Major Arpeggios

Introduction to Arpeggios

After the past few lessons on triads, you're now ready to graduate to arpeggios. In the most literal sense, an arpeggio is a chord played one note at a time. One style of arpeggio is what we might associate with folk-music. Imagine any sort of acoustic Beatles tune, and you have the idea. These are generally played finger style where the fretting holds a chord shape and picking hand plays the notes one at a time.

The other style is more of the "shreddy" style. That is, playing the notes of an arpeggio one at a time with no overlap. Think of guys like Yngwie, Steve Vai, Paul Gilbert and the like. Because of the wider intervals involved with arpeggios, these are often associated with sweep-picking.

We'll start off by looking at major chord arpeggios. The good news is that you already know how to construct these. You simply need to add all of the major triad shapes in the right order and you can play these arpeggios all over the neck.

Let's start by taking a look at this G major arpeggio at the second position:

G Major Arpeggios at the second position

It's like a little math formula. You simply add the triads up in the correct order and you get a full arpeggio. Each of those triad shapes should look familiar to you. If not, go back and make a good study of them.

Now let's move a little further up the neck. This time we'll start with a two-string G major arpeggio at the third position. Take a look:

G Major Arpeggios at the third position

Like the previous arpeggio, the triad shapes buried within this arpeggio should look familiar to you. In fact, both of these arpeggio shapes share some common triads. For example, the triad composed of the fifth fret on the fourth string, the fourth fret on the third string, and the third fret on the second string.

Here are the remaining arpeggio shapes as they move up the neck. Once you get to the end of these, you simply repeat the arpeggio cycle continuing on up the neck.

G Major arpeggios at the seventh position

G Major arpeggios at the ninth position

G Major arpeggios at the tenth position

G Major arpeggios at the twelfth position

Now how you play these is entirely up to you. I suppose the boring, academic way of doing it is to start with the lowest note play on up to the highest note and descend back down again. Frankly, if you're just starting out with these that's not a bad way to go.

But as you start playing around with these you'll find all sorts of interesting picking challenges. In some cases consecutive notes are on the same string, and in other cases consecutive notes are on adjacent strings.

When you have notes on consecutive strings it does give you an opportunity to use sweep-picking. But in some cases it may be easier to just strictly alternate pick the entire arpeggio shape. This is something worth spending some time on and getting a feel for playing it all sorts of different ways.

Once you start to get the shapes burned in your memory, it's time to start figuring out how to do interesting things with them. One simple variation is to play the notes of the arpeggio in alternating order both ascending and descending. Take a look:

G Major arpeggio with alternating intervals

You can extend this variation by playing two, three, four or more notes at once and walking your way up and down the arpeggio. Take a look:

G Major arpeggio in groups of threes

G Major arpeggio in groups of four

An artistic way to incorporate these into your playing is to fit them into larger phrases. You don't ever wanted to sound like open "okay, I'm going to plan arpeggio now!" That just sounds kind of lame and academic. So a part of building your own style is figuring out how to incorporate these musically into your playing.

Another cool thing you can do with arpeggios is to figure out how to switch between different ones while staying in the same position on the neck. This is a great skill to have when you're playing over really fast chord changes. You can outline the general gist of the chords without having to do a lot of movement up and down the neck.

Here's an example of playing arpeggios for G, C, and D major chords. Notice how little your hand moves up and down the neck as you play these:

Arpeggios over G, C & D with minimal movement.

Many years ago when I was first learning chords and arpeggios, I wrote a small computer program that randomly generated chord names. I would play those either as straight chords or as arpeggios and treat it like a little game. The goal was to play each of the changes in time making the smallest movements I could on the neck. (That reminds me, I should probably write a new version of that put it on this website.) It was like a little puzzle and turned out to be a fantastic way to really master the fretboard in the various shapes on-the-fly.

If you squint hard and look at those arpeggio shapes while you're playing, you should be able to see the underlying chord shapes within them. Here are the underlying chord shapes for the arpeggios I just showed above:

The underlying chord forms for G, C and D

Notice that the arpeggio shapes contain all the notes of the related chord form. Arpeggios and chords are intimately related with each other. One way to think of an arpeggio is like a "melted" or "broken" chord. So getting a firm understanding of chords and arpeggios will help you master the entire fretboard, whether you are just providing accompaniment or your laying down an amazing solo.

In the next lesson we will take a look at minor arpeggios. Once we've covered those we will take a look at diminished and augmented arpeggios. With that solid foundation, we will be able to start looking at more complicated chords and arpeggios.

Until next time, keep rocking!