A look at how to use arpeggios to build melodic lines and brighter chord progressions on the higher portions of the fretboard.
Typically, we learn our first chords near the bottom of the fretboard. This is where the CAGED system is the most functional, allowing us to take advantage of open notes and simple chord composition. It’s home plate for most beginner guitar players, where they learn basic chords before moving onto more guitar lessons and topics.
What can become problematic though, is when there’s no attempt to develop a comfort-level outside of those first few frets. It might just be really familiar to you. You then find yourself playing there all the time.
This can confine your abilities and make your chord progressions one-dimensional. What’s the worse part? It can become dreadfully boring.
Take the open E major chord, for example:
With this chord, we have three open notes and nothing moves past the second fret. In this lesson, we’ll show you how to move basic chords up the fretboard to the higher register. Aside from variety and avoiding what you might consider boring chords, learning to move chords up the fretboard has a few notable benefits:
- It gives chords a more clear and chime-like tone-quality.
- It gives you more dynamic sounding chord progressions.
- It gives you the ability to meld your rhythm playing into lead playing with melodic patterns.
It’s about getting chords to a place where you can do more with them. That’s why moving them up the fretboard is our first step.
From there, we’ll break up our chords and show you how to develop melodic guitar arpeggio patterns using those chords, instead of relying on the low, open chord sequences you already know. First, let’s look at some theory that will allow us to break from chords rooted on the lower frets.
If you want to learn about other concepts, checkout our article covering the six most important guitar topics for getting started.
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Staying in Key and the G, C and D Progression
All common chord progressions have a bass line and a key that are layered in this order: KEY - BASS LINE - CHORD PROGRESSION
The key and bass line are both prioritized over your guitar’s chord progression in a structural sense. In order to move your chord progression more freely, perhaps even break ranks with it entirely to write some lead parts, we need to break it back down to the bass line and then the key.
This is so we can establish song structure. Write everything out in the following order, to aid memorization:
We choose our song structure in that order:
- Bass Line
- Chord Progression
By default, the chord progression matches the bass line. However, what we’re looking to do is move past the chord progression and meld our rhythm work with some lead guitar melody. That means we can “assume” the bass line.
In other words, we’re no longer responsible for carrying the bass line note-for-note or chord-for-chord. Assume that you have a bass player or rhythm guitarist who is handling this progression. Once we understand that we aren’t locked into the chord progression, we can begin to break that progression down and move it up the fretboard.
Let’s go back to our example bass line: G - C - Em - D
On a tab sheet, the corresponding progression might come out something like this:
Now, we need to relocate the progression. Start by isolating the root notes of each chord in your tab:
This gives us the notes for our bass line.
G - C - Em - D
While ignoring the intervals (notes) of each chord, find a spot for each root note on the higher portion of the fretboard. For example, another G note occurs on the fifth string at the 10th fret:
We can then move the C:
And the D:
Now, our bass line looks like this:
Keep in mind, this is just one option. For each note, there are multiple locations throughout the entire fretboard. Take the root G for example. Every blue note highlighted here is a G.
What this means (theoretically) is that we could compile a G chord with a root note at any of these locations. The one’s I’ve chosen on the tab are merely options and not exact requirements.
Building a New Chord Progression and Arpeggio
You should also observe that the G note at the 10th fret on the fifth string is perhaps the most optimal for building a chord on the higher register. Using the same diagram, let’s remove all the other G notes and build our new chord.
Building a chord is a two step process:
- Establish the root note
- Add your intervals
In this case, I’ve added three intervals to our root G:
- Perfect Fifth
- Major 3rd
In the diagram, you can see that the second note in that sequence is marked with an “R”, meaning it matches the root note at the 10th fret. What I want to do now is make the original root note (the one at the 10th fret) optional. Remember, we said earlier that the bass line is assumed, which means you can play any portion of your chord and still be in key without having that low root note included.
Going forward, be aware that this is usually the case. If you’d rather see all this in tabs, here’s the arpeggio version:
The parenthesis around the root indicates that it’s a ghost note. Now that we have an arpeggiated G chord, let’s work on our C chord. Recall our new bass line:
The root C we’ll use, is on the fourth string at the 10th fret. While there are a few different ways you can build out a C chord from here, let’s go with the most intuitive options. Add the following intervals:
- Perfect 5th
Adding these two intervals in relation to our root note would give us the following pattern:
We can now arpeggiate this line and add it to our previous tab sheet:
Now that you probably get the system and the procedure, let’s finish out the tab with our Em and D chord, then work on mixing it up and improvising a little.
