In this article, we’ll go over the fundamental theory of guitar arpeggios for beginners, look at a few practical uses for arpeggios, and finish with a few tips on how to practice arpeggios on the guitar at this stage.
What Are Arpeggios?
Arpeggios are chord notes played one at a time rather than all at once.
While the terms arpeggios and broken chords are frequently used interchangeably, there is a subtle distinction between the two.
The notes of a chord are played consecutively in both cases, but when played as broken chords, the notes are not played in any particular order. Rather, they are played in accordance with the chord pattern used by the guitarist.
When playing arpeggios, the chord notes are played one after the other.
This distinction is highlighted in the following example. The D minor chord is played as a broken chord in the first example and as an arpeggio in the second.
The same notes are used in both cases (D, F, and A, the notes of the D minor chord, more on that later), but the order is random in the first.
From which chords are arpeggios derived?
Arpeggios can be derived from any chord but as a beginner or intermediate guitar player you should focus on learning the most common and fundamental arpeggio types: Major, Minor, and Dominant 7th arpeggios. Let’s break down each of these:
1. Major Arpeggios
Major arpeggios consist of three notes: the root, the major third, and the perfect fifth. For example, the C major arpeggio consists of the notes C, E, and G – the first, third and fifth degrees of the C major scale.
The following is the arpeggio of C major, played in one octave (Ex. 1) and across a whole position higher up the fretboard (Ex. 2)
2. Minor Arpeggios
Minor arpeggios, are made of the root, the minor third, and the perfect fifth. For example the A minor arpeggio is made of the notes A, C, and E – the first, third and fifth degrees of the A minor scale.
Note that it is the third degree, whether it forms a major or a minor third interval from the root that determines if an arpeggio (or a chord) is major or minor. For instance, the arpeggio of A major is made of the notes A, C#, and E. The root and the fifth are the same as the A minor arpeggio.
The following is the arpeggio of A minor played in one octave (Ex. 1) and across a whole position on the fretboard (Ex. 2).
3. Dominant 7th Arpeggios
Dominant 7th arpeggios have four notes: the root, the major third, the perfect fifth, and the minor seventh. The arpeggio of G7 for instance, is made of the notes G, B, D, and F.
This chord is not derived from the G major scale, in which case the seventh degree would be an F# not an F, which gives us the chord of G major 7. Rather, it’s based on the notes of C major, which is harmonized by the chord of G7 on the fifth degree. If this sounds confusing you may want to learn more about diatonic chord progressions as well as about 7th chords and their function.
The following is the arpeggio of G7 played in one octave (Ex. 1) and across a whole position on the fretboard (Ex. 2).
Now that you know the basic theory behind arpeggios, let’s delve into the practical side of things.
Practical Uses of Arpeggios for Guitar
These are a few ways you can find arpeggios useful in your guitar learning journey.
- Fretboard mastery
Mastering the guitar fretboard involves knowing the names of the notes as well as being able to navigate the fretboard using patterns that have worked for many composers and songwriters.
These patterns take the form of intervals, scales, chords, and arpeggios.
Arpeggios are invaluable if improvising is your goal, as you can see in this lesson on guitar improvisation.
- Melodic Compositions
If you’re inclined towards composing your music, arpeggios are a treasure trove of inspiration. You can use them to craft beautiful and intricate melodies. Experiment with different arpeggio patterns and sequences to add character and depth to your compositions.
- Building Finger Dexterity
Practicing arpeggios is an excellent way to build finger dexterity. The precise finger movements required for arpeggios helps you develop control and agility in your fretting hand. This, in turn, will benefit your overall guitar playing.
- Seed building and shredding
Though shredding (a slang term that refers to playing incredibly fast) may seem far away for beginners in the electric guitar, it may be one of your long term goals.
If shredding is one of your long term goals, when you get closer to that goal, you’ll find your knowledge of arpeggios very useful. In fact, one of the most popular techniques shredders use, sweep picking, is used primarily to play arpeggios.
Arpeggio Practice Tips For Beginners
To make the most of your arpeggio practice, here are some essential tips:
- Start Slow: When learning a new arpeggio, begin at a slow tempo. This will help you build accuracy and muscle memory. As you become more comfortable, gradually increase your speed.
- Use a Metronome: Practicing with a metronome to confirm you can play your arpeggios in time. Note: Do not use a metronome while still in the process of learning a new arpeggio. It’s hard to concentrate on finding the right notes and locking in with a metronome at the same time. Find the right notes first, build some muscle memory by going through the arpeggio a few times, and then focus on the rhythm.
- Arpeggio vocabulary: Start building a vocabulary of arpeggios. The arpeggios given above are just examples and the same arpeggio can be played in different areas of the fretboard.
- Ear Training: Listen carefully to the sound of the arpeggios. This is one of the things I didn’t do when I was a beginner and intermediate player. I learned a lot of patterns (scales, chords, arpeggios, exercises, licks etc) and eventually my brain learned how to order my fingers to go where it wants them to go at will. However since I hadn’t been listening carefully to these patterns for enough time, my brain didn’t know what orders to give (since it didn’t know what sounds to expect).
My ear did develop over time – if the guitar is in tune, our ear is getting trained every time we practice – but it took decades to be develop my ear enough to satisfy my needs in composition and improvisation. It would have taken much less had I deliberately practiced developing it.
- Arpeggios sequences – by applying sequences to your arpeggios, in the same way you apply sequences to scales, you will gain benefits for all five practical uses of arpeggios mentioned above. Like scale sequences, arpeggio sequences are also very important in developing your ear. In fact, though I didn’t formally study ear training as explained above, I believe that the main reason it finally kicked in (that is, I had a vocabulary of organized set of sounds in my head) was due to practicing a lot of scale and arpeggio sequences since I was going through the same notes, using different patterns, over and over.
Post-beginner arpeggio use
The next step after learning the basic arpeggios, namely major, minor and dominant seventh arpeggios, is not to learn more arpeggios, but to put the ones you know into practical use.
Words like “improvising” and “composition” may sound scary for beginners.
However, if you start doing them (that is, turning scales and arpeggios into music) on a very basic level you will understand the full value of the things that you’re learning.
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