Simply put, arpeggios on guitar are the same notes you play when you strum a chord one note at a time.
For this reason, I used to believe that playing a guitar arpeggio meant plucking the notes of the chord I was playing (ex a) instead of strumming them (ex b)
Though frequently called a guitar arpeggio, the above (ex a) is, technically speaking, a broken chord.
In a broken chord we’re not playing all the notes in the right order as we do in what is typically known as an arpeggio. We play them in the order they happen to be in the particular chord shape we’re playing.
A bit of theory first
Major and minor chords (arpeggios on the guitar are also played with 7th chords, but for this lesson, we’ll stick to major and minor chords to keep things simple) are made of three different notes.
It’s true that when you’re strumming the C major as in the example above, you’re hitting five notes, and when you strum E major, you’re hitting six notes, but that’s because some notes are repeated at a higher octave.
These three notes are the 1st, 3rd and 5th notes of the respective major or minor scale.
For instance, the C major scale is made of the notes: C, D, E, F, G, A, and B.
Thus the notes of the C major arpeggio are going to be the notes C, E, and G.
The C minor scale, on the other hand, is made of these notes: C, D, Eb, F, G, Ab, Bb.
Thus the notes of the C minor arpeggio are going to be the notes C, Eb, and G.
(You may notice that it is the third note, the E vs Eb in this case, that makes a major and a minor chord different. Power chords, frequently used in Rock and Heavy Metal music are chords that do not have a third, thus can fit perfectly when played with either their equivalent major or minor chord. For instance, the power chord of C sounds good if played with either C major or C minor)
Arpeggios in practice
The following example is the arpeggio of A minor, thus the notes you’ll be playing here are A, C and E repeated in succession.
There are many arpeggio patterns you can learn all over the fretboard. We’re using this particular pattern since we’re going to create an 8 bar melody in the key of A minor using notes from the 3 note per string pattern in this position.
Thus, the notes that we’ll be using, all come from this scale pattern. What we’ll be doing different from just playing notes from the scale, is putting the notes of the arpeggio in more strategic positions.
I suggest you learn both the arpeggio pattern above (you can use a slide from the fourth to the fifth note in this arpeggio) as well as the following A minor 3 note per string scale pattern.
The short solo we’ll be creating during this lesson, is to be played with the following chord progression.
As you can see, there are three different chords in this progression, Am, C and Em.
Thus we’re going to need the 3 different arpeggio patterns we find within the 3 note per string A minor scale in the above example.
The arpeggio for A minor is the arpeggio example I gave you above.
Now we need the arpeggio pattern for C major and that for E minor, which are made of these notes:
C major: C – E – G
E minor: E – G – B
Let’s start making music!
If you want to write a solo which is being backed by the chord progression in the example above, you can simply choose to play notes from the A minor natural scale.
Your solo will still sound good and there are many guitar players who write solos this way – though many great guitar players tend to focus on chord tones, the notes in the arpeggio.
And that’s what we’re going to do here, albeit, as a way to get started and understand the real value of arpeggios, we’re going to be a bit mechanical.
Think of the method we’re going to use here as a means to an end. As you learn arpeggio patterns well, are able to visualize them and practice using them, what we’re going to do here will be happening in your head and you’ll create music as you go along – improvise.
What we’ll be doing is that on every chord in the chord progression, we’ll put random notes from the respective arpeggio on the first and third beat of the bar – the strong beats.
Each note will have the duration of 2 beats.
I would have put the notes this way. Write your own variations on guitar tabs so that you’ll come up with different melodies from mine.
Next, we’ll divide these notes into notes of shorter duration, always leaving the note of the arpeggios as the first note in the following two beats, and fill in with notes that are from the A minor scale – whether they’re also in arpeggio we’re playing, or not.
These notes are not just “filler” notes between the notes of the arpeggio, but will also provide us some dissonance which, when resolved into consonance, makes the music more melodic.
In order to make the music more melodic, I’m also using phrasing techniques like vibrato, string bending, and legato technique.
I suggest that you learn the following 8 bar solo, and notice particularly how the notes of the arpeggio fall on the strong beats, the first and the third, in this case.
Create your own!
This lesson may seem like a lot of work, and it is. There are quite a few things to figure out and if you’re a beginner or an early intermediate guitar player, you may find some parts of the solo challenging.
But if you’ve been through the process above, even if you didn’t manage to play every example, you have understood the real value of chord tones and arpeggios (though this is not the only way you can use arpeggios on guitar, for instance, sweep picking is a technique frequently used on arpeggios and is one of the ways to play guitar extremely fast)
The next step to really integrate what you’ve learned, as well as train your creative juices, is to start creating melodies and solos of your own using this process.
And while you may come up with some really cool and original guitar solos right now, always keep in mind the longer-term goal of doing all this without even needing to go through this process.
I also suggest, very strongly, that you learn the basics of music theory so that anything you need (such as what the notes of each arpeggio are) is stored and organized in your head, ready to make use of while improvising your solos.
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