Even after ten years of playing guitar, my off-the-cuff solos did one of two things:
- String together my favorite licks (whether they fit the music or not!), or
- Relied on scale patterns to avoid wrong notes.
Neither route was particularly interesting to me or anyone else!
It wasn’t until I paid attention to the chords behind the solo that things started to change.
Matching my lines to the chord changes helped my solos sound more melodic, more intentional. In this lesson, I’ll share a practical way to help you get there too. And we won’t be memorizing a ton of patterns or shapes.
Let’s get started.
Step 1: Understand What Arpeggios Are
An arpeggio is a chord played one note at a time.
For example, if you play the notes of a G major chord individually, you get a G major arpeggio. The notes of the chord and the notes of the arpeggio are the same. It’s all in how you play them.
Think of arpeggios as the melodic form of a chord. This makes them a perfect choice for soloing over a chord. The arpeggio notes are in the chord so they are virtually guaranteed to sound good!
Every heard of targeting chord tones in your solo?
Well, arpeggio study helps you know where all those chord tones are on the fretboard. You’ve got to know where they are before you can target them!
Of course, you should mix in non-arpeggio notes when you solo to add color. But, these little broken chords are an excellent way to target important notes, visualize the fretboard and stay connected to the music.
Let’s start putting them into action by looking at the most basic form of the arpeggio.
Step 2: Learn the Major Arpeggio
Let’s sidestep the usual guitar-based way of thinking about things.
The guitar fretboard isn’t linear like the piano keys. This leads players to take a pattern-based approach to learning scales and chords.
Yes, patterns can be helpful. But we often get stuck memorizing patterns and miss the bigger picture. So let’s set patterns and shapes aside for now and go deeper. Let’s look at the intervals that make up the arpeggio.
Intervals are the foundation for everything in music. Think about it – An interval in time is rhythm and an interval in pitch is melody or harmony.
So what intervals do we need to play a major arpeggio? The same as a major triad:
Root, Major 3rd, and Perfect 5th
You can play any major arpeggio if you learn how to find a major 3rd and a perfect 5th above any given note.
A major third spans two whole steps or four frets on the guitar.
This interval is important. It’s the basic building block of many common chords and related arpeggios. It’s the single interval that’s responsible for whether a chord is major or minor.
To find a major third on the guitar, start with a root note and move up the same string by two whole steps or four frets. Or, move to the next string up and then move back (toward the nut) one fret.
This works unless you’re interval lands on or crosses over the 2nd string. Because of the tuning interval of the second string, you’ll need to adjust this by one fret. So a major third between the 3rd and 2nd strings is at the same fret.
The perfect fifth is seven half-steps or three-and-a-half whole steps between two notes. This interval sounds stable or consonant – at rest.
To find a perfect fifth on the guitar, start with a root note and move up seven frets along the same string. Or, for a more compact location, move up two frets from the root and up one string.
Arpeggios are often practiced from root to octave, so you’ll need to find the octave above the root as well.
Now practice moving it across the fretboard to different root notes.
Here’s an example of the G Major Arpeggio in various positions to get you started.
Focus on memorizing the intervals between notes, not just the shape and you’ll be well on your way to conquering the fretboard without memorizing a bunch of patterns.
Step 3: Convert to a Bluesy Dominant 7 Arpeggio
The major arpeggio sounds pleasant, but for blues you need some grit.
Let’s add the flat 7th scale degree to the stack. Count up the major scale by seven notes from the root. This is the major seventh interval. Then, lower the pitch you land on by a half-step and you have the flat 7th.
This gives us the four notes of the dominant 7th chord and arpeggio:
Root – Major Third – Perfect Fifth – Flat Seventh
This one tone gives us an unsettled, bluesy sound. To hear the character of a dominant seventh chord, try playing a G Major Chord, followed by a G7.
To play the arpeggio, keep your eye on the root and know that the flat 7th is always two half-steps (two frets) below the root or the octave.
The flat 7th adds tension that screams blues. Practice adding this note and moving the shape up the fretboard.
Unlock Your Fretboard with Arpeggios
Learning arpeggios may feel like a lot of work at first. But the payoff is huge. Arpeggios will enhance your fretboard knowledge, lead playing, and improvisation skills.
Follow these steps to get started:
- Know that arpeggios outline the chord.
- Know how to find the Root, Major Third and Perfect Fifth from anywhere.
- Add the flat 7th to get that bluesy dominant sound.
With consistent practice, arpeggios will help you map the fretboard in a useful and musical way so you can craft intentional, melodic solos of your own.