Mastering Arpeggios: 10 Things You Need to Know About Playing Broken Chords

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Are you on the prowl for a quick and painless way to spruce up your guitar solos? How about your rhythm playing?

The intervallic sound of arpeggios might be just what your music is missing. By incorporating arpeggios into your playing, you’ll automatically force yourself to approach the guitar in a different manner than you usually do (your “default” mode)—simply because practicing the many and varied arpeggio techniques that exist will force you to develop skills that differ from the typical strumming and scale-playing techniques you’re already familiar with.

But what exactly is an arpeggio, and what are some of the common techniques we guitar payers can use to play them?

In this lesson, we’ll take an in-depth look at arpeggios in all their forms, illustrated with examples from a variety of musical styles.

An arpeggio is nothing more than a broken chord‚a chord whose notes are played one after the other in series instead of all together at once. Probably the most basic means of indicating that a chord is to be arpeggiated is to draw a wavy line in the notation and TAB staves alongside the chord (FIGURE 1A).

This technique dictates that each note of the chord be sounded one at a time by quickly pushing the pick through the strings. However, it doesn’t specify the precise rhythm in which each note should be picked, so it’s more of a notational shortcut. This approach is mostly used in situations where a chord is slowly strummed and then sustained at the tail-end of a song.

To really develop solid arpeggio chops, you need to practice examples that make use of a strict rhythm. FIGURE 1B depicts how a chord can be arpeggiated using up- and downstrokes in a steady eighth-note rhythm.


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Both of these approaches, incidentally, are examples of playing arpeggio-style‚ a common way of adding interest to a garden-variety chordal accompaniment. An arpeggio-style accompaniment can be readily applied to many tunes, including the folk classic “House of the Rising Sun” (FIGURE 2).


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Arpeggios can also be used in a melodic context. Some of the most famous melodies in Western (American and European) music are based on a simple arpeggio shape.

A prime example of this is the opening melodic phrase to “Star-Spangled Banner,” arranged here (FIGURE 3) within the confines of a simple open-position C chord.


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Believe it or not, melodies that you’ve heard in cartoons, at sporting events and in old war movies can offer other fun sources for practicing melodic arpeggios. If you’re a fan of old Woody Woodpecker cartoons, you’ll have a blast picking through FIGURE 4.


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Notice how this melodic example involves the top three strings of the same open-position C chord, but with the addition of an extra fretted note, G (1st string 3rd fret). This very same grouping of notes can also be used to play the “Charge!” theme that you’ve no doubt heard at baseball, basketball and hockey games (FIGURE 5).


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Finally, if you feel your arpeggio chops are in need of a “wake-up” call, another permutation of this same note grouping yields a well-known reveille (FIGURE 6).


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So far we’ve studied a handful of arpeggio examples based on an open-position C chord.

To get a deeper understanding of arpeggios, we really need to look at how chords are constructed. The most basic component of any chord or arpeggio is a three-note sonority called a triad. In music theory terminology, the three notes used to form a triad are referred to as the root, the 3rd and the 5th.

To find the specific notes used to construct a C major triad, this numeric information needs to be related to the C major scale (C D E F G A B). By labeling the scale’s root “1” and assigning a number to each successive scale tone (1=C, 2=D, 3=E, 4=F, 5=G, 6=A, 7=B), we can see that the 3rd note of the scale is E and the 5th is G (FIGURE 7A). Therefore, a C triad contains the notes C, E and G (FIGURE 7B).


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In each of the C chord arpeggio examples we played earlier, though some of them contained up to five notes, we were really only playing an arrangement of three different notes—C, E and G—each time.

Triads and arpeggios can also be built on the other notes of a major scale. In C major, for instance, triads built on the notes C (C-E-G), F (F-A-C) and G (G-B-D) are all “major” triads and can be arpeggiated in open position (FIGURE 8).


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These particular triads have formed the basis of countless classic sounds like “La Bamba” (FIGURE 9).


