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Arpeggios


Arpeggios are one of the most useful tools for the modern rock improviser. They became popular in the Eighties, as guitarists as Yngwie Malmsteen, Marty Friedman and Joe Satriani popped on the scene. They made a huge impact on guitarists and became a trademark of what we call the Shred Era, not only because they sounded really impressive to the average guitarist, but because they really looked impressive too!!

Even when the Shred era has gone away, and all the virtuoso, flashy guitarists have stepped into shadows, arpeggios have proven to be one great tool for improvising over chord changes, not only because they're pretty simple harmonically talking (You can get away with basic theory knowledge); you can add a lot of "harmonic color" to your solos by using arpeggios to spice up your leads, creating zillions of different harmonic situations using just a bunch of basic arpeggios.

In this article we're going to cover the commonly used techniques that guitarists use to play arpeggios, as well as some harmonic concepts as chord substitution and triad stacking, to finally come with a deep study of the possibilities that arpeggios offer to the modern guitar improviser.

What is an arpeggio?

Basically, an arpeggio is the notes of ANY chord played separately in any order. For instance, if we take the C chord, for example, a C major arpeggio is just the notes of that specific chord played in any order (C, E, and G). You can play C E G, G E C, C G E, and you'll be still playing the same arpeggio, because you'll be hitting the C triad tones.

Of course, if you want to play the arpeggio for any specific chord, you must know the construction of that specific chord. For example, if you want to play an F arpeggio, you should know that F has the notes F, A, and C; if you want to play the Cm7 arpeggio you should know that it has C, Eb, G and Bb.

Besides having in mind the notes you should play to nail a specific arpeggio, the next obvious step is being able to find those notes on the fretboard: Try to memorize all the notes on the fretboard. That way it will be a lot easier to play arpeggios, as well as other things you may want to play at a certain moment.


Getting Started

To start tackling the techniques, I would suggest you to practice the following picking patterns. Don't worry, they're still basic arpeggio patterns, and we'll use them just to warm up before taking the real challenge, and to get a basic idea of how arpeggios sound; practice the examples slowly at first, and make sure the notes ring clearly as you pick them. Gradually increase the tempo as you get used to the fingerings and the picking motion.

(Note: a powertab and pdf version of all the examples is available at the end of the article)




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As you saw in the examples, they are pretty simple, easy sequences that I offer you to get used to the sound of the arpeggios. There are many types of arpeggio sounds, but at this moment I just want you to get a picture of the idea and I also want to prepare you for the real challenge. As you get used to the given examples, maybe you'll want to mix them up and come with your own patterns. As a part of the warm-up workout, I'll show a few more examples for you to practice.


Arpeggio Techniques: A whole horizon of different possibilities.

To begin with this section, let me tell you that there are a whole bunch of different techniques that the modern guitarist uses to play arpeggios in this "era", as I call it. Guitar technique has gone way too far, and let me tell you: The limit is the sky as far as arpeggio techniques is concerned. From simple two-string arpeggio ideas to 6 string sweep picking, tapping, string skipping and anything you can imagine.

Sweep picking

I'd like to start with one of the most popular techniques for playing arpeggios. Sweep picking became popular in the Shred era, and is one of the preferred tools for playing blazing-fast arpeggio sequences.

Sweep picking is a technique that requires the player to literally "sweep the strings" in a specific way, be it upwards or downwards. It is a very difficult technique to master, since it takes a lot of coordination between both hands. That's the tricky part of the technique: If there's no coordination between both hands, you'll end up dragging the pick up and down the strings without making any sense of anything: you'll only get to hear the first and last notes of the sequence.

First and foremost, we must get used to the right-hand picking motion. Try to push the pick against the string in an even motion, using one pickstroke only. Remember that we're not STRUMMING; we need to hear the separation between the notes. Remember to push down on the pick, making it fall on the next string.

To master the right hand motion, I'll show you a simple example to give you an idea, using nonsense fingerings: at this stage, I just want you to get the picking motion idea.


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As you already saw, there's no need to move your fingers around. I chose a pretty simple shape and what I did with it is to move it chromatically around the neck. As you play this exercise, remember to push down on the pick evenly using a single stroke: DOWN, DOWN, DOWN, DOWN. As you complete the ascending pattern, go backwards and just pull up on the pick in the same way, using just one upstroke.