This is our completed tab for a higher register version of our original chord progression. I’ll go ahead and provide the standard notation as well:
1. Straight Line Arpeggio
We’ll now learn to use this pattern more freely and creatively. Remember, we’re in the key of G and we are taking on more of a lead guitar role, which means as long as we stay in the right key, we don’t necessarily need to adhere to the entire chord progression. For starters, we’ll break this down by removing some of the lower root notes and staggering the intervals:
2. Staggered Arpeggio without Root Notes
Once again, the root notes (despite the fact that they’re much higher than before) are assumed and not played. You can also adapt the pattern to include the root notes, staggering each chord in the same manner.
3. Staggered Arpeggio with Root Notes
This is also an ideal finger-picking pattern, where you would tackle the root notes at the 10th and 9th frets with your thumb and use your other fingers to pick through the intervals in an alternating pattern. All three of these patterns are going to sound more melodic and unique than what you would get if you were to simply strum through the chord progression on the lower frets.
It’s much more interesting and musical than just strumming along with a bass line. In this case, we’re actually doing something with the chords we’re given, which is our true task as guitar players.
Our playing should be melodic and colorful, like a good 1950s ad campaign.
In other words, we want to really add something to the bass line. This is a good way to make it happen.
Open Notes and the E, A and B Progression
Another common chord progression you’ll see is the E, A, and B pattern. The three chords are often played this way:
This entire progression is locked into the bottom of the fretboard, relying on a number of open notes. However, we aren’t necessarily trying to avoid open notes. We’re just trying to avoid the tired, boring, open-chord strumming routine. In this case, we’ll re-purpose most of those same open notes, while moving the fretted intervals to the higher register. For starters, let’s find some workable root notes on the higher register of the fretboard.
Remember, we’re looking for E, A, and B. I’ll add the root notes and the chord shapes together since we’ve already seen the process of breaking up a chord’s root note and intervals.
Here’s what I came up with:
In this example, I don’t have any notes that are lower than the A on the fourth string. Instead, I’ve used root notes planted on the third and fourth strings and utilized the high B and E notes, which are easily accessible via the first and second open strings. From here, we can build our arpeggios in the same manner:
1. Straight Line
2. Staggered Arpeggios without Root Notes
3. Staggered Arpeggios with Root Notes
With so few notes, we’re a bit limited in terms of how we’re able to arrange the arpeggio, though it is possible to add more notes or thicken it up. The idea is to show you that you can be as minimal with them as you’d like. However, if it just needs a little something extra, there are primarily two ways you can add lower notes back into the shape.
Guitar Arpeggios Thickening Method #1: Use the Deep Root Note
Just as we’ve built chords higher, we can build them lower in the same manner.
Here’s what I mean:
Take the E note at the 9th fret:
In our example, we add intervals above it, using the open B and E strings.
But, we can do the same thing in the other direction, if we take the notes that would be included in the full version of the chord.
Any of these notes can be used to accent your arpeggio during the E-chord phase of the progression. For example, you could just add the low, open E.
Were you to do the same thing with the A and B chords, the shape would probably look something like this:
There’s plenty of flexibility as you write your arpeggios to experiment with different combinations and arrangements of notes. Since you’ve got the process down, you can now focus on improvising and learning how to write arpeggio patterns that sound melodic. What I’d like to do now is help you hone your ability to memorize these patterns. But first, let’s take a look at the process we’ve established for writing them:
- Choose a key to play in.
- Choose a chord progression within that key.
- Move the root notes of each chord to the higher register of the fretboard.
- Build out the intervals for each chord.
- Arpeggiate the note sequences.
Simple, right? Let’s get into some improvisation technique.
Improvising Arpeggio Patterns
Up to this point we’ve been learning structure. And that’s a good thing. It’s what we should be doing before trying to tackle the artistic side of any musical topic. But now that we have the structure in place, how do we engage our creative energy when it comes to arpeggios on the guitar?
First, we need to identify the areas where creativity is most directly applicable:
For a guitar player, these are the three places where we have the most breathing room and creative input. As Christopher Walken once said, “Really explore the space.”
