Guitar Arpeggios: How and When to Play Them

As you progress through your guitar-learning journey, you will be certain to come across the term ‘arpeggio’.

Arpeggios can be a wonderful way of adding color to your playing. You can use them to create riffs, melody lines or as an alternative to strummed chords. Almost all of guitarists have them in their tool kit. Yet, as a learner, you might shy away from them, for fear of not understanding what they are or how they work. Well, there’s no need to worry. If you have a basic understanding of chords, you’re already most of the way there.

What is an Arpeggio?

To play an arpeggio on the guitar is to pluck each note of a chord, one by one instead of at the same time. This can be done with standard major and minor chords, as well as more complex chords like Major 7th, Dominant 7th and even 9th, 11th and 13th chords.

To start with arpeggios, you play the notes of the chord in an ascending pattern. So, in the case of a major arpeggio, you play the 1st, 3rd and 5th notes of the major scale. Have we lost you? Well, each time you play a C chord, you are playing the 1st, 3rd and 5th notes of a scale. Where your third finger goes, on A string fret 3, you play a C. Your middle finger plays an E on D string fret 2 and the open G that follows is your G. Your first finger plays another C, and the open E at the bottom adds a high E tone to the chord.

Some songs use arpeggios instead of strummed chords to give them a smooth, flowing sound. ‘Everybody Hurts’ by REM is an example of this. It uses G and D major arpeggios to create that iconic opening riff.

How are Arpeggios Used?

As well as being used as an alternative to strummed chords, arpeggios can be used for melody-building, improvisation and for speedy tricks like sweep-picking.

They work best over their matching chords. Unlike scales, which you can play around with as chords change, you change arpeggio each time the chord changes.

Arpeggios instead of scale

When a piece of music has just a few chords, like in the example above, this can be applied very easily. However, as music gets jazzier, the chord amount tends to increase dramatically. If you want to play jazz, learning a big bunch of arpeggio shapes is a must, else you’ll get stuck whilst trying to improvise.

Arpeggios can also come in really handy when you’re playing lead over a chord progression that has chords which all fit a key, apart from one. When this chord comes along, you can switch from the scale of the key you’re in, into that chord’s arpeggio. It’s a smooth, stylish trick that works every time. See the example below, where an E7 is thrown into a chord progression in G major.

Mix of scale and Arpeggio

Having a dominant 7 arpeggio shape up your sleeve here is a must if you want to sound in key.

Scales vs Arpeggios

In case there is any confusion, let’s clarify the difference between a scale and an arpeggio.

A scale is a series of notes that fit within a particular key, for example, C major: C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C. Arpeggios are a series of notes that fit within a particular chord. In the key of C, a C major arpeggio or chord can be found by locating the 1st, 3rd and 5th notes of the scale. These are C, E, and G. In G major: G, A, B, C, D, E, F#, G, the 1st, 3rd and 5th notes are G, A and D.

Like a scale, an arpeggio’s notes are played one by one. They also both start and end on the ‘root note’. To play a G major arpeggio, you play a low G, then the next A, the next D and up to the next G. Then you go back again. We’ll show you how to do this on your guitar in some diagrams further down the page.

Arpeggio Shapes

Just like with scales, there are also different finger patterns for arpeggios.

There are five main shapes, which are based on C, A, G, E and D chords. It’s worth learning all of them, in different positions on the neck. Moving them around after you’ve got to know them in one place will ensure that you get to know the shapes themselves, not just specific frets.

The aim, of course, is to master them all. However, it’s important to focus on one at a time so that you can remember them, transfer them to different keys and play them well. As you progress, practise moving from one arpeggio shape to another. This will encourage you to remember the shapes and soon your fingers will be able to play them without you thinking about it.

Which Arpeggios to Learn First?

Some arpeggios are more common than others. These ones are also based on the chords that you’re likely to already know, so it makes sense to learn them first.

Major Triads

The first chords you learn are usually the major chords C, A, G, E and D. So it’s highly likely that you have a good grasp of them by now. These shapes can be played, across the fretboard, as arpeggios. When combined with a first finger barre, they become transposable, removing your limits and opening up the fretboard.

Arpeggios in 5 Positions.

This diagram might look confusing, but it’s highlighting all the different ways you can play a G major arpeggio, using the C, A, G, E and D chord shapes that you already know.

The E-shaped arpeggio is probably the most intuitive, especially if you’re already familiar with barre chords. This involves barring the third fret across all the strings, with your index finger. When you do this, the root note is the low G on the E string, just like when you play an open G chord. Then, you put your middle, ring and little finger into an E chord shape just underneath it. If you have been playing barre chords, this will sound extremely familiar. Play each note one by one and voila! You have an arpeggio.

The A-shaped barre is the second simplest. Barre fret 10 on all the strings except for the top E, so your root note is the G on fret 10 of the A string. When you play the barre chord, you put the remainder of your fingers into an A shape on fret 12. However, the arpeggio requires a couple of extra notes to keep its 1-3-5-8 pattern. Play fret 10, then ret 14 on the A string, before playing the A chord shape across fret 12 of the D, G and B strings. Then, play fret 10 on the high E and finally finish on fret 15 of the same string, which will also be a G.

The diagram below makes this easy to follow, remember and understand.

