I began learning arpeggios on the guitar because they were a topic in the curriculum of the music school I was attending at the time.
I didn’t really know what guitar arpeggios are, how they are constructed, why I was learning them, and, most importantly, how to use them.
Thus, I started considering arpeggios on the guitar as little more than exercises meant to improve my technique.
In this lesson, we’ll address these issues so that arpeggios become a useful component of your guitar playing rather than just a topic that needs to be learned.
What are guitar arpeggios?
An arpeggio is a technique that involves striking the notes of a chord in a specific order rather than sounding them all at once with a strum.
This sounds like playing a broken chord, but there’s a subtle difference between a broken chord and an arpeggio.
When playing an arpeggio the notes of the chord are played in a specific order, usually ascending or descending.
When playing a broken chord, the notes of the chord are played in a random order rather than in a specific pattern. The order is usually determined by how the notes are arranged in the chord shape being used by the player.
To make these differences clear, in the following example, the D minor chord is first strummed as a whole chord (Ex 1), then played as a broken chord (Ex 2), and finally played as an arpeggio (Ex 3).
In each example, the same notes are being played, but they are either picked differently or placed in a different order.
What are the notes in an arpeggio?
Since the notes of an arpeggio are the notes of a chord played individually, arpeggios are constructed in the same way as chords.
However note that guitar players may at times add notes that are not in the chord to add variety to the arpeggio.
Why learn arpeggios on the guitar?
Arpeggios are not just a set of exercises you need to practice to learn the guitar but serve multiple purposes.
- Improving technique: When playing arpeggios, you will use different fingerings and techniques. These will help you improve your overall dexterity and instrument control.
- Understanding chords and harmony: Because arpeggios are the notes of a chord played in a linear order, learning how to play them will help you understand the structure and function of chords in music.
- Arpeggios can be used to expand your soloing and improvisation skills, allowing you to create interesting and varied melodies over chord progressions.
- Fretboard visualization: Arpeggios help you to recognize new patterns on the guitar fretboard and thus navigate it more fluently.
- Arpeggios are used in a variety of music styles, including classical, rock, metal, jazz, and others. Understanding arpeggios will help you understand and play in different genres of music.
- Training your ear: When you apply a music theory element to the guitar, you are training your ear to recognize and organize these various sounds.
In what order should I learn arpeggios on guitar?
The order in which arpeggios should be learned can vary depending on your skill level and goals.
As with every theoretical concept applied to the guitar, I always suggest the “learn and apply” approach. This means that once you learn an arpeggio, rather than go for the next one to learn, try to put it in a musical context.
The musical context can be a riff, a lick, an improvisation or a composition. It doesn’t have to be complex or fast. What matters is that you learn how to put the concept, arpeggios in this case, into practical use.
That being said, this is roughly the order in which you should learn arpeggios:
1. Major and minor triad arpeggio in root position.
The major and the minor triad form the foundation of the Western tonal system, are the most commonly used chords in music and thus they are the ones you should learn first.
The following are arpeggios of the C major and the C minor triad. Go to this lesson for a more detailed explanation of major and minor triads.
2. Diminished triad arpeggio.
Though less commonly used than major and minor triads, the diminished triad is of particular importance since it finds itself in the harmonized major and minor scale.
The following are arpeggios for the C diminished triad.
3. Triad inversions
The triads we have explored so far have been in root position, that is, with the root note (ex. C in C major) in the bass.
A triad is in first inversion when the third (Ex. E in C major) note replaces the root in the bass and in second inversion when the fifth note (ex. G in C major) replaces the root in the bass.
Learning arpeggio triads in inversion takes quite some time, but it touches on all the benefits of learning arpeggios mentioned above and will give you a very thorough knowledge of the guitar fretboard.
4. 7th Arpeggios
Triads are composed of the first, third, and fifth notes of their respective major or minor scale.
Arpeggios of a seventh, which include the seventh note of the scale, are also commonly used.
There are various types of seventh chords/arpeggios, with the three most useful being Major 7, Minor 7, and Dominant 7th.
The dominant 7th is denoted by the name of the chord followed by the number 7 (for example, C7), while the major and minor 7ths are denoted as C maj 7 or C min 7.
Arpeggios of a seventh can also be in inversion. When the seventh note of the scale is in the bass, the chord/arpeggio being played is in third inversion.
5. Learn more complex arpeggios
After mastering the basics, you can learn more complex arpeggios such as those of 9th, 11th and 13th chords.
6. Learn to apply arpeggios in different music styles
When you have a good grasp of arpeggios, you can start exploring how they are used in different music styles such as rock, metal, jazz, and classical music.
To sum up, guitar arpeggios are a way of playing the notes of a chord individually and in a sequential order, rather than all at once.
Learning arpeggios on the guitar will benefit your technique, your understanding of the music you’re listening to or learning, as well as give you more options to use in your guitar improvisations and solos.
To get the most benefit from every arpeggio you learn, it is important to put it into practical use in the form of a riff, a lick or a solo.
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