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Since any given note on the guitar can usually be performed in a number of locations, there will come a time when a riff or lick you wish to play will force you to stray from the open position. For that reason, you may want to run your fingers through a few fully fretted variations of a simple C triad shape (FIGURE 10).


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An advantage of these fully fretted shapes is that they can be moved up and down the fretboard to create arpeggios based on any note. “Manic Depression” by Jimi Hendrix and “Train of Consequences” by Megadeth are two songs that use arpeggio shapes in a similar manner.

By now you’re probably getting comfortable with some of the many ways to arpeggiate basic major triads. The next evolutionary step is to add arpeggio fingerings for minor triads to your ever-expanding arsenal.

A “minor triad” differs from its “major” counterpart in that its 3rd is lowered a half step (the distance of one fret). This is best illustrated with a side-by-side comparison of C major triad (C-E-G) and C minor triad (C-Eb-G) arpeggio shapes (FIGURE 11).


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Also, just as there were three major triads (C, F and G) in the key of C major, there are three minor triads available in C—the triads built from the notes D (D-F-A), E (E-G-B) and A (A-C-E) are all minor in quality. These three arpeggios can all be fretted using the same kind of fingering shape we used to play the C minor arpeggio in our previous example (FIGURE 12).


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For the sake of completeness, we may as well also look at the diminished triad. The diminished triad is unique in that both the 3rd and 5th are lowered a half step, which is again probably best illustrated with a side-by-side comparison of C major (C-E-G) and C diminished (C-Eb-Gb) arpeggio shapes (FIGURE 13). In the key of C major, only one triad is diminished in quality: B˚ (B-D-F), which can be played using the same diminished arpeggio shape.


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The three-note arpeggio fingerings we just practiced can also be used in soloing situations. The outro guitar solos in “Sultans of Swing” by Mark Knopfler (Dire Straits) and “Mr. Crowley” by Randy Rhoads (Ozzy Osbourne) are two famous guitar solos that showcase this approach.

Soloing with these kinds of triadic arpeggios is most effective when the shapes are performed on the top two strings in various inversions. An inversion of a triad occurs whenever that triad is not in root position. In the case of a C major triad, it is in root position when its root, C, is the lowest note of the triad voicing (FIGURE 14A).

Up to this point, all of the arpeggio shapes we have studied have been in root position. To create a 1st inversion of a C triad, the same three notes (C, E and G) must be arranged with the E (the 3rd) in the lowest position (FIGURE 14B). Similarly, if the note G (the 5th) is in the lowest position, the result is a C triad in 2nd inversion (FIGURE 14C).


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In addition to the songs mentioned earlier, these types of inverted arpeggios—major and minor—have been used to fashion entire solos, like the one in “Hotel California,” which is suggested by FIGURE 15. The arpeggios in this example outline Bm, F#, A, E, G, D and Em triads.


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Believe it or not, most of the time you’ve seen your favorite guitar players showing off their finger tapping chops, they were probably tapping out notes from a regular triad. Tapped triads are played most often on the guitar’s highest strings and, as in our previous soloing examples, can be played using a combination of root-position shapes and inversions.

Since you’re already familiar with the C major triad, let’s use it again to illustrate some tapped examples arranged in root position, 1st inversion and 2nd inversion (FIGURE 16).


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Note that the tapping technique is indicated over the notation staff with a “+” and over the TAB staff as “T” (for tap). A masterful example of tapped arpeggios occurs in the last eight measures of the guitar solo in “Flying High Again,” as performed by Randy Rhoads. In that virtuoso display, Rhoads taps out 1st inversion licks exclusively, outlining A, F, D, Bb, E and C triads in the process. Van Halen’s “Eruption” is another famous example of tapped triads.


Now that you’ve developed a command over playing basic triadic arpeggio shapes, you’re ready to venture into the territory of 7th chord arpeggios.

Unlike triads, which consist of only three notes, 7th chords are four-note chords. Don’t worry. This isn’t as complicated as it may sound. We’re simply going to add one note to a basic triad.