Another thing that we have to keep in mind when using this technique is the separation. We don't want the notes ringing into one another, because we're not playing chords. As you play each note, try to mute it just a millisecond before you play the next. Try to release the pressure from your left hand finger just a little bit, so the note stops sounding before playing the next note on the next string.

Now we'll try the same exercise, but this time we'll come backwards using a "mirror image" of the ascending fingering. If we play 1 2 3 4 (left hand finger) as we go up, to come back we'll use 4 3 2 1. Let's see how it works and how it sounds in this coming example.


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Ok, it's time to tackle some real sweep picking, triad-based arpeggios!!! We'll cover some of the most popular shapes that most guitarists use today. So get ready!!

The first one is a G major arpeggio that starts on the 6th string and covers two octaves. Notice that I've added some hammer-ons and pull-offs; It's a matter of tastes and choices!! I just like how legato playing sounds in conjunction with sweep picking, because that gives the lick a flowing, seamless-sounding effect. But if you like, you can pick all the notes!! Just be sure to push and pull evenly on the pick when you reach the sweep picking ascending/descending part of the lick (I've put the strokes, so don't worry!!)


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One thing to keep in mind when trying this example: Remember to mute the notes just before you play the next note in the arpeggio. Otherwise, you'll end up with a bunch of notes ringing into each other, and we don't want that. What we want to hear is the isolation and individuality of each note. So practice really slowly, as sweep picking is a very difficult technique to master.

The next example is just the continuation of the first lick. Notice that we have to play the G arpeggio we just covered, and we must follow up with the next inversion. Try to play the D in the 1st string with your pinkie; that way the descending part will be a lot easier.


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Another suggestion for this lick is to slide into the D on the 1st string and follow up with a pull-off. The effect achieved is really cool, as there's no pick sound between the notes, thus giving us a legato feel.

Now to complete the exercise we'll play the last inversion using the same principles we've using this far. Notice that in the last part, we have three notes in the 12th fret. I play them barring my second finger on the 12th fret, but you can use your third finger as well, it really is a matter of being comfortable.


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Now that we have covered all the inversions, it's time to go classical. This lick is similar to the one in the end of N. Paganini's 24th Caprice. It's an ascending/descending lick covering all the G major inversions. Remember to practice it really slowly, as it is a really hard lick to master, since every bar it goes a lil' bit faster.


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Sweep picking - Page 2

Ok. Now we'll tackle some minor shapes using the sweep technique. It's important to mention that we can use almost the same shapes used before. If we are to use those shapes, we just have to lower the third of the arpeggio to make it minor.

The following example is a simple minor triad arpeggio that covers three strings. Notice that I added a pull-off to begin the descending part of the lick. As I said before, you can pick all the notes, just be sure to use a complete sweeping motion to play the lick as you ascend and descend through it.


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Now we'll add some spice to the lick we just covered. This time we'll cover different inversions of the Am and Dm triads on the first three strings. Be sure to check the picking as the ascending part of the arpeggios is the most important.


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Even when sweep picking can cover most of the notes of the basic arpeggios, there is a need to alternate pick or hammer on/pull off a note to play certain types of arpeggios. We're talking about 4 note arpeggios. The great Frank Gambale teaches a technique in his Monster Licks video that is really helpful. He shows us how to pick different 4 note arpeggios using the same picking principle for all the arpeggios…and he covers quite a bunch!! We just need to change two notes and the picking pattern remains the same for all arpeggios!! Here it goes:


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As we just saw in the examples we covered three different arpeggios in the last three examples. Basically we used the same picking principle, but we just changed some two notes in each arpeggio to make them different from each other. The examples I just showed you cover the maj7, min(maj7) and min7 arpeggios. Practice slowly and watch your right hand as it sweeps the strings. Work hard on those last three examples…They can be a lil' tricky if you don't pay attention!!

Now we'll move into deeper waters using sweep picking. We'll use long sequences using five string arpeggios played at a moderated tempo. Pay attention to the fingerings and how they relate to each other. Also, don't be scared at the 7-tuplets…just try to play the seven notes evenly and well-spaced!! Try the exercise very slowly at first, and as you get comfortable, increase the sweeping speed. Another thing to have in mind when playing this lick is the left-hand stretches in the 5th and 1st string.



