Arpeggios are a great tool for every guitarist. Because of the relatively large intervals found in arpeggios, they are technically difficult to play and therefor provide a great opportunity for technical development. Because arpeggios are really just chords that are played one note at a time, they are actually very easy to use over chord progressions. For example, a Bm7 arpeggio will naturally sound very ‘safe’ and ‘comfortable’ over a Bm7 chord.
Once you have learnt the main arpeggios in 5 different positions along the fretboard, using them in the context of a chord progression is the next logical step.
We are going to look at a basic chord progression of:
Bm7 – E7 – Amaj7 – F#7
This progression covers 3 different chord types and is a common progression.
Obviously, for the Bm7 chord, we will use a Bm7 arpeggio, for the E7 chord we will use an E7 arpeggio and so on.
While using arpeggios almost guarantees a safe and ‘correct’ sound, the challenge lies in making them sound musically expressive and not mechanical. Having said that, there are a few basic exercises that are quite predictable and mechanical. These are important to master before moving on to more interesting exercises.
The first exercise that we will look at uses 8th notes. Starting from the lowest root note in the given position, we will play an ascending arpeggio without skipping any notes and only changing direction when we run out of notes in the given position. Here it is:
When you play this exercise, you will really hear the sound of the chord progression coming through. This is the power of arpeggios. However, it does sound quite mechanical and the massive jumps when changing from one chord to the next are a bit unpractical.
It is still a very important exercise to do.
The next exercise is pretty much the same approach, but in reverse. This time we are starting from the highest root note in the given position and descending through each chord:
Again, this has the same musical qualities as the first exercise; safe sounding, predictable but producing a very strong sense of the chord progression.
The third exercise is kind of a combination of the previous two. What we are doing here is starting from the lowest root note, ascending, then playing the next arpeggio from the highest root note:
You will hear (and visually you can see) that this exercise sounds more musical than the other two. This is because there is now a bit more of a natural contour to the exercise.
As you may have guessed, the next arpeggio exercise is the same but starting from the highest root note:
The next exercise we will do is a little bit different. Here we are only playing arpeggio notes (just like the previous examples) but there is a focus on voice leading. While this is not a lesson on voice leading, voice leading is the art of changing between chords with as little movement as possible. One thing to observe here is that in this exercise, we do not necessarily need to start each chord with a root note.
This exercise sounds even more like a natural phrase of music than the previous one. This is because of the voice leading, but also because we are not necessarily starting on the root not of every chord, thus making it less predictable.
An important thing to remember is that while it is important to be able to play your arpeggios starting from the root note in every position, playing arpeggios from non root notes within the arpeggio will always work too. This is because of the ‘safe’ nature of arpeggios. Every note in the arpeggio is inherently a note from the equivalent chord, therefor any note will ‘work’. This is where arpeggios differ greatly from scales.
In the above example, we changed direction within the one bar, but we didn’t move beyond the stepwise intervals of the arpeggios. In this next example, we are going to be a bit more daring and use bigger intervals. There is still a focus on voice leading:
This last example is a technically challenging exercise. We have taken away the predictable nature of the arpeggios by using bigger intervals. However, as arpeggios generally contain large intervals to begin with, extending the intervals in this way does create quite an interesting sound that is perhaps a bit unusual. Being able to use arpeggios in this way demonstrates a very strong command of arpeggio playing.
Keep in mind that the above examples all use the one 4-chord progression and stay generally in the one position. We have generally tried to stay around the one area of the fretboard. Of course, you would want to apply the principles of these examples to every position and then do additional exercises such as connecting different positions together. You would also want to change chord progressions and try different keys etc.
But the above examples provide a clear way to approach the use of arpeggios in a musical context.
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