Blues Guitar Institute

Arpeggios Explained: No Sweeping Necessary

Don’t play bad notes.

That’s what it’s all about, right?

Words to live by as a guitarist, no? Simple, “dont play bad notes.” But putting it into practice is anything but simple.

The fretboard is full of good notes and bad notes.

It’s tough to know which notes work well over a given chord. And once you get pretty good at soloing over the E chord….look out!  Here comes a chord change!  Arghhh…

Now what?

As a guitarist, you can learn the skill of playing the right notes at the right time in several different ways. Most of us start out by learning a few chords and then move on to scales that fit over those chords.  Two basic tools you that you absolutely need in your arsenal.

Unless you’re a neo-classical shredder type (I’m not knocking it, I’m a little jealous), you probably haven’t given much attention to arpeggios. For a long time, I didn’t. But, a well rounded blues player should have a handle on arpeggios – no sweeping necessary.

Knowing a little bit about arpeggios – how and when to use them – is simply another way to help avoid playing bad notes.

Contrary to the complicated sounds of sweep arpeggios brought to us by our shredding friends, the basics of arpeggios are pretty easy and incredibly useful.

By now, you’re probably dying for a good explanation of arpeggios, huh?

Arpeggios are Like Cereal Chords, kind of…

Arpeggio is a funny word, isn’t it?  It reminds me of a certain breakfast cereal. I’ll let you guess which one.  (Extreme Hint:  It sounds kinda like arpeggios).

But, unlike the sugary goodness of a great breakfast cereal, it only takes three or four ingredients to make an arpeggio. To be clear (and abandon and bad metaphor), it only takes three or four notes to play an arpeggio.

An arpeggio is when the notes of a chord are played in order, one at a time.

That’s it, plain and simple.

Arpeggios are based upon a given chord. Chords and arpeggios go hand-in-hand. The best place to start learning about arpeggios is to start by learning a little about chords in their most basic form – Triads.

I have an in-depth lesson on triads that you can check out, but if you’d rather not. That’s cool. I’ll hit the high points here. Read:  Chord Theory:  An Introduction to Triads

Major chords (and any other type of chord that I can think of) are built from the major scale as a reference point. Look at the notes of the A major scale (A – B – C# – D – E – F# – G#). You know your major scales, right? All major chords are built from the 1st, 3rd and 5th scale degree of a given major scale.

For an A major chord, you only need these three notes:  A – C# – E.


If you’re playing a major chord and you are physically playing more than 3 tones, you’re simply repeating some of the notes in the chord. We do that quite a bit on the guitar.

A major fretboard diagram

Take a look at the A major chord chart.  From low to high the notes being played (starting with the 5th string) are:

A    E    A    C#   E

Notice the repetition of the A’s and E’s.

Just remember it only takes 3 notes to play a major chord:  The 1st, 3rd and 5th scale degree.

Arpeggios are like chords in that each of the notes played in an arpeggio come directly from the corresponding chord. For example, the notes of the A Major Arpeggio come from the notes of the A Major Chord. The difference?

Chords are generally strummed and all of the notes sound at once. Not so with arpeggios, you pick the notes one at a time. That’s it. I told you it wasn’t complicated.

Now, that we have that out of the way, let’s look at how we actually play these funny named chord-like things.  Here’s the A major arpeggio (last note is the A note played an octave higher):

A Major Arpeggio.png

Usually for practice, you play an arpeggio ascending from the root then descending, just like practicing a scale. Here’s an example of a full version of the A Major Arpeggio:

A Major Arpeggio Full.png

It’s like a miniature version of a scale.

Wait, I thought you said arpeggios were like chords? Now they’re like scales?


Arpeggios are Like Scales….sort of

So, how exactly is an arpeggio different from a scale?

In one huge way.

An arpeggio is like a scale that leaves out the bad notes. For our purposes, bad notes are notes that are in the appropriate scale but not in the chord derived from that scale and therefore not in the arpeggio. To put it bluntly, they are the notes that if you hang out on them too long when soloing, people will leave the room.

What I mean is, when compared to the A major scale, the A major arpeggio leaves out the tones that aren’t in the A major chord. Read that again. It’s important that you know how a chord, scale and arpeggio relate to each other.  They are really part of the same thing.

You can always play the A major arpeggio notes over the A major chord and it will sound like it fits. Keep that in mind while you’re jamming. It’s a handy bit of information to have when you’re in front of people trying your best to avoid those bad notes.

To illustrate the bad note concept, let’s look at the 7th of the A Major Scale, G#. There’s quite a bit of dissonance when you play the G# over an A major chord. It does not sound too great. It’s not wrong, as it’s technically in key, but it’s just not great either. It’s not a sweet note.

If you instead focus on the A major chord tones, you’ll be set. You won’t play bad notes.

I’m not saying never play a note over a chord that’s not in the chord. What I am saying is highlighting chord tones (arpeggio notes) in your licks make it sound like you know what you’re doing!

View the bad notes as ways to color your licks. Use them, but use them wisely!

Practice Arpeggios

The best thing about arpeggios is that practicing them is a great way to not only see the fretboard a little differently, but it really gets the important notes in your ears. By practicing arpeggios, your brain will start to pick up on the importance of these notes.

Think about it, when you strum a chord, it’s sometimes difficult to pick out the individual notes. But playing an arpeggio helps focus your attention on the notes that matter.

Want something to practice?

Grab the TAB: PDF | GuitarPro 6

How to Use Arpeggios

Perhaps the most misunderstood thing about arpeggios is the belief that you have to play them ascending and descending just like you practice them. Maybe the shredders are keeping this myth alive, but as I’ve said, arpeggios are like scales.

You learn scales to give you pathways and ideas to use in a musical way. When you use a scale in a song, you would never play it up and down like you do when you’re practicing. That would be boring!

Instead, you use the notes of the scale as your focal points for your lead work.

Use arpeggios in the same way. If you want to play arpeggios using sweep picking at blistering tempos, go for it. High five from me!

But, you aren’t limited to that. Use arpeggios like you use scales. View the notes as you’ve practiced them as focal points. But put them together in musically interesting ways.

When you are ready, there are two ways I can help you:

Back Porch Blues Course:  A proven system to fingerpicking the blues.  This step-by-step course guides you through building fundamental fingerpicking skills.  Plus, you’ll learn three levels of a delta blues style performance study to put your new skills into action.

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