CAGED Chords and Arpeggios.As you can see, each of the chord shapes is present in these varied ways of playing the G major arpeggio, across the fretboard.

If you really want to master these, tackle them one by one. That way, your fingers, as well as your brain, will get a chance to remember them properly.

Minor Triads

Minor triads are the logical next step after you nail your major shapes. Like the major shapes, they can be learned using the C, A, G, E and D shapes, only this time Cm, Am, Gm, Em, and Dm.

Arpeggios 5 Positions Minor.

Am, Em, and Dm are probably the easiest to get your head around, as they’re shapes that you’re used to from open chords. The diagram above shows any notes that you need to play which aren’t in the barre chord shape.

CAGED Chords and Arpeggios Minor

Cm and Gm are unfamiliar shapes to most guitarists who play open chords. However, the only difference between a minor arpeggio and a major arpeggio is that the ‘third’ – the second note in the arpeggio – is taken down one fret. So, in a G major arpeggio using the C shaped position, instead of playing G on A fret 10 followed by B on D fret 9, you play G on A fret 10 followed by B flat on D fret 8. The rest of the pattern stays the same, right until you reach another B (which must be flattened).

Dominant 7ths

Dominant 7th arpeggios are next. Like 7th chords, these patterns work well in blues music and are an excellent way of spicing up the 12 bar blues.

PIC HERE OF DOM 7 SHAPES

Using the E, A and D chord shaped arpeggios will be the easiest thing to do here as well as the most common was of achieving these sounds.

TAB HERE OF 12 BAR BLUES

In the TAB above, the first part plays a G7 arpeggio using the E(7) shaped pattern. Next, there is a C7 arpeggio that’s based around the A(7) barre chord shape. The final arpeggio that’s used is the D7. This follows a D7 barre chord shape.

When you get used to playing the 12 bar blues in G, using dominant 7ths as shown in the TAB above, try transposing it. This pattern, which simply uses I, IV and V chords, can easily be transferred to different keys. The root note you start your pattern on will determine which key you’re in. Why not experiment with blues in A, B, C and beyond? You will, of course, also want to try starting with a root note on E for this shape. It’s in the pattern from earlier on, where we found out about jumping into an arpeggio shape when a chord progression jumps out of a key.

Different Picking Styles

As you get used to the different arpeggio shapes, you can also develop picking skills.

Common ways of playing arpeggios include alternate picking, legato, sweep picking and tapping.

Alternate picking is a great way to develop speed, as it involves going down-up-down-up with your plectrum to make it physically more possible to play a greater amount of notes in a short space of time than down-down-down picking can. Legato playing also makes this speed more possible. Using hammer-ons, pull-offs, slides or a combination of those means that your fretting hand is the one doing most of the work. This saves time as you don’t need to worry about matching the speed with your picking hand, but the smooth sound of legato isn’t suited to styles like jazz and heavy metal.

Sweep picking and tapping are extremely common in metal and neo-classical music. Sweeping involves quickly fingering an arpeggio, whilst your picking hand ‘sweeps’ across the strings, one by one as you fret them. This takes a lot of practice and is generally considered an advanced technique. Tapping can be combined with this, at the end of a sweep, or can be used as a legato technique. Tapping is when you use your picking hand to fret some of the notes. It looks fancy and, like most of these techniques, enables speed.

Form and Speed

That brings me on to a final note on form and speed. As you practise these arpeggios, particularly if you’re trying sweep picking, make sure that you lift your fingers immediately after playing the notes. You don’t have to go completely off the strings, of course, but it’s important to release pressure from the fretboard. The separation of notes that this creates gives arpeggios excellent clarity and makes the speed even more impressive.

If you are one of those players who really want to be able to play fast, we hear you. But remember, it’s always important to play slow, first. Nail the form, get it perfect, then slowly increase the BPM on your metronome. Anyone can play fast sloppily. It takes a player who has mastered slow playing to play fast with precision and real skill.

Summary

A lot’s been covered in this article, so let’s recap.

Firstly, an arpeggio is a pattern of notes that are based on the 1st, 3rd, 5th and 8th position of a scale. In the case of a major arpeggio, this is simply 1, 3, 5 and 8, however, if it’s minor, the 3rd must be flattened by a semitone (or fret). These can then be embellished into major, minor or dominant 7th chords, by adding the 7th note of the scale into the pattern. If it’s major, it stays as it is, if it’s minor, it’s flattened along with the 3rd note, and if it’s dominant then it’s also flattened, but the 3rd remains as it is.

They can be used as an alternative to strummed chords, on top of strummed chords – as you move from arpeggio to arpeggio with a progression – or they can be used as an improvisation tool when a chord in a backing progression is removed from the key.

You can learn arpeggios in five main shapes, which are based on C, A, G, E and D chord shapes. These are moveable all across the fretboard and can each be turned into 7ths, minors, or to altered chords beyond what we’ve covered here. You can play them legato, using alternate picking or with sweeps and taps, but the most important thing to remember as you learn it any of these ways is to prioritise accuracy over speed. Even if speed is your ultimate aim.

Entering the world of arpeggios is a sure way to open up your fretboard and improve your playing. Whether it’s blues, jazz, metal or a combination of genres that you’re exploring, these shapes belong in your long-term memory.

Have a good practice session!

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