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Now, to close the sweep arpeggio part of this study, I'll show you a longer, harder exercise that incorporates six string sweeping arpeggios. So far, we have covered 5 string arpeggios, so adding one more string shouldn't be much of a problem for you. It's something very similar to a run found in Friedman/Becker's Go off!! record (Shrapnel). It's a chord progression that goes G, D, Em B C, G, C and D. Remember to practice slowly and also watch your sweeping motion carefully.



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Tapping Arpeggios: Intervallic Hand Dance!!!

Now we'll dive into what most young guitarists love 'n like: Tapping!! Who loves tapping?? I've never met someone who doesn't like tapping (besides me, of course!!) Even when I don't like tapping very much, I have to admit that tapping offers a different, legato, flowing kind of sound favored by many guitarists.

To start this segment of the article, first we'll have to talk about WHAT FINGER TO USE WHEN TAPPING. For me, it's just a matter of taste. I've seen many guitarists tapping with their middle finger, while holding the pick between the thumb and index. Most guitarists tap that way. Some others like to tap with their index finger, holding his pick between the other fingers (like Nuno Bettencourt and Michael Romeo, for example).
Personally, I think that tapping with the index works best for me: It gives me a lot of proyection and besides, that's the finger we use to do almost anything!! I mean, we push buttons with our index fingers, play arcade video games with our index and a whole lot of different stuff!! As I tap, I usually hold my pick in mi ring finger, coiling it around the pick. But I've seen people holding it between their middle finger and thumb. It's basically the same…as long as you don't drop the pick, it's ok!!


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Our first example depicts one of the most common forms of tapping arpeggio. It's found on almost all the shred songs, and it was made popular by Edward Van Halen on his trademark song "Eruption". It's just a sequence of sextuplets, and the first and the 4th note are tapped with the right hand. Pretty simple shape, not very hard to play and still fun!!


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This second lick is almost the same pattern as the last one we checked, but the notes are arranged in a slightly different way. Use the same principle we used in the first one.


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This one shows the same first tapped arpeggio pattern, but in a more melodical, structural way. It's the same basic principle, but played in more than one string. In fact, you'll be using the first two strings to handle this one. Remember to tap firmly with your finger, and to mute the strings as you jump from string to string.

Now we'll check out a cool, cascading tapping arpeggio. We'll cover 5 strings, and our right hand will be literally dancing on the fretboard. We'll use hammer-ons from nowhere too, so be sure to slam your left hand finger on the fretboard. Practice this one slowly, as it tends to be a lil' hard to play it cleanly. Again, be sure to mute the strings with your left hand in this one. Practice slowly!!


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Now, we'll add the ascending part to the lick to finish it up. Granted, the ascending part is a lot harder, but just practice slowly, increasing the tempo as you feel confident with the lick. Also, be aware of your left hand and those hammer-ons from nowhere, since they are the important part and perhaps the difficult part of the lick itself.


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Tapping Arpeggios - Page 2

Now, it's time to check some other cool tapping arpeggio patterns. This one was used very often by the great Nuno Bettencourt. It depicts a seamless, flowing Maj add 9 arpeggio. It also contains a part where you have to skip the G string. This one also has a few hammer-ons from nowhere, so be sure to be ready to tackle them. Note that each single string pattern looks like the ones we checked in the first part of the section of the article: Three notes on each string, and the first note is always tapped.


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Using this same tapping principle, we can create some other arpeggio patterns. Here I'll show you the patterns for a 7th, 7th add4, min add9 and min7. Be sure to come with your own arpeggio shapes!! Just arrange the notes of the tapping hand and do some modifications to the left hand. Be sure to keep the string-skipping part.



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For all of you who love Michael Romeo's tapping madness, here are some tapping arpeggio patterns that he uses very often. They're quite hard to master, since you have to skip strings a lot, not to mention the hammer-ons from nowhere in each string. Practice those really slowly, and track your progress with a metronome. Notice that in the ascending part of the lick, you have to hammer-on from nowhere in each first note of each string.



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With this last pattern, you can also come with your own chord/arpeggio ideas. See that I just created 4 different chords: maj7, min7, min(maj7) and dim7. Just arrange the notes to suit the notes of the chord you wanna hit. Other possibilities can be a +maj7 (R, 3, #5, 7) and so on!! The limit is up to you!!

Now, I'll show you something that I came up a while ago. I was goofin' with hands on fretboard and after a lil' of thought process, I realized that I could play a different type of tapping arpeggio. For this one, we have to tap with our index and middle fingers. Also, the middle finger has to do some pull-offs, so be sure to practice with the right hand alone on the fretboard. Also, we'll use some hammer-ons from nowhere to nail some of the note, as well as string-skipping.


