In this lesson you will learn how to play guitar arpeggios. You will learn how to use arpeggios to improvise over chord changes and jazz standards, as well as the music theory involved. Arpeggios are an essential building block of the jazz player’s vocabulary and give your solos that instant “jazzy” flavor. Understanding, practicing and mastering arpeggios is essential for all jazz guitarists. Learning arpeggios will improve your guitar solos instantly by making them more interesting to listen to.
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An Overview of What You Will You Learn
- What Are Arpeggios?
- What Are Arpeggios Used For?
- Basic Arpeggios Shapes
- Arpeggios Over a 2 5 1 Chord Progression
- Arpeggio Charts
- Arpeggios of the C Major Scale
- Blue Bossa Arpeggio Study
- Diminished Arpeggios over Dominant Chords
- Arpeggios Over Minor ii V I Chord Progressions
- Arpeggios & Approach Notes
- Arpeggios & Enclosures
- Autumn Leaves Arpeggio Study
What Are Guitar Arpeggios and How Do They Work?
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 fingerpicking pattern, usually on acoustic guitar.
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 blues, metal, etc), arpeggios are used as an improvisation technique for soloing instead of accompaniment. In contrast to arpeggios used in other genres of music, the notes of a jazz guitar arpeggio are usually played with a plectrum (unless you play fingerstyle) and 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:
What Are Arpeggios Used For?
Why learn guitar and practice guitar arpeggios? Because arpeggios are a great tool to improvise over chord progressions and jazz standards:
- Chord tone soloing: playing arpeggios in your guitar solo will outline the harmony of the tune (contrary to scales). This chord outlining gives your improvisation a sense of direction, making it more interesting to listen to.
- Arpeggios make it easier to improvise a nice voice leading, making your solos more melodic.
- You can use arpeggios to add color and complexity to your solos by using substitutions.
How To Start Using Arpeggios
Now, which arpeggios should you learn?
Every jazz guitarists needs to know how to play the arpeggios of all chord types in all positions of the guitar neck.
This may not seem a simple task, but with a good practice routine, you will be able to play all arpeggios without thinking in a relative short period of time.
Basic Arpeggio Shapes: Minor, Dominant and Major
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.
black dots represent the other chord notes. The letters are the note names.
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 as notated on the tabs below (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 notes and formula of the D7 chord:
Here is the same arpeggio in relation to its scale (D Mixolydian) and chord (D7):
D7 arpeggio vs D 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:
Arpeggios Over a ii V I Chord Progression
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:
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 in the list below 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 Arpeggio Chart (Gmaj7)
C A G E D
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 Arpeggio Chart (Am7)
Dominant Arpeggio Chart (D7)
Half-Diminished Arpeggio Chart (Bm7b5)
Diminished Arpeggio Chart (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).
Arpeggios of the C Major Scale
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.
Blue Bossa Arpeggio Study
In this section you are going to learn how to use the arpeggio shapes you learned earlier over a jazz standard, Blue Bossa in this case.
When learning a tune, it’s important to be able to play the arpeggio of any chord you encounter, anywhere on the guitar neck.
Start by playing the arpeggios through the song using only quarter notes, and stick to using only a single arpeggio shape per chord.
After playing through Blue Bossa using quarter notes, try playing through the lick below.
The lick uses the same notes as the arpeggios from the previous example, but changes the order of the notes and varies the rhythm.
For additional practice and soloing ideas, play only eighth notes through the chord changes:
How to Use Diminished Arpeggios over Dominant Chords
Diminished arpeggios are often used to play over dominant (7b9) chords. Here is the rule of thumb:
You can play a dim7 arpeggio from the b9, 3, 5 or b7 of any dominant 7th chord. This will result in a 7b9 sound.
For example: over a G7, you can play an Abdim7, Bdim7, Ddim7 or Fdim7 arpeggio:
|Played over G7||b9||3||5||b7|
|Played over G7||3||5||b7||b9|
|Played over G7||5||b7||b9||3|
|Played over G7||b7||b9||3||5|
In this arpeggio technique exercise, you’ll learn how to play diminished arpeggios over dominant chords. The exercise is played over a ii V I VI7 chord progression in C major.
Dm7 (ii): over the first chord a normal Dm7 arpeggio is played:
G7b9 (V): here a diminished arpeggio (Bdim7) starting from the 3rd (b) of the dominant chord is played. There is a slight difference between the arpeggio shape played ascending and the shape played descending to make it easier to go to the next arpeggio shape.
