In this lesson you'll learn how to play guitar arpeggios, how to use arpeggios to improvise over chord changes and jazz standards, as well as the music theory involved. Just like scales, arpeggios are an essential building block of the jazz player's vocabulary and give your solos that instant "jazzy" flavor (if done right). That's why practicing and mastering arpeggios is a necessity for all jazz guitarists.
Here is the definition of the word arpeggio:
An arpeggio is a broken chord, where the notes of the chord are played in succession instead of simultaneously.
Arpeggios are used in all genres of music, such as jazz, blues, rock, metal, classical music, pop, etc. In jazz (and metal) arpeggios are used differently compared to other genres of music.
In pop music for example, an arpeggio on guitar is usually used for accompaniment. Instead of playing or strumming the notes of a chord simultaneously, the individual notes of the chord are played in succession by applying a finger picking pattern.
Here's an example of how an Am arpeggio can be used in pop music. The base of this arpeggio is a basic Am chord shape and the notes of the chord are not muted after they are played, but ring together.
In jazz (and metal), arpeggios are used for soloing instead of accompaniment. In contrast to arpeggios used in other genres of music, the notes of a jazz guitar arpeggio are muted after they are played, so they don't ring together. Another contrast is that these arpeggios are not based on a chord shape.
Here's an example of how an Am arpeggio would be played in jazz:
In this tutorial we will be focusing on the jazz-type of arpeggios.
Arpeggios are a great tool to improvise over chord progressions and jazz standards:
Every jazz guitarists needs to know how to play the arpeggios of all chord types in all positions of the guitar neck.
This may seem like a daunting task, but with regular practice you will be able to play every arpeggio without thinking in a relative short period of time.
So, let's get started by learning the basic positions...
We're going to learn the basic arpeggio shapes (aka grips) by looking at the most common chord progression in jazz, the 2 5 1 (II V I).
In this example we'll be working with a 2 5 1 progression in the key of G major:
To play over this kind of chord progression, you need 3 types of arpeggios: minor, dominant and major.
The Minor Arpeggio
Here are the arpeggio notes of the Am7 chord:
And here is the guitar arpeggio shape for the Am7 chord:
red dots represent the root or 1 of the guitar chord. The letter inside the box is the note name.
black dots represent the other chord notes.
Here is the same arpeggio in relation to its scale (A Dorian) and chord (Am7):
Am7 arpeggio vs A Dorian scale Am7 arpeggio vs Am7 chord
Am7 Arpeggio Exercise #1: practice the A minor arpeggio like this (until it flows naturally).
Am7 Arpeggio Exercise #2: you can also practice by playing the chord before the arpeggio, a good exercise for your ears.
Here are 2 arpeggio patterns that are a little more technically advanced, practicing these is optional, but a good exercise to get the arpeggio shapes under your fingers. I've written out these patterns for Am7 only, but you can use the same pattern on all arpeggios, including the dominant and major arpeggios that follow.
Am7 Arpeggio Pattern #1: This first pattern plays the arpeggio in 5th and 4th intervals, achieved by skipping notes:
Am7 Arpeggio Pattern #2: this pattern divides the arpeggio in groups of 3 notes:
The Dominant Arpeggio
We go on to the D7 chord:
Here is the same arpeggio in relation to its scale (D Mixolydian) and chord (D7):
D7 arpeggio vs A Mixolydian scale D7 arpeggio vs D7 chord
D7 Arpeggio Exercise #1: Get this dominant arpeggio in your fingers by practicing like you did for the Am7 chord:
D7 Arpeggio Exercise #2: Similar to the minor arpeggio examples, you can also play the chord before the arpeggio:
The Major Arpeggio
And then we arrive at the last chord of the chord progression, the Gmaj7 chord:
Here is the same arpeggio in relation to its scale (G Major aka G Ionian Scale) and chord (Gmaj7):
Gmaj7 arpeggio vs G major scale Gmaj7 arpeggio vs Gmaj7 chord
Gmaj7 Arpeggio Exercise #1: Practice this major arpeggio the way we did for the minor and dominant arpeggio:
Gmaj7 Arpeggio Exercise #2: And with the Gmaj7 chord in front of the arpeggio:
One thing you need to know: all arpeggio shapes are movable. If you know the arpeggio for Am7 you can use that same 'shape' to find the arpeggios for other minor chords.
