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How to Make Music With Broken Chords On Guitar

Though the terms broken chord and arpeggio are often used interchangeably by guitar players, there are some minor differences between the two.

They both refer to the notes of the chord being played individually (rather than strummed together) but while in broken chords the notes are allowed to ring together in arpeggios the notes are not allowed to bleed into each other.

In arpeggios the notes of the chord are usually played in a linear order while in broken chords they’re played according to where they’re found on a particular chord shape.

In this lesson I show you how to compose solos using arpeggios and in today’s lesson we’ll use broken chords as a composition tool.

How to play broken chords on the guitar

Playing broken chords on the guitar is easy.

All you have to do is to choose a chord and play its notes one by one.

The notes can be played after each other as they occur in the chord shape you’re playing as in ex. 1, or in different order as in ex. 2.

Practicing broken chords

Before starting to use broken chords as a compositional tool, it’s good to get fluent in playing different sequences over one chord.

This will train your right hand to play broken chords as well as give you ideas to use when making your own music.

The examples in the broken chords chart above are just a few of the many possibilities you have by playing the notes in a different order, or applying a different rhythm.

Ex. 1 is pretty straightforward as a sequence and uses triplets in the rhythm. Ex. 2 and Ex. 3 are another two sequences over the chord.

Ex. 4 introduces string skipping which is another option you have when composing with broken chords. Though it may feel natural to play notes on adjacent strings, once you introduce string skipping, your options when writing music instantly go up.

Ex. 5 is a hybrid of a string skipping sequence and a regular sequence. It is meant to show you that when sequencing a chord, you’re free to change the pattern anytime you want.

Create broken chord sequences

This will be your first step in actually making music with broken chords.

Choose any chord and come up with at least 10 different sequences of your own.

Your options are:

1. Rhythmic – the examples above use just eight notes and triplets. You have more choices than these such as using sixteenth notes, dotted notes as well as mixing and matching these different rhythmic elements, as in the example below:

2. Changing the order of the notes: Experiment with different sequences. Use string skipping when necessary and don’t be afraid to mix and match. Don’t worry if you play something that goes out of the sequential pattern you’re playing. If it sounds right, it’s going to be right when using it in composition.

Choose a key

So far, everything we have played was on the chord of C major.

The next aspect of composing with broken chords is choosing the right chords.

In order to find the right notes and chords, composers use keys to show them which notes and chords fit together (and, for those who go deeper into music theory, why) which is what we’ll be doing here.

I won’t be explaining how keys work in this lesson, but will simply choose the key of C major. (Click on the link if you want to learn which chords are in which key. This will give you the ability to compose music in all keys. Or else, keep reading on, compose in C major, and widen your options later on).

C major is made of the following 7 notes:

C D E F G A B.

It is the only major scale that doesn’t have any sharps or flats, which makes it easier to use for explanatory purposes.

When we harmonize each of these notes with a chord, we get the following chords:

C major

D minor

E minor

F major

G major

A minor

B diminished

These are all the chord choices we have in the key of C major. (For the purposes of this lesson we’ll be leaving the B diminished chord out, so we actually have 6 chords to choose from).

Note: We actually have more chord choices if we harmonize the scale with 7th chords or use extensions but since our goal is to learn how to use broken chords, we’ll be keeping things as simple as possible.

Create a chord progression

A chord progression is two or more chords played after each other.

To do this, we’re first going to assign a Roman numeral to each chord in the key that we have as an option.

Note that major chords get an upper case numeral while minor chords get a lower case numeral.

C =     I  

Dm = ii     

Em = iii

F     = IV

G    = V

Am = vi

Thus, the popular chord progression I – IV – V, would be the chords C – F – G in the key of C major.

These are some common chord progressions you can choose from:

I – IV (C – F)

I – IV – V (C – F – G)

I – ii – V – I (C – Dm – G – C)

I – IV – I – V (C – F – C – G)

I – vi – IV – V (C – Am – F – G)

I – iii – vi – V  (C – Em – Am – G)

You can combine these chord progressions, extend them, as well as make up your own.

Learn the relevant scale

Although we’re composing using chords, the notes of the scale are still choices we can use.

As you’ll see in the example broken chord melody at the end of this lesson, there’s a bar where there’s written N.C (No Chord) instead of a chord name over the notes.

The reason is that I’m not even using a chord in that bar. I’m just going down the scale of C major.

I use notes that are not in the chord at other places in the music (such as the third note of bars 2 and 3). These create a little dissonance that when resolved to a chord tone, makes the music more melodic.

The following is the C major scale in open position. All these notes are options you can use in the music you will be writing.

Time to get creative

So far, you should have these elements in place:

  1. You can play broken chord sequences and come up with your own.
  2. You have decided on a key (C major if you’re following my example).
  3. You have decided on a chord progression.
  4. You have learned the scale that fits the key.

Now it’s time to experiment with these elements to create your own compositions.

There is no right or wrong way to do this.

Your chord progressions can have a lot of chord changes, or you can just use two chords.

Your rhythms may be regular or irregular, complex or simple.

You can change the sequential pattern any time you want. Consider skipping strings as an option.

Feel free to insert any notes that are not in the chord, as long as they are in the scale.

The following is the music I came up with using this method of composition.

I suggest that you learn it to get warmed up into music made with broken chords, but in the end, you should also come up with your own ideas.

Conclusion: Where to go from here

One way to get fluent in composing with the guitar is to use a method like the above and write as much music as possible.

Alongside with that you should keep learning music theory and applying it to the guitar, as well as improving your guitar technique.

Though playing the guitar and songwriting are two different skills, they overlap a lot.

When you take music theory concepts (such as keys, scales and chord progressions), combine them with the technique (picking the notes, or string skipping) and add to them your own creativity, you will be improving both of these skills at the same time.


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