Arpeggios are an important skill to develop for all jazz guitar players.
They are a foundation of jazz language and being able to navigate different chord changes that pop up in songs. Arpeggios for jazz guitar can also be a real point of frustration as you get going.
It can seem like there's tons you have to do. Because on the surface, you can look and find hundreds of variations on different ways to play arpeggios all over the neck.
And it can seem really, really difficult for you to put any of this to use. All you have to do is go on reddit up and look up jazz guitar arpeggios, and you'll find a laundry list of things you're somehow supposed to get under your fingers.
Because supposedly you have to do X, Y and Z before you're allowed to play jazz guitar.
It really doesn't have to be that bad.
This topic of arpeggios comes up in my jazz guitar lessons all the time, especially when I'm talking to newer or self taught jazz guitar players who've been trying to learn online.
So today, let's look at a different approach to learning your arpeggios and what you can realistically expect from practicing them and just a few different tweaks to make this a little bit more manageable for your practice.
Concept vs Physical Skill
So with our arpeggios it's an interesting thing. With most of the material that I've come across outside my own teaching, arpeggios are dealt with primarily from a theoretical perspective.
And so they're trying to deal with the concept of putting these arpeggios into exercises and applications.
But what that ends up doing is we end up to some degree ignoring the basic mechanics and shapes of arpeggios on the guitar, because we're because we're immediately trying to use them as a tactic for soloing, or a pattern we're plugging into the major scale as an exercise or something like that.
And when we do that, we end up kind of operating in almost a survival mode with the arpeggios - theoretically we know what they should be, and we can pretty quickly usually get the finger pattern together if we're just dealing with one arpeggio at a time.
But then we're trying to think on our feet as we're attempting to improve rather than having the arpeggios ingrained and immediately under our fingers when we need them.
And this is why we get well meaning students who are trying to play jazz solos with some arpeggios and trying to target chord tones, which is a great idea in theory - it is also a central concept in bebop and playing changes in general.
But there's a few steps before that level of playing that make life so much easier if we take them. And it won't be too hard for you.
It won't be too hard because the real, guitar friendly arpeggio shapes are all based on the scale finger patterns you probably already know.
We'll be able to have some interesting ways of breaking down the improvisational concepts of targeting specific notes later on.
But that becomes a little more of a conceptual thing - we're going to focus on the basic movements first, and it'll clear things up for you pretty quickly as far as using arpeggios in your improvisation.
5 Basic Shapes
Okay, in the graphic above we have the five basic patterns for your major seventh arpeggio shapes.
These fit a series of five very common finger patterns that guitarists of a wide variety of styles use.
The system itself has a lot of different names from different people marketing it over the years.
I just think of it as five shapes.
What you want to do with these particular arpeggios is to start from the root which is marked in red. But in particular, we want to start from the root that has an extra circle around it.
Okay, this one is the one that matches my arbitrary name for the arpeggio shape. So for the sixth string shape, we're going to start on the sixth string.
If it's the fifth string shape, we're going to start on the fifth string and so on.
What we want to do is start from that note and play as high one note at a time as this shape will let us go, and then play as low one note at a time as this shape will let us go, and then work our way back to that root we started out on.
What this is going to do is give us at least access to one full octave of the arpeggio, and it's also going to give you access to the notes that are still in the arpeggio on either side, but they don't necessarily lead you to another octave without having to shift up or down the neck.
This process also really teaches your ear the places that you can start and gives you a reference point for which note is the root or home base of your arpeggio.
So your first step is going to be to get comfortable with each of these five arpeggio shapes.
Adjusting For Chord Qualities
We want all of our major 7th arpeggios to feel comfortable.
From there what we want to do is work on how we adjust the chord quality to get out of this basic set of patterns.
How do we adjust it to get a dominant seventh chord, a minor seventh chord, and a minor seven flat five chord?
So how do you adjust that from the major seven?
You take the seven and lower it by one fret, and that gives you a dominant seventh arpeggio.
Note: sometimes strictly lowering by one fret is going to create kind of a stretchy or stretched out finger pattern.
You can always reorganize things so that that note appears on a lower string in a little bit friendlier way. This is how I’ll show the adjustments below.
From the dominant 7th you take the third and lower that by one fret, and now you have a minor seventh chord.
And from the minor seventh, you take the fifth and you lower it by one fret and now you have a minor seven flat five chord.
These Are Based On Common Finger Patterns
Something to keep in mind with some of these arpeggios is that each of these shapes fit into a common, guitar-friendly finger pattern (Your 5 major scale shapes).
So we're working on a common physical language as we're going through these.
They aren’t going to be a completely separate skill from your major scales - they come from the same framework.
You can even practice playing the scale and arpeggio pattern back to back to help you see where the arpeggio notes come from in your normal finger patterns.
Working through these exercises help to kind of tighten up our finger patterns and help us see where the chord tones are in a physical way on the fretboard.
Use Arpeggios For Technique
Something that comes up frequently in my private lessons, especially with jazz guitar students who are just getting started:
Jazz guitar arpeggios are important, but they're also the least immediately usable thing that we do.
Chords are easy to plug into a jazz standard. Scales are relatively easy to start creating melodies with. But arpeggios can be tricky to feel like you’re getting anywhere at first.
So I make sure we cover some ground with them, and I try to get us using them a little bit here and there.
We do some exercises to try to get used to playing with them, but they are the hardest thing to put together on guitar in a real way and use them and feel musical about them.
It's a good idea at first to treat the arpeggios as a more of a technical exercise than something that you expect to be able to play great things with.
In my own educational experience, the arpeggios are typically seen as a very musically direct way to start to play jazz because they are the foundation of “making the changes” and playing bebop, which is pretty important.
(This is the way I was taught, and the way I taught my own students for many years. I don't teach this way so much anymore - at least not to get you started.)
But arpeggios are also a technical area where it's so easy on guitar to get your fingers tangled up.
That’s why I’ve found that it's a much better idea for us to take a decent portion of time to think of these arpeggios as technical exercises rather than musical ones.
And the more familiar we get with the basics, the more musical your arpeggios can become as time goes on. Once the technique is easy, then it becomes music.
Things To Think About
It's important for everyone learning jazz guitar to remember that Arpeggios are a physical skill and it's unreasonable to expect yourself to be able to play them at a high level until you've built the foundation.
Arpeggios are often taught from a conceptual place where if you know how to play the major scale, you automatically should know how to play the arpeggios.
And that's just not a reasonable expectation. So build the physical skill first.
Another thing to remember that can be difficult to remember sometimes is that everything on guitar is meant to be simple, or at least there's a simple approach you can be able to use.
If you're working too hard at it, there's probably a better way to do what you're trying to do, whether that's physically or mentally.
Also, for a little while, you know, give yourself permission to treat your arpeggios as a technical exercise rather than a musical one.
Don't worry about how to use them in your playing. Just work on getting your fingers around the patterns the way that they fit naturally on the guitar.
The musical applications will come more naturally as your skill level improves with the fundamentals.
It can be a hard pill to swallow that you need to back up a little bit - and I know this from personal experience.
But if you actually take that time to back up just a hair and work on your fundamental skills, number one it’s not going to take as long as you're worried about.
And number two, you're going to come out the other end a much better guitar player.
So, keep at it, and keep playing.