How do we explore the space that these areas afford? First, we look back at our structural components:
- Chord Progression
- Bass Line
- Rhythm (unless you’re coming up with it)
When improvising anything on the guitar, it’s crucial to start by knowing exactly where you’re at and what will work for you on the fretboard. From here, you can make educated decisions about melody, harmony, and tone. So, we’ll first come up with some structural scenarios that will allow us to develop our guitar arpeggios in a proper, theoretically-sensitive context.
Scenario #1: The Open G Run (easy)
Bass Line: G
This run is simple, so we can add a little reverb and some light delay to an otherwise clean amp signal. I used what I’m calling the “Garden Variety Digital Delay” from my post on Line 6 DL4 Delay settings.
Add whatever reverb you have on your amp, setting the dial to around three or four. In the sound samples below, I added a phaser effect as well. As far as EQ goes, I’d advise trying something with a little more low end, so that the higher notes don’t sound too shrill or piercing. For now, we’ll just start with the tab and get used to the pattern:
Tab and Standard Notation
To add your own creative flair to this piece, first separate the melody line from the low G note. This means that everything happening on the second string (plus the short run in the third measure) can be considered a melodic line.
Let’s look at that pattern in a tab sheet by itself:
This is the melody line that the tab follows, with all of the root G notes removed. Now, we have essentially two different options:
- We can just add some new notes by taking wild guesses about what would sound right.
- We can add new notes based on a scale sequence.
We’ll cover the process of both tactics.
#1: Add New Notes by Taking Wild Guesses
This is probably one of the most popular methods of improvisation and not an entirely bad one. And perhaps it’s more accurate to call them “educated guesses,” since guitar players are usually aware of the key they’re playing in and will try to add notes based on some kind of interval sequence.
To implement that tactic here, we’d simply examine the pattern that is established and look to extend it. Look at the first portion of the tab:
It stands to reason that if we can drop from seven to five, we can move up from eight to 10 to 12. To test our theory, let’s walk down the pattern, then back, adding our new notes on the way up:
If it sounds like a fit, you can use the new pattern (I’ve highlighted it in red). From here, you can add your root G notes back in and do the same thing to the second half of the tab:
#2: Add New Notes Based on a Scale Sequence
What you’ll probably find is that after you’ve spent some time studying guitar scales and intervals, you’ll notice that when you add notes by “guessing” you’ll intuitively gravitate towards notes that match the key or scale that you’re playing in. In other words, you start to feel things out without having really memorized a particular chord.
However, it’s still necessary and useful to be intentional about identifying a scale and then using it to build our arpeggios. So this time, we’ll build our pattern, not by hopeful guessing, but by identifying a scale that fits within our key and provides a grid for our improvisation.
Remember to identify the key first. If you recall, we’re in the key of G: Thus, the G major scale would be an ideal choice:
G MAJOR SCALE KEY SIGNATURE: G - A - B - C - D - E - F♯
Let’s go ahead and identify these notes on the fretboard, via the second string:
What you should notice is that this run is really similar to the pattern we came up with earlier. In fact, there’s no real difference, aside perhaps from the order of the notes. But, this is one way that you could have gotten there. And since we know the scale shape a little better at this point, let’s stack the notes closer together, using the high E string in addition to the B.
Here’s where the notes will fall:
Keep in mind that even if these notes aren’t in the same order, they’re still in the same key. That means, when you’re improvising or building arpeggios, they’re all fair game. Let’s try some patterns with just these notes:
At the end of the tab, we break from our original grouping of notes just slightly to resolve on the high G.
Adding the Effects
Remember the effects we mentioned earlier? Let’s actually add those into the pattern. First, let’s listen to it through a clean amp signal:
Not bad, but not particularly interesting. Let’s try the same thing with a phase effect added. We used a model of the MXR Phase 90 here:
That’s a little better, but it still needs something. Let’s try and throw in a tempo-sensitive delay from our Line 6 DL4 and see what we get:
If you ask me, that is much better than our previous two recordings. And it highlights the beauty of the electric guitar, in that you can come up with melodic arpeggio patterns that aren’t complicated and still make them sound really nice. This patterns adds flavor and variety without deviating from the notes we put together via the G major scale.