Notice that the Bdim7 outlines the 3, 5, b7 and b9 notes of the G7b9 chord. It is a rootless arpeggio (there is no 1), which we often refer to as the 3-b9 arpeggio.
Diminished chords (and arpeggios) are symmetrical because they are built by stacking minor thirds. This means that you can treat any note of a dim7 arpeggio as the root note: you could think of the Bdim7 arpeggio as either Bdim7, Ddim7, Fdim7 or Abdim7, they are all the same.
Cmaj9 (I): here I play an Em7 chord over Cmaj7. Em7 is the first superimposed chord of Cmaj7 and the arpeggio shape is the same as the Dm7 you used before, but 2 frets higher.
A7b9 (VI7): here a diminished arpeggio (C#dim7) starting from the 3rd (c#) of the A7 chord is played. There is again a slight variation in the second shape to facilitate going to the next arpeggio.
The music notation and backing track:
Here is another example. Notice that all the notes are from the Bdim7 arpeggio (the 3-b9 arpeggio over G7b9), but I’ve labeled the Ddim7 and Bdim7 arpeggio shapes so you can see how you can use any root note from Bdim7 to build other dim7 shapes on the fretboard.
Using Arpeggios Over Minor ii V I Progresssions
Now that you know how to relate a dim7 arpeggio to the V7b9 chord, let’s have a look at two fingerings for these arpeggios and how you can apply them to improvise over minor ii V Is.
A very cool fingering is the shared root fingering: because any note in a dim7 arpeggio can be considered the root, if you take a Bdim7 and start from the second note in that arpeggio (D), you are now sharing a root note with the iim7b5 chord.
This means that you can now play iim7b5-iidim7 over the iim7b5-V7b9 section of the progression, allowing you to solo over those changes without changing the root note or moving your hand on the fretboard between chords.
Here are the four arpeggios for a minor turnaround in C with the Dm7b5 arpeggio starting on the 6th string.
Here is a sample lick that uses all four of these shapes in its construction:
Moving on, here are all four arpeggios in the minor key turnaround in C from the 5th string:
Here is a sample lick to hear these shapes in action:
To help you take these minor ii V I arpeggios to a musical situation, here is a sample solo written out over the chord changes to a tune I’ll call Tune Down, which is a minor key version of the Miles Davis track, Tune Up.
Spicing It Up – Approach Notes
Arpeggios relate directly to the chord you’re soloing over, but they can sound a bit plain, as they offer nothing new to that chord. To help you avoid this in your solos, you’ll have a look at some common chromatic techniques over arpeggios.
The first arpeggio concept is called approach notes, where you approach any note in an arpeggio by one fret below. When doing so, you create a tension and release sound in your lines.
The only rule is that you can’t resolve to the chromatic notes. So, if you play an approach note, you then have to play a chord tone afterward.
Here’s an example of this technique in action, as you approach each note in an Am7 arpeggio from a fret below. The approach notes are in blue so you can easily see them on the fretboard. After you’ve worked this exercise over Am7, take it to other keys and arpeggio types in your solos:
Here’s the reverse of the previous exercise as you now descend an Am7 arpeggio with approach notes.
Here’s a lick that uses arpeggios and approach notes as you bring this concept to a musical situation. Learn this lick in the given key, then take it to other keys if you can. From there, write out a few licks of your own over this progression.
Spicing It Up: Enclosures
The next bebop technique uses two chromatic notes for each arpeggio note, as you encircle chord tones in your lines.
When playing enclosures, you play one fret above, then one fret below, then the chord tone.
There are a number of enclosures that you can use in your solos, but this is the best one to start with as it’s the most commonly used.
Here’s an example of an enclosure as applied at an Am7 arpeggio, ascending a two-octave version of that arpeggio. Work this exercise with a metronome in as many keys as you can, and then take it to other arpeggio shapes.
The next exercise reverses the previous one, as you now descend an Am7 arpeggio with enclosures.
Here’s a lick that uses arpeggio enclosures over a ii V I vi progression in G major. After you learn this lick, write out 2-3 of your own that use arpeggios and enclosures in its construction.
Autumn Leaves Arpeggio Study
To complete our arpeggio tutorial, we will learn how to use arpeggios in a song. To get you started applying arpeggios over chord changes, here is a solo over Autumn Leaves that uses arpeggios and concepts from this section.
Work the solo one phrase at a time until you can put everything together to form the solo as a whole. From there, you can play it along with the audio example, as well as solo over the backing track as you create your own arpeggio solos over this tune.