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Arpeggios: Why? How? Which? When?

The Arpeggio Guitar Lessons

Everything you wondered about arpeggios but were afraid to ask! Why you should learn them, how you will use them, which one's to learn and when you are ready for them.

So what is all this arpeggio stuff all about then? Well I'm glad you asked... they are really a lot of fun and if you are ready to take your playing up a gear then these could be for you!


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Need some more to read?

What are arpeggios?
Arpeggios are the notes of a chord played one at a time. I think of them as 'liquid chords' (or chords could be 'frozen arpeggios'). When you practice an arpeggio you would usually start with playing the notes in order, for example, Root note, 3rd, 5th, 7th for a Major 7th Arpeggio.

Most arpeggios are just 4 notes each, it is possible to play 9th, 11th and 13 arpeggios but they are a lot less common and there are other easier ways to use the 4 note type that gives you all the notes (if you are new to arpeggios then don't go there yet, but it's Superimposing Arpeggios).

When put into use in a real playing environment you do not need to play the notes in order, they can be jumbled up much like the way you would use notes in a scale and in many ways they are similar... but:

• When we learn scales we learn a bunch of notes that fit over the chords in a certain key.

• When we learn an arpeggio we learn a bunch of notes that fit over a particular chord.

How are arpeggios used?
Arpeggios are used over specific chords, and you would change arpeggio every time a chord changes. Yes you heard that right. I still clearly remember sitting on the floor about 15 years old with my jam buddy Andy, and we were trying to play the Miles Davis song Freddy Freeloader. We both knew our arpeggio shapes but were really struggling to change with the chords. When I realised later that the fast be-bop jazz players were changing arpeggio every bar at 240 beats per minute, I almost gave up...

But it doesn't have to be like that. They can be used very easily in basic melody playing and in blues, they are not only for use in Jazz, but if you want to play jazz you MUST learn all your arpeggios and how to use them.

Examining a 12 Bar Blues is a good introduction. When you start learning to play blues you will most likely be playing a minor pentatonic over the whole sequence, maybe you learn some licks and stuff, but for the most part you will be playing the one scale over a group of chords.

At some point you will probably want to start thinking more chordally and playing notes that are related to the chord being played and this is where arpeggios come into action!

Because arpeggios are liquid chords, they can also outline the harmony without having to play chords. Huh? If somebody is using arpeggios well they can out line the chord progression and it almost sounds like the chords are being played, but they are not - the are just being suggested by the arpeggios!

There are often times that in a song all the chords belong to a key, except for one!! When this happens you would use an arpeggio over the chord that does not fit the scale. In the following example the chord G, C and Amin are all in the key of G, but in the key of G, chord VI would be E minor, and because the chord here is E7 we would use the arpeggio just over that chord, and stick with the scale for the rest of the improvisation!

Note choice:
<----------- G Major Scale ------------>
E7 Arpeggio
G major Scale

It is also worth noting that if you use the chord tones to play your solo it will sound cool. And you don't have to use them just for chords that are not in a key. You can use them for every chord, in fact I would recommend that you do. Using scales is fine, but once you start playing from the chords your playing will really move up a few gears.

Note choice:
<-------------------------------- G Major Scale -------------------------------->
G Maj Arpeggio
C Maj Arpeggio
E min Arpeggio
A min Arpeggio

It seems to me that most of the great guitar players think about chords more than scales, and if you examine the note choices of your favorite players you are bound to find that they are mostly playing arpeggio tones. You will even find that many of the great old skool blues guitar players like BB King are using arpeggio tones. Yep. I'm pretty sure those old blues guys don't know the theory of what they are doing, but their ears do! And even if they are playing minor pentatonic they tend to pick notes that relate to the chord they are playing over!

A great exercise would be to take a great solo by someone you like (Sultans Of Swing would be a good one if you are stuck for choice) and look at every note played, and what chord it is played over. When I was doing this a lot, I usually transcribed a solo in tab and notation and wrote the chords above the notes (or you could use a bought tab book) and then I wrote in red pen under the notes, what the relationship was between the note and the chord it was played over (like 2, b3, 5, b7, 5 #5, 6, etc). When you do this type of harmonic analysis you will grow as a player, because you will start to examine note choice more constructively and fill your head with cool concepts that you can extract and use in your own playing. Bit off track but very useful if you can see how great players use arpeggios!

Which arpeggios should I learn first?
I think that the best arpeggios to learn first are the Dominant 7th arpeggios (the E shape and the A shape). Learn to use these in a 12 Bar Blues (in the key of A) and get familiar with the idea. As well as being used in blues, the 7th chords are the most common chord type used 'out of key' as described above.

I have some lessons on exactly this, in the Jazz Up Your Blues series in which we look at the Dominant 7th Arpeggio Shapes and also The Arpeggiator which is a great exercise to learn to link them!

You should make sure that you are very comfortable playing over a 12 Bar Blues before you even think about getting into arpeggio playing.

If you pick a 12 Bar Blues in the key of A, you will need to know your A7, D7 and E7 arpeggios.

A fun way to get started is to just try and play the notes from the A7 arpeggio (E shape) over the A7 chord and jam the minor pentatonic scale over the rest, you will get a taste for it and get the sound in your ear.

Then get the D7 arpeggio shape down (A shape) and see if you can change from the A7 to the D7 and back again, and maybe just jam minor pentatonic for the last bit where the chords change faster!

When you are comfortable with that have a go at moving the D7 shape you have learnt, up two frets so it becomes E7 (a very good sounding and easy trick is to play a simple lick using notes from the E7 arpeggio and then move the same lick down two frets for the D7).

Eventually you should be mixing up the minor pentatonic, the blues scale, all your licks, PLUS the arpeggios for each chord at the appropriate time! It sounds awesome, and to my ear it's one of the things that makes somebody sound great!

When you become confident changing your arpeggios over a basic 12 Bar Blues sequence, you might like to try playing over a Jazz II-V-I progression, say Dmin7, G7 to CMaj7. Try and stay in the same position for the whole thing, for example, to stay around Position 3, you'll be using C Shape for the Dmin7, E Shape for the G7 and A Shape for the CMaj7. Once you can handle that I'd recommend starting to explore easy jazz standards and seeing if you can play all the way through the songs using only chord tones (arpeggio notes) for the whole song, you'll learn a lot by doing that!

*If you don't understand the 'shape' talk you need to check out the lesson on The CAGED System.


There are five arpeggios shapes for each chord, which order should I learn them?
The big thing to remember here is not to just rush into learning lots of arpeggio shapes that you don't use, you will forget them and it's a waste of time and energy.

Learn them as you need them, I was using E and A shape grips of each of the main jazz chord types (Maj7, min7, Dom7 and min7b5) for a few years before I got stuck into the rest. It is better to be able to play and use a few arpeggios (in this case 8 arpeggios) than be able to play 20 and not be able to use them.

You will also find that learning the E and A shape, root arpeggio shapes well, first - with the 10 Basic Jazz Chords you will learn as you get into jazz, and being able to see the chord and the arpeggio together it will help you learn to use them.


I'm sure you good people will have more questions, so fire away in the forum and I will get to them as soon as I can :) Hope that helps a bit...

Lesson ID: AR-101