Since we’ve been working so much with the C major triad, we’ll use it as the foundation to construct a Cmaj7 chord or arpeggio. To determine the notes of Cmaj7, all we need to do is add the 7th note of the C major scale (the note B) to the C triad, producing the note arrangement C (the root), E (the 3rd), G (the 5th) and B (the 7th ) (FIGURE 17).


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Just as lowering the 3rd of a major triad changes its sound to minor, lowering the 3rd, 5th or 7th of a major 7th chord changes its quality drastically. FIGURES 18A–C illustrate the most common remaining 7th chord types: dominant-type 7ths, minor 7ths, and minor 7th flat fives.


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More than a few classic guitar riffs have been based on 7th chord arpeggios—particularly dominant-type 7ths. Probably the mot famous is the signature riff to “(Oh) Pretty Woman,” as performed by Eddie Van Halen. He starts the tune with an ascending E7 arpeggio (E-G#-B-D).

Now that you’re comfortable with three- and four-note arpeggio shapes, you’re ready to tackle arpeggios that cover the full range of the guitar’s fretboard. These kinds of arpeggio shapes usually involve nothing more than the notes of a basic triad, which are then repeated in higher octaves across the fretboard. Don’t feel intimated. Look how easily our user-friendly C major triad can be expanded to cover two octaves using this approach (FIGURE 19).


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A staggering performance of expanded arpeggios was used to “beat the devil” in the legendary big-screen guitar battle between Steve Vai and Ralph Macchio in the movie Crossroads. Though Ry Cooder performed most of the parts that Macchio appeared to play in the film, Steve Vai was the guy who actually played the part that Macchio faked in the segment’s finale. Here is the piece’s introduction arpeggio-fest (FIGURE 20), which outlines the chords Am, E7, A7, Dm and B˚7.


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If you had problems picking through the previous Crossroads example, you may wish to try incorporating elements of sweep picking into your bag of arpeggio techniques.

Sweep picking (sometimes referred to as economy picking) is a technique used by technically adept rock and jazz-rock players when they want to rip through a fast flurry of notes in an arpeggio with a simple “sweeping” slice of the pick.

One of the most common sweep-friendly arpeggio shapes is remarkably similar to a standard barre chord with the root on the 6th string (FIGURE 21A), while another popular shape can be started from the 5th string (FIGURE 21B). Both of these shapes outline a C major triad.


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When attempting to execute any sweep-picking passage, it’s important that your pick passes through each string one at a time, in sync with the fret hand, using one consistent downstroke (or upstroke). To accomplish this, in FIGURE 22A, after picking the first note with a downstroke, allow the pick to fall into the next higher adjacent string so that it rests up against it. Next, push the pick through this higher string and continue this motion until the pick has passed through each of the strings indicated, using one smooth “sweeping” motion. For the descending version of an arpeggio shape, use this same type of motion, beginning with an upstroke on the highest string and pushing through each lower adjacent string.

Similar shapes exist for minor triad arpeggios as well. By tweaking the necessary notes from our previous examples, we can create two new shapes, which outline a C minor arpeggio (FIGURES 22A–B).


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The latter of these two shapes is the most common. In the final bars of the Yngwie Malmsteen tour de force “Far Beyond the Sun,” this same shape is used to outline a C# minor triad (C#-E-G#). See if you can spot it.

Among shredders, another popular way to rip through arpeggios is to arrange them in a string-skipping format. C major and C minor arpeggios can be played like this in a number of ways, but there is one style that has proven to be most popular (FIGURE 23).


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Paul Gilbert of Racer X and Mr. Big fame established this string-skipping trend in some of his scarier Racer X tunes, like “Scarified.” By taking these types of arpeggios through a classical chord progression, such as “Pachelbel’s Canon,” you too can blaze in the style of Mr. Gilbert (FIGURE 24).


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Good luck, and keep your fingers flying.