Outlining the Process
This is what we’ll do for our next couple examples:
- We’ll identify and decide what key we want to play in.
- We’ll extract a scale sequence from that key.
- We’ll base our arpeggiated pattern on that scale.
- We’ll add effects and manipulate tone to polish and add color to our notes.
Since we’ve already covered the process, I’ll go more quickly through the next two scenarios. Let’s move into something a little more challenging.
Scenario #2: Descending in the Key of E Major (moderate)
Bass Line: E - C♯ - B - A
Chords: Emaj - C♯min - Bsus (open form) - Amaj
We’ll keep the delay we used in the previous pattern, but drop the phaser in favor of a touch of chorus. Here are a few pedals that might fit the bill:
- Line 6 DL4
- Boss CE-5 Chorus Ensemble
- Fender FRV-1 63 Reverb
Now, if you don’t have these pedals it’s not a problem. In fact, the effects sections of these posts don’t have to be followed to the letter, or at all. But, I don’t believe I’m giving you complete instruction if I don’t tell you how I would “finish off” and polish these shapes with some good effects choices. Again, we’ll get to the sound samples at the bottom.
Scale Sequence and Tabs
We’ve already said we’re in the key of E major, so let’s go ahead and look at the sequence of the E major scale:
E MAJOR SCALE KEY SIGNATURE: E - F♯ - G♯ - A - B - C♯ - D♯
Now, we need to plot those notes on our scale diagram, just like before:
Every note of the E major scale is accounted for and some more than once. We can use this pattern to easily improvise some higher register arpeggios.
Tabs and Standard Notation
Every single note in this pattern is straight from the E major scale. We haven’t deviated from that scale at all. In fact, we’ve even managed to loosely match the chords from our bass line and progression, E - C♯ - B - A. At the end of the pattern, we drop back to the low E and add harmonics on the high E and B strings to finish things out. However, even that doesn’t deviate from the original scale pattern.
Adding the Effects
I used a slight tremolo (vibe pedal) and reverb from the amp model. Here's the result:
The final result is a rich, full, and engaging melody that climbs down the chord progression with a consistent ringing of the high B and E strings. It’s a great way to flavor an acoustic progression for a more mellow tune in the key of E major.
Scenario #3: Key of D major
Bass Line: D - G - A
Chords: Dmaj - Gmaj - Amaj
For this pattern, we’ll use a similar amp model and stick with the effects combination used in the previous scenario.
Scale Sequence and Tabs
To stay in the key of D, we’ll look at the pitch sequence for the D major scale:
D MAJOR SCALE KEY SIGNATURE: D - E - F♯ - G - A - B - C♯
Once again, we can plot our scale near the middle of the fretboard:
As you might have noticed, all our root notes are open notes - D, G, and A. We can use these notes to easily build our chords using different combinations. Here’s a run that I came up with:
From here, I added the delay and a little modulation with a chorus effect. I also slowed the tempo down to about 80bmp so each note can be clearly heard.
When to Use Arpeggios
Depending on your genre, melodic guitar arpeggios are often more malleable and easier to use then the “traditional” guitar solo. It’s also more subtle, which is useful in today’s musical context where electric guitars have become far more subtle than in decades past. Use arpeggios on the higher register when a solo is overkill.
You can also use them when you’re looking for a less intrusive, melodic additive or when a certain portion of a song (version, chorus etc.) needs a little something extra. They can also fit in well when there’s an absence of a dominant melody, like vocals or piano.
Those are places where guitar can often fill in without sounding overly messy.
More on Effects Use
Since effects can be such a significant part of the equation, let’s see if we can’t get specific about what works and what doesn’t. As I’ve already mentioned, this tactic is best employed to offer subtle accent and flavor. It’s less ideal when the guitar is the dominant foreground instrument.
Now, of course, these are generalizations and not rules.
Still, in the spirit of subtlety, I would focus on these effects primarily when employing this tactic:
These are all what we would consider modulation or timing effects. Mixing and matching these with higher guitar arpeggios will give you an ethereal and chime-like tone that works well with those higher notes. My favorite combination is a short delay with a slow phase effect, which is what we used in our first example.
Your usage will obviously depend on your situation, your pedalboard, and what effects you have available to work with. I would advise getting some sort of effect onto these patterns in most cases.
Flickr Commons Image courtesy of Kmeron