After a long walk through the garden of arpeggios, you might be thinking, “what else can possibly be said on this subject?” Well, with an attitude like that the answer would be “nothing”. But I think you’re smarter and more curious than that, right? So we’re going to look at a very different approach to visualizing arpeggios on the fretboard.
The shapes of the arpeggios we’ve looked at so far all fall squarely within related scale and chord shapes. The advantage to this approach is that it cuts down on the number of things you have to remember. If you know the scale, you can derive the related chord or scale pretty easily. If you know the chord or arpeggio, you just need to fill the notes in-between.
This is great, but it can lead to some pretty static playing. Just like it’s easy to feel constrained to play strictly within a single scale pattern, arpeggios can feel “trapped in a box”.
Another problem with these shapes is that some of them can present some pretty tricky picking challenges. Many of the patterns we’ve looked at so far have a single note on a string which usually lends itself well to sweep-picking. The problem is that you can easily feel like you always have to sweep-pick those notes.
If we stop thinking in terms of the related scale’s “box” we unlock some interesting possibilities.
Sweep Your Woes Away
One of the problems with sweep-picking arpeggios is that it’s pretty rare that we can cover an entire arpeggio with just one note per string. If we could, we could rip through the whole thing with a single picking motion (let’s set aside the musical merit of doing so.)
But that’s often not the case. Look at these arpeggio shapes and notice how we have a combination of alternate and sweep picking going on:
This requires a lot stop-and-go dexterity from our picking hand. Since our rhythm comes from our picking hand it’s easy to lose the groove as we have to rapidly change our picking motion just to get a steady stream of notes.
The other issue with sweep-picking is that, when you pull it off, it feels oh-so-good and that feeling can override your musical sensibilities. We’ve all heard “that guy” in the guitar store who can sweep like mad and, in the process, sends everyone running for the door.
When we get hung-up on the sweeps we also lose the possibility of any rhythmic variation. It’s just bloop-bloop-bloop back and forth across the neck. Impressive and athletic? Sure. Interesting? Only in the smallest of doses.
It doesn’t have to be like this. Instead, we can move some notes around so that instead of sweep-picking, we’re alternate-picking. Here’s a different way to play that same arpeggio by skipping strings:
Admittedly, the second pattern gets a little goofy at the bass notes. We still have a single note on the fifth string and so we haven’t entirely solved our problem. But hang with me. Let’s just look at the notes on the top three strings. Take a look at this lick:
That has some interesting rhythm going on. Yes, it’s a steady stream of sixteenth notes, but the movement of the notes highlights some interesting accents. You can juice it up even more by throwing a little palm-muting in there and some hammer-ons and pull-offs:
You could play this sweep-picking style like this but, to me, it’s really difficult to get the same rhythmic feel as the string-skipping versions:
Here’s another lick based on the same string-skipping notes we looked at previously:
Again, we can increase the cool-factor with some palm-muting and legato work:
If we try it with sweeps we have the same difficulty getting the same rhythmic feel:
This isn’t to say that the sweep-picking version has no merit. I happen to like this way of playing it too. But it is a different sound.
The Big Finish
Before we wrap up, let me leave you with a longer example of this style. This time we’re wending our way through the chords Em7-Dmaj7-Bm7-Amaj7 with this spidery array of sixteenth note triplets:
Here’s a quick recording of this lick in the context of a (virtual) band:
This is definitely a real finger-stretcher, especially at the seventh and fifth frets. But if you take a step back you’ll notice that this two-notes-per-string idea is actually pretty familiar to your hands. It’s the same feeling we get when we’re playing any of our beloved pentatonic patterns.
These two-notes-per-string patterns lend themselves to all sorts of rhythmic and expressive possibilities that we just can’t get from sweep-picking.
Try sitting down with this basic chord progression (Em7-Dmaj7-Bm7-Amaj7) and these arpeggio shapes and see what variations you can come up with. Be sure to explore triplet and sixteenth-note rhythms. Once you get going, you’ll be amazed at the possibilities!