The Empowered Musician The Infinite Guitar
Improvisational Theory - Arpeggios

Published January 12th, 2006. © Chris Juergensen/chrisjuergensen.com. All Rights Reserved.

This lesson has been revised and published in THE INFINITE GUITAR. Info >>>

 

Scales vs. Arpeggios - There are basically two different methods of improvisation, one employs the use of scales over a given chord or chord progression, the other, the use of arpeggios. Many players adhere to either one method or the other but to become a great improviser, you should become an expert of them both. It is, however, much easier to outline the chord changes in songs with fast tempos and many key changes such as in Bebop using arpeggios. The important thing to remember is that arpeggios are born from scales, just as the diatonic chords. They can all be found in the diatonic scale and it is beneficial to be learned from that standpoint. Let's take a look at the arpeggios that can be found in the pattern 4 major scale. All examples (unless otherwise stated) will be given using the diatonic arpeggios in the proper order (C, Dmin, Emin, F, G, Amin, Bdim) Let's start with the diatonic triad arpeggios:

 
diatonic one-octave triad arpeggios
 
 
1. Diatonic one-octave triad arpeggio sequence - Although the trick to using arpeggios is to use them over the proper chord, in other words, a C arpeggio over a C chord, a D minor arpeggio over a D minor chord arpeggio and so forth, this sequence is a good exercise to get you started:

diatonic open-voiced triad arpeggios
 
 
2. Diatonic open-voiced triad arpeggio sequence - Similar in theory as the previous exercise except the 3rd is placed last and an octave above the 5th, Ex: 1 - 5 - 3. This technique is sometimes called octave displacement. These triad arpeggios are similar to the type Eric Johnson uses:

diatonic one octave 7th arpeggios
3. Diatonic one-octave 7th arpeggio sequence - 7th arpeggios only contain four notes and should be practiced in every possible combination. There are twenty-four different combinations (use the chart on page 21 for a reference). There are too many to give individual exampled for them all but I will give you a few starting with the most simple: 1-3-5-7:
 

4. Diatonic one-octave 7th arpeggio sequence (variation 2) - 7th arpeggios in this order of intervals: 1-5-3-7:
 

5. Diatonic one-octave 7th arpeggio sequence (variation 3) - 7th arpeggios in this order of intervals: 1-7-5-3:
 

6. Diatonic one-octave 7th arpeggio sequence (variation 4) - 7th arpeggios in this order of intervals: 3-1-7-5:
 

7. Diatonic one-octave 7th arpeggio sequence (variation 5) - 7th arpeggios in this order of intervals: 7-3-5-1:
 

diatonic one-octave add9 arpeggios
 
8. Diatonic add9 arpeggio sequence - If we include the diatonic passing tone between the root and 3rd before playing the 5th, we get an add9 arpeggio that John Coltrane used quite often. The order of intervals: 1-2-3-5:
 

Practicing over Chord Progressions - When using arpeggios rather than scales as an improvisational tool, the point is to play the same arpeggio as the chord. It takes a bit of practice but is an important part of being a good soloist. First let's try to apply the proper arpeggios to a diatonic chord progression:
 

This technique will come in handy when playing over chords that are not completely related and at a tempo where using scales may not be practical. The following example changes keys several times:
 
 
Practice using arpeggios over various chord progressions both diatonic and not. Try to make the arpeggios sound musical by varying the order of intervals and using various rhythmic figures. When you are familiar with all the arpeggio shapes, you can move on the next section that deals with superimposing them.

Arpeggio Substitutions
 
A substitution is a simple way to create upper extensions by superimposing specific arpeggios over a chord. So far we have practiced using arpeggios over the same chord, for example a Cmaj7 arpeggio over a Cmaj7 chord but other arpeggios can be superimposed to create more musical interest. I'll give some of the more common ones as examples but the possibilities are endless.

Common Arpeggio Substitutions for Major Chords
 
1. Min7 arpeggio played on the 3rd degree of a Major Chord - For demonstrative purposes, let's say that the major chord in question is a Cmaj7 chord. The 3rd of the chord is E, so the substitution would be an Emin7 arpeggio. Take a look at the analysis below and you will understand why. The Emin7 arpeggio simply creates a Cmaj9 tonality so rather than playing a Cmaj7 arpeggio over a Cmaj7 chord, an Emin7 arpeggio is another alternative:
 
 
In the following example, an Emin7 arpeggio is being superimposed over a Cmaj7 chord:
 

2. Min7 arpeggio played on the 6th degree of a Major Chord - Again, by studying the analysis below we can see that the Amin7 arpeggio played over a C major chord implies a C6 tonality:
 
 
In this example, I superimpose both an Amin7 and Emin7 arpeggio over the Cmaj7 chord:
 
What other arpeggios could you superimpose over a Cmaj7 chord? Try these: Gmaj7, D. What extensions would they create?

Common Arpeggio Substitutions for Minor Chords
1. Maj7 arpeggio played on the b3rd degree of a Minor Chord - For demonstrative purposes, let's say that the minor chord in question is Cmin7. The b3rd would be Eb, so the arpeggio to be played would be a Ebmaj7 arpeggio. The maj7 arpeggio superimposed this way, creates a min9 tonality:
 
In this example, I superposed an Ebmaj7 arpeggio over the Cmin7 chord and combine both a Dmin7 and Bbmaj7 arpeggio for the Bbmaj7 chord:
 
What other arpeggios could you superimpose over a Cmin7 chord? Try these: Amin7(b5), Gmin7. What extensions would they create?

Common Arpeggio Substitutions for Dominant Chords
1. Dim7 arpeggio played on the 3rd degree of a Dominant chord - Another common substitution that creates the sound of a 7b9 chord:
 
In this example, the Edim7 arpeggio played over the C7 chord creates a C7b9 tonality:
 

2. Dominant 7 arpeggio played on the b5th degree of a Dominant chord - This is a very common substitution used to create an altered tonality. Examine the analysis below:
 
And in this last example, the F#7 arpeggio superimposed over the C7b9 chord creates a C7(b5,b9) tonality:

Have a question or a suggestion for a lesson, e-mail chris.
Click here to get an e-mail everytime a new lesson is posted.
If this lesson was just what you were looking for, consider making a donation. Only through your support are they made possible.
 

Rather than a donation, help support these free lessons by buying one of Chris' CDs, you'll be happy you did!

Information on the newly published, 266 page "THE INFINITE GUITAR" based on these lessons.
Information on the newly published book, "THE EMPOWERED MUSICIAN" based on these articles.