Jamie Holroyd Guitar

Jamie Holroyd Guitar

How to Play Arpeggios on Guitar

How to Play Arpeggios on Guitar

A couple of days ago on my Facebook page I asked what lesson readers would like to see an article on.

While everyone had great suggestions, reader Daniel P suggested a lesson on arpeggios. Upon realizing that I didn’t have a lesson on this important topic, I decided to write this article as a guide on how to play arpeggios on guitar.

Besides having good comping and chordal chops, we must also practice single line sololing and one of my favorite ways to outline changes is by using arpeggios.

Arpeggios are some of the most important patterns you can learn on the guitar because you can define a chord with only 4 notes.

Modes and scales certainly have their purpose, but an arpeggio has 3 less notes so they’re much easier to grab when harmony is quickly moving by.

To play over a major ii-V-I you need to be comfortable playing over three different chord types; major, minor and dominant 7th’s, but first let’s look at how each arpeggio changes over the same chord type.


Major 7th Arpeggio


The first arpeggio that we will be looking at is the Major 7th arpeggio which has a a sweet and open sound. The notes found within the arpeggio are all diatonic to the major scale. You can use major 7th arpeggios to improvise over any type of major or major 7th chords such as major 9th, major 6, and major 6/9 amongst others. The diagram below shows a two octave major 7th arpeggio in the key of C.


Major 7th  Formula: R, 3, 5th, 7

C Maj7 Arpeggio: C, E, G, B


How to Play Arpeggios on Guitar - C Major 7th


Dominant 7th Arpeggio


There is only one note that changes from a major 7th arpeggio to form a dominant 7th arpeggio, the 7th. The major 7th has a natural 7th whereas the dominant 7th arpeggio has a flat 7th which, as a full arpeggio produces a bluesy type of sound because dominant 7th chords are an important part of blues music.


Dominant 7th Formula: R, 3, 5th, b7

C7 Arpeggio: C, E, G, Bb


How to Play Arpeggios on Guitar - Dominant 7th Arpeggio


Minor 7th Arpeggio


The last arpeggio that we are going to look at for now is the minor 7th arpeggio which is like a dominant 7th arpeggio, but with a flat 3rd.  Minor 7th arpeggios can be used to improvise over any type of minor chords, such as minor 7ths, minor 9ths, and minor 11ths.


Minor 7th Formula: R, b3, 5, b7

C-7 Arpeggio: C, Eb, G, Bb


Minor 7th Arpeggio


Practicing Arpeggios


Just like when practicing scales, the note names to each arpeggio must be said when you’re practicing them on the guitar to ensure you that you become aware of what’s happening harmonically underneath your fingers.

Before moving on, it is important to explore the arpeggios in a musical content. Record a 1 chord vamp for each chord type (major 7th, dominant 7th and minor 7th) and improvise only using one arpeggio at a time. For example, record a C major chord vamp or use a backing track, and only use a C major 7th arpeggio.

Try improvising with just one octave of the arpeggio to begin with to get used to the sound and fingering. Repeat this process for all 3 chords.

Now that we can play over each chord individually we need to look at combining them. Record a new backing track with 8 bars of Cmajor7 and then 8 bars of C-7, and solo over them just using the arpeggios explored in this lesson.

When you can switch between these two arpeggios , try recording a new track that has only 4 bars of C major 7 and then 4 bars of Minor 7, then 2 bars of each chord (like Green Dolphin Street), and ultimately one bar of each chord.

Spelling out the different chord tones in each chord means that you are now ‘playing the changes’ which is an essential ingredient of learning jazz guitar. Congratulations!


Blank Sib Sheet


Applying Arpeggios over a ii-V-I


Once you can comfortably solo over each of the three chord types individually, we can now start to look at using them over a progression.

One progression that we are going to look at applying arpeggios over is the II V I which forms the back bone of many standards. A II-V-I progression in the key of C would be D-7 for a bar, then G7 and finally C major 7 for a bar.


