The first step to unlocking the guitar fretboard is to memorize the name of the notes on the neck.
The second step is to start recognizing patterns through the fretboard. These patterns come in the form of intervals, scales, arpeggios and chords.
This lesson focuses on arpeggios, and gives you a template you can use to study arpeggios on the guitar to unlock the fretboard as well as to use them to create your own music.
What is a guitar arpeggio?
An arpeggio means playing the notes of a chord one by one rather than simultaneously.
Arpeggios can be applied to more complex chords but in this lesson we’ll limit ourselves to the most basic of chords: Major and minor triads.
These are made of the first, third and fifth notes of their respective major and minor scale. In this lesson we’ll be exploring three arpeggios all of which are found within the key of A minor and thus have no sharps or flats:
- A minor: The notes A, C and E.
- C major: The notes C, E and G
- D minor: The notes D, F and A.
The same process we’ll go through here can be applied to all other arpeggios, as well as to these arpeggios in different places on the guitar neck.
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Exercise 1: A minor natural scale
These are guitar arpeggio exercises, so why are we starting with a scale?
All the notes of these arpeggios are found within this scale pattern and learning it will help you see connections between them later on.
Exercise 2: A minor arpeggio
Next, we play the notes of the A minor arpeggio (A, C and E) that are found within the scale pattern above.
Note: I’m not giving you picking directions for these exercises since here we’re focusing on applying music theory, rather than guitar technique. If you’re a beginner or an intermediate guitarist you may want to use your usual style of picking. If you’re an advanced player you may want to use sweep picking.
That said, even if you can play fast don’t just shred through these arpeggios. Play them slowly and take time to listen and train your ear.
Ear training is something you can do formally, such as by memorizing the sound of intervals, scales, arpeggios and chords. Doing so will give you an organized library of sounds in your head, which you can then use in music composition at will.
A less formal way of training your ear is to listen carefully each time you apply a music theory concept (such as a scale or an arpeggio) to the guitar.
This will give you the ability to hear the next note or group of notes before playing them.
Exercise 3: C major arpeggio
Next, we go to the first C note in the scale pattern (the 8th fret of the E string) and play the notes of the C major arpeggio (C, E and G).
Exercise 4: D minor arpeggio
Finally, we go to the first D note in the scale pattern (the 5th fret of the A string) and play the notes of the D minor arpeggio (D, F and A).
Memorize these arpeggio patterns before proceeding with the rest of this lesson.
Memorizing the arpeggios is only the first step to benefitting fully from them.
Many guitar students just stop learning the arpeggio at this stage and proceed to learn more arpeggio patterns.
The rest of this lesson shows you how to go beyond memorizing arpeggios and turn them into a useful musical tool before adding more arpeggios to your vocabulary.
Exercise 5: Sequencing
The next step to learning arpeggios more thoroughly is to sequence them.
Sequencing a scale or an arpeggio means repeating a group of notes, starting from different positions of the scale/arpeggio.
Sequencing your scales and arpeggios has many benefits which include:
- Improving your technique since you’re using motions you wouldn’t use if you just play scales and arpeggios up and down.
- Getting a lot of ideas that you can use in your licks, riffs and solos.
If you’re listening carefully, sequences make good ear training exercises. Particularly in developing the ability to hear notes in your head before playing them as mentioned above.
In the following exercise each arpeggio is sequenced in groups of three notes: 1,2,3 – 2,3,4 etc.
Exercise 6: More sequencing
In the following exercise each arpeggio is sequenced in groups of 4 notes: 1,2,3,4 – 2,3,4,5 etc.
The following are suggestions for other sequences you can apply to your scales and arpeggios:
- 2,1 – 3,2 – 4,3 – 5,4 etc.
- 1,2,3,2 – 2,3,4,3, 3,4,5,4 etc.
- 1,2,3,4,5,4,3 – 2,3,4,5,6,5,4 – 3,4,5,6,7,6,5 etc.
- 1,3 – 2,4 – 3,5 – 4,6 etc.
Exercise 7: Random arpeggio note exercise
By now you should have a good idea of where the notes of each arpeggio in the given area of the fretboard are. The next step is to visualize these notes not just as a sequential pattern but also as individual notes. A good way to train this is to play random individual notes within each arpeggio pattern.
In the following exercise I’m giving you two random notes in the first bar of each arpeggio, and three empty bars where you should choose random arpeggio notes and play them using the same timing as the given two.
You may find playing random notes and changing arpeggios every four bars hard.
If you do, I suggest you spend more time on each individual arpeggio with a metronome first.
When you’re comfortable with that, you’ll find it easier to change from an arpeggio to another every four bars.
Also keep in mind that these notes don’t need to make any melodic sense. You’re just training yourself to find the notes in the arpeggio at will.
Exercise 8: Arpeggio combinations
So far we have treated each arpeggio in isolation.
The next step is to start using these arpeggios together.
In the following exercise you play each arpeggio descending, changing arpeggios in each bar. Keep repeating this until changing from one arpeggio to another feels like second nature.
Exercise 9: More combinations
In the next exercise the arpeggios are intertwined even further by descending on an arpeggio and ascending on the next.
Tip: To learn your arpeggio patterns more thoroughly you can also sequence these combinations. You can use the sequences suggested above as well as create your own.
Exercise 10: Making it musical
The last step to learning any music theory concept on the guitar is to make music with it.
The last exercise makes use of the same arpeggios but applies rhythmic variation, as well as variations in the order of the notes to make them sound more musical.
Conclusion: Where to go from here
The exercises in this lesson have only taught you how to learn three arpeggios on just a small portion of the fretboard. However, if you’ve gone through the whole process, by now you have thoroughly mastered the use of these arpeggios in this particular position.
The next step, is to apply this process to all major and minor arpeggios in different areas of the fretboard. Once fluent in major and minor arpeggios you can also learn the arpeggios of 7th chords.
Learning arpeggio patterns on the guitar fretboard in such depth takes longer than it takes to simply memorize them.
However, there are many benefits to learning arpeggios thoroughly and being able to use them in real musical situations.
They make the learning progress more enjoyable, while the knowledge you acquire will be more useful and easy to recollect when needed.
Shashi M. says
This looks more like coming with a three note scale and exploring it up and down the fretboard rather than forming a chord that’ll be plucking (or sweeping) up and down individually.
I think or arpeggios that way. Think of the intro arp sequence in “House of the rising sun”, for example.
This plays notes melodically rather than as an arpeggio, which can be thought of being somewhere between rhythm and melody.
Interesting article that made me think about the topic differently and also helped me try to understand my own understanding.
Bobby Kittleberger says
That’s helpful insight, Shashi. Thanks for adding value here.
Milton Adams says
This is a very effective approach to mastering arpeggios. The exercises are valuable and well thought out. Thanks much!
Thanks, Milton. Glad you found it helpful.
Great info to learn arpeggio, it is tougher than it seems
Thanks, Daniel. Glad you found it helpful.