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Arpeggios: What are they and how do I use them?

Rating: 1 user(s) have rated this lesson Average rating: 5.0 Posted by: leokisomma, on Aug 21,2012, in category Music Theory Views: this lesson has been read 3598 times
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How to use Arpeggios

Okay, arpeggios are one of the most talked about pieces of theory in music, but are also feared by many beginner musicians who are just trying to learn new scales or are being taught the modes as they are very different from either. However, arpeggios are probably the single most useful part of musical theory that exists for people who are trying to write a melody, or that want the music they are playing to blend as well as possible with the band playing behind them.

Now before I go any further, I would like to tell you exactly what an arpeggio is, and why people are so intimidated by them when they first come across them. What you should already know is that when you play more than one note at a time, it is no longer referred to as a single note: two notes played together are referred to as an interval, and as soon as you play three or more notes at the same time, it is called a chord.

Now, arpeggios and chords, are essentially the same thing, in the sense that a chord and the arpeggio for it contain exactly the same notes; the only difference is that in a chord, the notes are laid out in such a way that all can be played at the same time, but in an arpeggio the notes are laid out in a repeating scale. I have demonstrated this below to make it easier for you to see what I mean clearly:-

   E minor chord                          E minor Arpeggio

Each note in the chord is highlighted a different colour so that you can see where it’s come from.

This three note pattern is one of the two simplest arpeggio patterns that exist in music, and it’s simply called a minor arpeggio, because it is built from a minor chord. Now these notes appear all over the fret-board, so you can play the arpeggio higher up or further down if you want to, you just have to find these same notes.

Now here is the other simple arpeggio, the major arpeggio.


This is all an arpeggio is, just the notes in a chord laid out and played one at a time, so in comparison to say the diatonic modes, which have seven notes in each and there are 7 different modes (don’t worry if you don’t understand modes, I have lessons on those on this website already and I’m just mentioning them for comparison), arpeggios are actually much simpler, as they will only ever have 3 or 4 or sometimes 5 different notes in them.

So then, why is it that people can find them so difficult to understand at first?

Simple. Unlike a regular scale which you can use for an entire song, these arpeggios only work for the brief moment in a song where you want the chord that the arpeggio id built from to be played. For example, if you had a song with four chords in its main riff, that’s 4 arpeggios that you could play, but you can only play each arpeggio over each relevant chord, an E minor arpeggio won’t fit with a D minor chord.

This is where all the fear comes from; you have to change what you are using far more often with arpeggios even though what you are using is much simpler. Realistically though, there are relatively few different arpeggio shapes, and you just move them into the different positions up and down the neck as required.

Why the hell am I going to use something like this when it takes so much mental effort?

Easy; arpeggios are the single most melodic sounding set of notes that you can play over any chord. They will always sound like they fit over the chord because they are essentially the same notes. Classical music uses them all the time, and most of the famous guitarists, like Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, Paul Gilbert, John Petrucci, John Fripp, Alan Holdsworth, Ritchie Blackmore, Steve Morse, Buckethead, Randy Rhoads, you name them, the chances are that they will have used arpeggios in their music to make sure that the notes they are playing fit as well as possible.

Now I can understand that it will be hard for you to grasp how to use these arpeggios at first, so to help you out, I have written a simple riff below along with an arpeggio pattern that you can play over it.


    E minor                                D Major


    G Major                                A minor



   E minor arpeggio                       D Major arpeggio


   G Major arpeggio                       A minor arpeggio


To be honest, the arpeggios are basically the same notes as in the chord, so you could actually play the riff with just the arpeggios if you wanted to. This should give you a good idea of how to find Arpeggios in your own music, as you can clearly see which arpeggios I have used for each chord. Just remember that you can’t get away with using these and nothing else, but they are a very good way to add some extra melody to your songs without ruining what you already have.

Now, the best piece of advice I can give you with arpeggios is easy to follow: don’t think about them too much.

Start off with the simple patterns I’ve shown you until you can remember them off by heart, then gradually extend the patterns to include more repetitions of the notes in the chord, but only do so as a pace that suits you. The fact is that because you will be changing arpeggios quickly in whatever music you play, you won’t have time to think about them while you are playing. Keep practicing them until you can almost see them over each chord that you play, that will tell you that you understand them well enough to not have to concentrate on them.

There are more arpeggios shapes than what I have mentioned here, but I shall be going into them in the next part of this series. Apart from this, all I can say for now is listen very closely to the songs that you know and love, and then try and listen out for the arpeggios being played in them, once you can hear them, you will be half way to playing them.

I hope that this lesson has managed to help some of you guys out there.

Take care and I’ll see you next time! 

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