Four Must-Know Arpeggios
And how to apply them in different contexts
Four Must-Know Arpeggios
Arpeggios and the CAGED system
PDF for this lesson:Four Must-Know Arpeggios (PDF)
Defined broadly, an arpeggio consists of the notes of a chord, played one at a time. They are a great addition to your toolkit because they simply sound good due to their chord-based structure. They also provide an easy way to break out of the rut of just running up and down scales, and are inherently melodic-sounding. You can use arpeggios to outline the chords when you’re soloing over chord changes, and when you’re improvising in a modal context, arpeggios can really add some nice color to your melodies.
I do recommend that you check out the links below the video on this page for other lessons that will be helpful for understanding the stuff on this page. However, I’m hoping there may be a few useful nuggets here, even if you don’t fully understand all of the terminology.
The most obvious use of arpeggios in improvising is to outline the chords as you solo over chord changes. It’s a sure-fire way to capture the “right” notes over each chord. However, this lesson covers a somewhat different use of arpeggios that is generally more appropriate for mode-based improv, where you are soloing over a single chord or repeating group of chords (a “vamp”).
Again, this lesson applies to modal vamps, where you are soloing over a single chord or repeated sequence of chords. The concept here is to take arpeggios from the chord scale that belongs to the mode, temporarily superimposing them over the chords at hand. You can create a little bit of a sense of tension and release by playing off of an arpeggio for a bit, and then returning back to the “home” chord.
The examples on this page are in the modes of A dorian and A mixolydian (of course, you’ll want to work on using this concept in other keys). So generally speaking, we will grab arpeggios from the dorian and mixolydian chord scales, play off of them for a while, and then “resolve” them back to the home mode by targeting notes from the home key of A or Am (and you can use the CAGED system to identify those target notes).
Here’s a quick list of a few my favorite uses of these superimposed arpeggios. Examples follow.
In the mixolydian mode:
- Play a major 7 arpeggio from a whole step below the root note. For example, a Gmaj7 arpeggio in A mixolydian.
- Play a minor 7 arpeggio from a whole step UP from the home key. For example, a Bm7 arpeggio in A mixolydian.
- Play a minor 7 arpeggio from the 5th. For example, an Em7 arpeggio in A mixolydian.
In the dorian mode:
- Play a major 7 arpeggio from a whole step below the root note. For example, in A dorian, play a Gmaj7 arpeggio.
- Play a major 7 arpeggio from the relative major (two scale steps up from the root). For example, in A dorian, play a Cmaj7 arpeggio
- Play a minor 7 arpeggio from a whole step UP from the home key. For example, in A dorian, a Bm7 arpeggio.
- Play a minor 7 arpeggio from the 5th. For example, in A dorian, play an Em7 arpeggio.
And, with all of these ideas, you eventually want to resolve them by returning back to the home mode of A mixo or A dorian (basically, by targeting notes that belong to the A and Am chord).
Major 7 Arpeggios
There are, of course, a lot of ways to play a maj7 arpeggio, but I’m going to zero in on two of them that I find easy to visualize and easy to play, one based on the CAGED “C” shape, and one based on the CAGED “E” shape. The root notes are marked in blue:
Now, we’re going to apply these patterns to a Gmaj7 chord (from which we’ll ultimately return to the main key of A). Here are the full arpeggios written out in TAB form (note, I tabbed them out so that they start and end on a root note):
Of course, in actual practice, it’s pretty rare that you’d just run up and down a full 6-string arpeggio like that. I find it more useful to visualize smaller clusters of notes within them. There’s a nice little diagonal line contained in the “E shape” arpeggio that’s easy to play:
And there’s a cluster on the top 3 strings of the C-shape arpeggio that’s also easy to visualize and use:
Bringing it back home
The real key to making these superimposed arpeggios work is how you resolve them. On their own, they have a somewhat ambiguous sound, but their whole sound makes more sense when you resolve them.
Here’s an example of a Gmaj7 arpeggio resolving to A (in this case, it could be either an A or an Am):
You could milk the Gmaj7 idea for a while before resolving:
Here’s a lick that uses a cluster based onthe CAGED “C” shape for Gmaj7, and resolves to an A mixolydian lick:
Here’s the same one, but resolving to Am:
Minor 7 arpeggios
There are two minor 7 arpeggio patterns that I use frequently. They are based on the common barre chord forms for minor chords–the Em shape and the Am shape barre chords. Here are the arpeggio patterns:
Play around with these arpeggios as we did with the maj7 arpeggios earlier in this lesson. Stretch them out, find useful clusters within them. I’ll also make the observation that both of these look a whole lot like fingerings for the pentatonic scale. Here are a couple of sample licks using these forms:
This one is a Bm7 arpeggio (using the Am form) resolving back to A mixolydian:
Here’s the same arpeggio shape, this time used for an Em7 arpeggio, and then resolving to A minor:
This one is an Em7 arpeggio (using the Em shape), resolving to an A mixolydian lick:
Here’s the same Em7 arpeggio form, this time resolving to an Am lick: