Arpeggios – What are they and why are they important?

Arpeggios are an important tool on the guitar for a number of different reasons.

What are arpeggios? Arpeggios are simply the notes of a chord, played individually in sequence, as opposed to in unison. Because of the inherently large intervals found in arpeggios, there is a certain technical challenge in playing arpeggios fluently on the guitar.

When we play arpeggios on the guitar, we play the notes of a chord in sequence, ascending and descending through a position or multiple positions. For example, suppose we want to play a G Major arpeggio. Firstly, we need to know the notes in a G Major chord. They are G – B – D.

But let’s go back a bit. When we play chords on the guitar, we generally mix up the order of notes and double up on certain notes in order to facilitate the position that we are in. For example, if we play the root 6 bar chord of G Major in the 3rd fret, we get the following:

From the 6th string to the 1st, we have G – D – G – B – D – G

In terms of chord tones, we have 1 – 5 – 1 – 3 – 5 – 1

As you can see, there is no logical arrangement of notes from a theoretical point of view. We are limited by the notes we have available in the position that we are in and form the chord accordingly. With arpeggios however, while the range of notes might be limited by the position, we try to arrange the notes in a structured manner. That means that we cycle through each note of a chord in order of chord tones (1 – 3 – 5 – 1 – 3 – 5 etc).

This brings us to another point. People often think that playing arpeggios on the guitar involves holding the shape of a chord and playing each string one note at a time. While this could technically be described as a form of an arpeggio, it is not an arpeggio in the true sense as there is not a systematic arrangement of notes.

Just like scales, we want to learn arpeggios in each position on the guitar and then learn to connect the positions together. If we continue with our example of the G Major chord, the arpeggio for G Major staring on the 3rd fret of the 6th string would look like this.

G major arpeggio 3rd position notes

Again, because of the large intervals, there is quite a technical challenge in playing arpeggios fluently. They often require seemingly unusual fingerings and regular right hand string movements.

So why are arpeggios so important? Because there is no better way to articulate the sound of a chord in a solo than by using an arpeggio. Playing the arpeggio of a chord puts you absolutely ‘inside’ the sound of that chord. That doesn’t mean that we necessarily always want to be inside each chord, but when we are trying to familiarize ourselves with a particular song or set of chord changes, playing through the chord progression using arpeggios is an important part of training our ears to hear the changes and our fingers to know where the ‘safe’ notes are.

Arpeggios are also a great compliment for scales, and vice versa. The best way to explore a lydian scale for example, is to start with a major 7 arpeggio and then introduce the remaining notes. This gives the lydian scale a sense of context.

More lessons on using arpeggios will follow. Check the guitar arpeggios page for updates and more lessons.


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About Genaaron Diamente

I play guitar. I teach guitar. I like making music. I'm trying to build this site up to be a valuable resource for guitar students and teachers.

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