’
Recording sessions in Munich consisted almost entirely of Deacon playing all of the instruments: bass guitar, piano, electric guitar, and hand claps. Roger Taylor contributed a drum loop and Brian May some noises on the guitar with an iconic Eventide Harmonizer. Aside from this and Freddie Mercury’s signature vocals throughout there isn’t much else to the song, its power lies in its simplicity and staying power, as one string guitar songs.
Bassist John Deacon had this to say about the song: ‘I listened to a lot of soul music when I was in school, and I’ve always been interested in that sort of music. I’d been wanting to do a track like ‘Another One Bites the Dust’ for a while, but originally all I had was the line and the bass riff. Gradually, I filled it in and the band added ideas. I could hear it as a song for dancing but had no idea it would become as big as it did. The song got picked up off our album and some of the black radio stations in the US started playing it, which we’ve never had before. Michael Jackson actually suggested we release it as a single. He was a fan of ours and used to come to our shows.’
8. ‘Thunderstruck’ By AC/DC
This is certainly one of the more challenging one string guitar songs here present, though no less worth your time and patient study. In fact, studying songs that are slightly out of our comfort zone can be the catalyst we need to enhance our technique and to take our playing to the next level. Taking it at our own individual pace, slowly at first and speeding up once the entirety has been mastered. For a song this mighty, the effort, time, patience, and due diligence is more than worth your while.
This song began life back in the 80’s as part of the second iteration of the band, led by Brian Johnson on lead vocals. Angus Young, lead guitarist, has this to say about the song’s inception: ‘It started off from a little trick I had on guitar. I played it to Mal and he said ‘Oh, I’ve got a good rhythm idea that will sit well in the back.’ We built the song up from that. We fiddled about with it for a few months before everything fell into place. Lyrically, it was really just a case of finding a good title … We came up with this thunder thing, based on our favourite childhood toy ThunderStreak, and it seemed to have a good ring to it. AC/DC = Power. That’s the basic idea.’
The song became the lead single on their 1990 album The Razors Edge. The song was released on their home turf of Australia to acclaim, even peaking at number 5 on the U.S. Billboard Hot Mainstream Tracks. In fact, in 2010 ‘Thunderstruck’ topped Triple M Melbourne’s Ultimate 500 Rock Countdown in Australia, with the entire top five being occupied by AC/DC tracks.
The song is simple in its elements, becoming one of the most recognisable in the band’s catalog, a setlist favorite which has been performed at basically every show since its release. Excluding new material they might be touring to support, it is one of merely three songs released after the seminal 1980 album Back in Black that is still performed live by the band, in the Brian Johnson iteration or since his recent demise, with Axl Rose up front.
So, there we have it, the end of this brief selection of one string guitar songs. I hope this has been in any way useful, in discovering and learning simplified versions of some of your favorite songs, but also in being able to learn other favorites of your own for yourself. Use your ears, mind, and heart alongside your hands and the musical landscape will be yours to sculpt.
Listen out when you’re jamming to your favorites and pay the one string method some mind, noodling along. Even playing along while watching TV can truly enhance your ability to play, without looking and with muscle memory.
FAQs One String Guitar Songs
There is an excess of one string guitar songs. Any song that doesn’t require you to play more than one note at a time in a melody is theoretically a one string guitar song, to more or less difficult extents depending on the relative size of intervals. In fact, in the moment, learning a song’s melody on one string is a great way of doing so on the fly without reading tab or anything, simply using and exercising your ear’s abilities to discern intervals.
This is rather subjective, though there are a few one string guitar songs that come to mind. ‘Smoke on the Water’ by Deep Purple comes to mind instantly, which I have excused from this list precisely for this reason, that it’s more often than not the first riff a guitarist will learn, whether of their own volition or at the behest of a specialised tutor. There are plenty more where that came from too, the riff’s ability to communicate simple and potent messages not limited to this one ubiquitous meme of a track.
Any song that doesn’t require you to play more than one string at a time can theoretically be played on one string, to varying levels of difficulty of course. A great exercise for training the ears is to listen and play along to your favorite music, using one string to work your way through the song and using your ears to guide you along this sometimes confusing and sometimes treacherous (but always rewarding) path.
Very easily, though if you have larger hands this might be rendered a little more difficult, a little more fiddly. Simply single out the string that you wish to use and away you go! There is a tendency to over complicate many things when learning an instrument, often a minor symptom of anxiety, the best antidote of which is simply to throw yourself right in there!