By Matt Chanway
If you play lead guitar, you’re probably always looking for ways to spice up your solos, and get more dynamic and interesting sounds. And, you’ve probably played an arpeggio in some of those solos, even if you’re not aware of it. Even just a good-old rake of the 12th frets of the top 3 strings, heard in many solos you wouldn’t expect to serve as examples of arpeggio use, constitutes a 3-string e-minor arpeggio!
This article is going to assume some basic theory knowledge. If you’re an intermediate lead player, you probably know how to play major, minor, and maybe diminished triad arpeggios in different inversions across the guitar neck. If you don’t know how to do that, you’ll want to figure it out before reading the rest of this article.
Interestingly enough, the first step to truly creative arpeggio usage isn’t found in learning and practicing more shapes and patterns. What we really want to do is take a closer look at the tones we can use to create arpeggios, and expand from there. For an example, let’s take the classic A minor arpeggio, which you’ll know consists of a root note, minor third, and perfect 5th. If we expand to the full 7th chord level, we can create an A Minor 7th arpeggio, which consists of the three intervals mentioned plus a minor seventh interval.
Illustration 1: A Minor 7th Arpeggio
It’s important to be able to label which of the above notes are the root, minor third, fifth, and minor seventh. As a hint, there are two root notes in the diagram above. As a start, this shape can give us some cool improvisational possibilities. For example, try working out the tones of the A blues scale, A Aeolian mode, and A Dorian mode around the tones of the arpeggio. Example given here:
Illustration 2: A Dorian Mode built around the A Minor 7th Fingering
The next step, rather than just playing up and down the initial A Minor 7th shape, is to improvise and create music mixing this arpeggio with the different scale shapes. You can come up with some very cool patterns and fingerings, one example I’ll share is a favorite of mine, cascading down the arpeggio by starting at the top, playing the note two tones below it, and going back to the tone below the top, and continuing that pattern.
Illustration 3: Cascading Arpeggio Pattern
Continue playing with these patterns. What if you tried the same pattern as above, but ascending. The possibilities are broad. Once you’ve tried this out for a while, you should be feeling quite inspired already – after all, you used just one small arpeggio fingering as a springboard for many other creative ideas. What you can try next, is taking the same base arpeggio fingering and putting it in a different position of the fretboard – for example, in 5th position rather than 12th position. I’ll leave that one for you to figure out, as it is an excellent ear-training and fretboard awareness exercise.
So now, we have accomplished a lot with just a small arpeggio fingering. We can expand further by putting our A Minor 7th Arpeggio up an additional octave. We can try this in 12th position. Now, we are really beginning to open the fretboard up. As you practice these techniques over several weeks, you should start to notice your ears perceiving the chord tones a little differently. You want to start to hear the difference between the minor third and minor seventh, and what dwelling on or emphasizing any of those tones is going to sound like.
Illustration 4: Two Octave A Minor 7th Arpeggio
This shape is where you can really start to get into some hot licks. Using legato phrasing, string skipping, and even finger-tapping, you can really incorporate arpeggios in a much more interesting way than just sweeping up and down 5-string triads. Remember to try this out with all of the different scale/modal flavors – blues, Aeolian, and Dorian being strong examples.
Once you’ve got some comfort doing this with the minor arpeggios and modes, you can broaden your horizons further. Try putting together the major 7th arpeggio fingering (this would be the root, natural third, fifth, and natural seventh), and the dominant 7th arpeggio fingering (root, natural third, fifth and minor seventh). Use the major 7th fingerings with either the Ionian or Lydian modes, and the dominant 7th arpeggio with the Mixolydian mode. Have fun with these and enjoy the great sounds you will get!
Matt Chanway is a professional guitarist and teaches guitar lessons in Surrey, British Columbia.