Example 2


This means that we have 3 separate chord types to solo over, so first thing’s first; let’s check out the arpeggios for each of these 3 chords.


Minor 7th Formula: R, b3, 5, 7b7

D-7 Arpeggio: D, F, A, C


How to Play Arpeggios on Guitar - D-7 Arpeggio


Dominant 7th Formula: R, 3, 5th, b7

G7 Arpeggio: G, B, D, F


How to Play Arpeggios on Guitar - G7 Arpeggio

Major 7th  Formula: R, 3, 5th, 7

C Maj7 Arpeggio: C, E, G, B


How to Play Arpeggios on Guitar - Cmaj7 arpeggio

Now that we have them all together in one area of the neck, record the chords or use a backing track to practice blowing the progression using the arpeggios. Remember to start slow, so at first don’t have the backing faster than 100 bpm. If there’s one apreggio that’s catching you out, practice it by itself first. You also try having 2 bars of each too.

Don’t worry about sounding ultra hip at first, at this point it is vital that you can change when the chord changes. You will have probably noticed that each of these arpeggios all contain notes from the C major scale, so why not just think of that? While there’s nothing wrong with thinking of the major scale over each chord, in jazz we tend to define the sound of each chord by focusing on the chord tones. By doing doing we are making each change rather than just playing in a key center.


ii V I arpeggios


3 To 7 Pattern


One reason why the ii-V progression works so well is because the 7th of the minor 7th chord drops down a semi-tone or fret to become the 3rd of the dominant chord. This is sometimes called the note of resolution.

Jazz musicians frequently highlight this musician in their improvisation which makes it an important part of the jazz language. The following diagram shows his this technique can be applied to two octave ii-V arpeggios, but this pattern should ultimately be practiced all over the neck and in different keys.


note of res



Voice Leading Exercise


When learning how to play arpeggios on guitar, one very effective exercise that I teach to my students that helps them connect arpeggios together is to start at each degree of the arpeggio, then play four quarter notes, and then start the arpeggio of the next chord in the following bar with the arpeggio note the closest to the note you just finished on.

For example if you did this exercise over a ii-V-I in C major, the first chord would be D-7. If you start by playing the root then move up the arpeggio in quarter notes you will get to the note C on the 4th beat of bar which is the 7th of D-7.

The next chord in the bar as G7 and the closest arpeggio note of that chord to the ‘C’ from the D-7 is the B natural.

You can then play an ascending G7 arpeggio in quarter notes which will lead you to finish on the G note which resolves well into the ‘E’ natural in the last which is the third of C major 7. This exercise helps break you out of always starting from the root and gets you cool voice leading techniques into your improvisation.


How to Play Arpeggios on Guitar Exercise


I hope this introduction to how to play arpeggios on guitar has been useful and given you some material to practice on in the woodshed. Although, arpeggios are some of the first things we learn when we start to learn jazz guitar, I find that I am practicing and using them on a daily basis. Do you have a favorite way of practicing arpeggios? If so, share your thoughts in the comment section below.


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In the above section "Applying Arpeggios over a ii-V-I," the G7 & Cmaj7 chords and tabs don't appear to be correct -- or am I missing something? At any rate, I got the concept. Thanks for your tips.

Jamie Holroyd

Hi yeah they are correct but there's some alterations. The G7 has a b9 and the C major 7th is a quartal voicing. There's more info on the site about both of those chords. Cheers.

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Thanks for the great article! I'm not sure of one thing though, which seems important to me: what do you mean by improvising with just one octave of the arpeggio? I would guess you mean playing using the arpeggio notes (within one octave) not necessarily "in the correct order" and maybe using some rhythm variations? Please correct me if I'm mistaken.

Jamie Holroyd

Hey, thanks for the kind words! I feel that it is important to explore a single octave (R, 3, 5, 7) of one arpeggio first and see how much music you can make from four notes before using two octaves.

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