An arpeggio is the playing of the tones of a chord in succession (and not at the same time).
There are many different ways to play arpeggios. At their most basic (as with chords) they are only played on a few strings, but they can also be played on all 6 strings with multiple hammer ons and pull offs.
How Can They Benefit Me?
One of the beautiful things about arpeggios, is that the notes are rung individually (like a scale), but with the tones that create a chord; so practicing them, can improve both your ability to play lead, and potentially your ability to understand rhythm and the fretboard better. They’re kind of an all around ability enhancer. And when played with certain guitar improvisation techniques (such as sweeping) they create a very elegant sound and are fun to practice.
Now of course, the one and only way to get better at guitar is to…you guessed it, practice. But arpeggios have a few things going for them that say, scales don’t. Practicing a scale definitely improves playing significantly, but the gains can seem a long way off. You’re learning the structure of improvisation, but you’re learning all of it at once.
Where’s your base? While scales efficiently exercise muscle memory, without insight into their integration, practice can feel unappealing. With arpeggios though, instead of every note in the scale, we have the basic structure of the notes of a chord to work with. And while there are actually many ways to play them, there are only so many root notes along the fretboard to work with. Over time, from these foundational places on the neck of the guitar, you can add notes, develop personalized licks, and all the while, you’ll have had the structure with which to do so.
A Wee Bit of Theory
Now I can’t go on without a disclaimer: there are a lot of different arpeggio shapes out there. I highly encourage you to mess around with the structures I’m about to provide and decide what feels and sounds best to you; keeping in mind the notes of the chord you wish to construct. I’m going to choose one Major chord and outline 5 different ways to play it across the lower half of the fretboard, largely based on personal preference. The chord I’m going to choose is A Major, which if we’re playing a triad, is going to contain the notes: A, C#, and E. Now something to know: the shapes that I’m about to show you, you will be able to find for any Major triad chord you choose to play, only they’ll be shifted accordingly. For example, if we were to be constructing B Major chords, since B is a whole step up from A, all these shapes will be a whole step up on the neck and so on and so forth.
The Arpeggios: Section 1
Let’s start at the base of the neck and work our way up. The first arpeggio we’re going to play will be played on 3 strings starting on the 2nd fret.
Now already, you might want to play this differently than me. It is easier for me to remove my 1st and 2nd fingers in order to hit the e-string on the 5th fret with my 4th finger. But depending on your playstyle, what you intend to play in the future, and how comfortable you feel, you might (for example) want to leave your 1st, and 2nd fingers planted while you make the stretch to the 6th string with your pinky finger.
Now here’s the same arpeggio with a couple extra strings.
I’m constructing this from the A string in order to begin on the root note but that is only a preference. You could, if you wanted to, begin with the open E string creating a 2nd inversion chord which would look like this:
Section 2: The Arpeggios Cont’d
These next two shapes are significantly trickier, but I think you’ll find that with enough practice they have a really nice flow/feel to them. In this arpeggio, I barre with my first finger on the second fret and again with my fourth when I hammer on to the 5th fret.
Arpeggios: Section 3
These next 2 arpeggios are going to be in first inversion (which means that rather than with the root, they’ll begin on the 3rd; in this case, C#)
Once you’ve got this one down, I recommend adding the low E string on the 5th fret to the beginning and end of this arpeggio. It’s the root note and it really isn’t much of a stretch to include it if you prefer the conclusiveness of a root note resolution to that of a 1st inversion start and finish. That would look like this:
Or…the significantly easier version which doesn’t require any movement at all, in the same position on the neck but only from root note (A) to root note.
And from here, the chord shapes will continue to repeat up the neck starting with the same shape of the first chord we worked with, only now we will treat the 12th fret like the open strings of the guitar and indeed all the strings on the 12th fret are the same as the notes of the open strings one octave (or 12 half steps) up.
So there you go! We’ve gone over 5 basic Major arpeggio shapes for you to play around with and get going. You can experiment by limiting the amount of strings you play on, or by adding more notes; the shapes will change if you wish to make them minor, add 7ths or 9ths, etc., but by being creative, sticking to only one or two notes a string, and observing the notes of the fretboard, you should be able to work out some fluid arpeggio shapes for any chord you might wish to play.
Now once we’ve worked out the foundational shapes that we wish to practice, the eventual goal will be to integrate these into our improvisation by understanding where we are on the neck of the guitar and which shape of arpeggio we can use to play the desired chord in that location. The shapes are the easy part so that’s where we started, while getting the shapes down (and adjusting them to play minor, 7th chords, and so on) it is important to understand the notes on the guitar so in the future you can be intentional about what arpeggio you want to play and where you can play it.