For example: let's say you want to find the arpeggio for Gm7. All we have to do is slide the Am7 arpeggio shape 2 frets down. Instead of starting on the 5th fret (in case of Am7), we start on the 3rd fret for Gm7. You move the root of the arpeggio and play the shape from there, like this:
We know the basic positions for the arpeggios, now we're going to combine them so the arpeggios follow the 251 chord progression.
Exercise #1 - Ascending
The first thing we'll practice is playing the arpeggios ascending, starting from the root. This exercise is not very musical and you will never use them like this for improvisation, but it's a necessary step in learning how to play arpeggios.
Exercise #2 - Descending
Next, we'll play the arpeggios descending:
Exercise #3 - Alternating
The next step is alternating the arpeggios. We do this by playing the first arpeggio (Am7) for 1 bar and then switch to the nearest note of the second arpeggio (D7) in the second bar. The same happens when we switch to the third arpeggio (Gmaj7).
Exercise #4 - Alternating Variation
Let's have a look at another alternating example, starting from a different location of the guitar neck. Instead of starting the Am7 arpeggio on the low E-string, we will start it on the high E-string:
When you've got these basic arpeggio shapes under your fingers, the following (important) step is to start improvising using these shapes. Practicing arpeggios starting from the root in streams of 1/8 notes is an important step in the learning process, but not very musical. Once you got this step under your fingers, it's important to get creative so you don't end up sounding like a robot on stage...
Arpeggios can be started on any note and played in any order. You can mix notes, skip notes and use any rhythm you can think of. Be creative!
Arpeggio Lick #1
Here's a more musical example, using the same arpeggio shapes over the same 251 chord progression, but with a variety in rhythm and note order:
Now start to improvise yourself, using only the basic shapes you learned so far. Use the backing track to make sure you make the arpeggio change at the right time.
So far in this tutorial we worked with arpeggio shapes that have their root on the E-string (Am7 and Gmaj7) or on the A-string (D7). There are of course a lot of other positions these arpeggios can be played.
The following charts are an overview of arpeggio positions for the most common chord types. The big diagram shows all the notes of the arpeggio over the entire neck, the smaller diagrams beneath it show the individual arpeggio grips.
All 22 grips below need to be memorized and practiced so you can play them fluently and without hesitation...
Major Arpeggios (Gmaj7)
Those of you familiar with the CAGED system, will recognize that the 5 Gmaj7 arpeggio shapes above correspond with the 5 basic chord shapes (C A G E D):
Minor Arpeggios (Am7)
Dominant Arpeggios (D7)
Half-Diminished Arpeggios (Bm7b5)
Diminished Arpeggios (B°7 = D°7 = F°7 = Ab°7)
Only 2 grips for diminished chords because diminished chords are symmetrical (learn more about diminished chords here).
A good exercise to practice the arpeggio shapes above is to play the arpeggios of the chords of the C major scale in 1 position.
Here are the diatonic chords in the key of C (if you're not sure where these chords come from, have a look at our Chord Tutorial):
C Major Scale Arpeggios Exercise #1
In this exercise we play every chord arpeggio for the length of 1 bar, while staying in the 7th position (more about guitar positions).
C Major Scale Arpeggios Exercise #2
This is the same exercise as above, but this time starting in 2nd position:
Practice this exercise in all positions of the guitar neck.
Learn how to use arpeggios in your soloing, check out our step-by-step ebook, The Easy Guide to Jazz Guitar Arpeggios...