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All notes in this example are tapped with both right and left hands. Actually, I consider a hammer-on from nowhere as a left-hand tap. In the example given the F#'s and the G's on the D and the B string are tapped with the index and middle right hand fingers. Notice that in the descending part on the lick, you have to "invert" the process, as you must tap the G with the middle and pull off your index to sound the F# (The index finger should be on position to play the F# as the middle finger pulls off of the string.). With this pattern, you can also try and find different chord sounds. I've added the Maj7 and 7 chordal sounds. I'll let you figure out the others. Remember to practice slowly and accurately!! Pay special attention to the right hand taps, as well as the pull offs in the right hand fingers.

String Skipping: A bouncing pick that keeps leaping playfully…

String skipping is the act of avoiding the next string or group of strings and play the immediate string. The pick literally skips over the strings in order to reach the target string. Sounds simple, but it's a painfully difficult technique to master, since one must be really careful to not hit the strings you're skipping as you aim the target string. Lots of strange, annoying noises can occur if you're not careful while using this technique. So be sure to practice the right hand motion before tackling these examples. Also, remember to practice slowly and accurately. Use a metronome to track your progress as well.

Our first example in this section is going to be a simple major triad that starts on the fifth string. In this one, we'll have to skip over the G string to play the root of the arpeggio as we ascend through it. Be especially careful when your pick is reaching for the B string: Try not to hit the G string, so watch your wrist on this one. Practice the skipping part slowly, as this section offers quite a challenge in the next examples.


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By changing just two notes in the sequence you can also play a minor triad shape…just lower the third, played in the 4th and 2md string. See the example below you a better understanding.


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As some of you may have already noted, you can use the exact same shapes for a minor or major arpeggio that we learned in the last two examples if you start it on the 4th string. It's basically the same principle, the same shape and the same fingering.

Besides minor and major triads, we can come with some more string skipping arpeggio ideas. One of them could be a min7 chord on the 3rd and 1st string, skipping over the B string. Try this one pretty carefully and play attention to your left hand fingers and their placement on the fretboard, because it can be pretty confusing if you try at a fast pace from the beginning. Another one could be a min7b5. On both try to be careful, as the two examples require some left hand stretches. Try to not hurt yourself!


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To tie this section up, we'll cover a more melodic, long exercise based on a group of arpeggios using the string skipping technique. The progression will be fairly simple, but this time we won't be using the classic up-and down kind of sequence that we're used to play. We'll juggle the notes around and put emphasis on the string skipping part to make the exercise more interesting. This one's very similar to an exercise offered by Paul Gilbert in his Terrifying Guitar Trip video, so enjoy!!




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Combining Techniques: Tying Sequences up for a zillion different licks!!

Ok, let's be frank: we can talk for a million hours about zillions of different licks if we combine all the sequences that I've just showed you in the last pages of this already-long article, so I'll cover a few examples and let you come with your own ones. Deal??


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On the first one, I combined the sweep picking, two octaves arpeggio that we covered early in the article with the cascading tapping arpeggio lick we saw. Be sure to practice really slowly, as this one can prove to be a really messy one if you're not careful.


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And finally our last example!! (you didn't expect me to make this article any longer, eh??) This one shows a cool way of playing major arpeggios using two different techniques to achieve a smoother effect by combining legato/string-skipping and sweep picking practice slowly, as there are some left hand stretches somewhere in the sequence.

Anyway, I hope this article helps you grow and expand your arpeggio techniques to a higher level. I'll let you come up with the rest of the techniques combinations…so feel free to e-mail me and we'll discuss them in the forums, if you like.

The idea is to push you guys to create your own variations and arpeggio licks…I've given you the tools, now it's up to you to come with a musical and technical picture you can call your own… Again, feel free to email me if you have any questions regarding this article. See ya!

PDF version of all examples
PowerTab version of all examples

This article can be read online at http://www.iBreatheMusic.com/article/170
David is a guitarist from Venezuela, South America and he has been playing guitar for 10 years. He enjoys playing almost any style, but prefers classical music, modern fusion and progressive rock. Currently he's gathering musicians for a prog metal proyect, as well as finishing his University studies to become a journalist. He likes writing, playing guitar, sports and transcribing music.


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