Fighting Up-and-Back Syndrome

After getting your first exposure to arpeggios, it’s easy to fall into a rut when playing them. Typically, we learn arpeggios and scales by starting with the lowest note, ascending to the highest note in the pattern and then descending back to the root. It’s great for learning but it’s an express-lane-enabled trip to Snoozeville for your audience.

So how do you get out of the up-and-back doldrums? Variety, as they say, is the spice of life. You could just start playing random notes like a cat walking on a piano, but our musical minds like to hear some order (just not too much order.) So let’s look at ways to systematically bust out of the up-and-back syndrome.

Recipe 1: Start at the Top

Our natural tendency is to start at the bottom of pattern and play the notes in ascending order. One simple way to shake things up is starting at the top and descending Crazy, right?

A D major arpeggio descending, with a little fretboard-stretching to boot.

I think this low-to-high disorder must be similar to the one drummers suffer from. For them it’s called The Small-to-Big-Tom-Fill-Order Syndrome and it takes some players a lifetime to break it. Maybe Neil Peart can host a telethon for those poor, luckless drummers…

Recipe 2: Inner Patterns

As music listeners, we like to hear a little order in the music we’re listening to. One way to impart some order, is to find a repeating pattern that you can vary within the constraints of a scale or, in this case, an arpeggio. Take, for example, this simple climbing sixteenth-note pattern from the D major scale:

D major scale, ascending in 16th note groups

Now we can apply the same idea for a D major arpeggio:

D major arpeggio in 16th-note groups


Be careful with this one. Like a really spicy taco sauce, a little goes a long way. Too much and your playing suddenly changes from “music” to “exercises”. Exercises are for playing at home to improve on specific things, not to torture your audience with.

Here’s a lick with a much more subtle repeating pattern:

The two opening triplets are the only hints of repetition. Any more would be uncivilized.

Recipe 3: Theme & Variation

Think of all the variables that go into each note you choose to play:

  • Pitch
  • Volume
  • Tone/timbre
  • Expression (bends, slides, vibrato)
  • Tempo

You only need to start varying one of these to make something boring sound much more interesting. Here’s a lick that uses a three-note motif at different speeds:

Variation based on timing

The dotted quarter notes in the first and third bars set the stage for the repetition of the pattern as triplets in the second and fourth measures.

Still sound too academic? Don’t forget that rock is a very close cousin to the blues. There’s something about those classic blues licks that just “brings it home” for most of us. Try sticking some of your crazy new arpeggios in front of or after some of those blues licks rattling around in your repertoire:

Blues 101 lick in D minor pentatonic, with a little D minor arpeggio flourish at the end

This lick opens with a pretty standard bread-and-butter kind of blues lick before lifting off with a D minor arpeggio flourish at the end.

Recipe 4: Interval Skipping

Who says you have to play the notes in order? Some kind of order is preferable to totally random, but you don’t have to play the notes in consecutive order. Here’s one way to invert the normal order of arpeggios:

D major arpeggios with interval-skipping

Rather than playing the cycle or root-3rd-5th, this lick goes root-5th-3rd and then repeats. It introduces some wider intervals (which I am such a sucker for) and adds a little surprise to the normal note-order.

Recipe 5: The Vertical Stretch

Psst. Hey you. Yeah, you. C’mere.

Wanna know a secret? You don’t have to play strictly within the arpeggios patterns I showed you earlier. Really?, you think to yourself? What a jerk I am. First I tell you to learn these nice ergonomic patterns across the neck, then I tell you to forget them.

One thing that can make arpeggios really fun is the dizzying highs and lows you can scale in a short amount of time. For some reason these sound even more exhilarating when your fingers have to scale more of the neck. Maybe it’s the look of deseparation on your face. Who cares. It works.

Watch your hand fly up the neck like a hawk diving on its prey!

Recipe 6: Find a Melody

I almost feel bad for calling this out as a separate recipe. I mean, shouldn’t we always be trying to play something melodic? Of course we should. But sometimes our mindset gets lost in patterns and theory. When this happens you need to step back and start coming up with something melodic.

As an example, take the oh-so-irritating theme from Jeopardy. It's mostly a major arpeggio:

Make Alex Trebeck proud with this one.

Okay, you probably wouldn’t want to bust this out at a gig unless you have a really strong sense of humor (and self-confidence.) The point is that memorable melodies can be constructed from arpeggios. You might not like the theme from “Jeopardy”, but it is memorable.

Arpeggios aren’t always the easiest thing to work into your improvisations. It’s all too easy for them to sound like exercises from a workbook forced into a song. But like a really powerful spice, they can turn the boring into something much more interesting when used tastefully. The trick, as always, is to figure out what “tasteful” means for you and your style of playing.

Until next time, keeping rocking!