Using Arpeggios to Visualize the Guitar Fretboard

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When it comes to the guitar fretboard, there are many different ways to view its structure and layout. The more we explore it the more complete picture we can get of how these structures are interconnected. In this lesson we take a look at how we can expand our view of arpeggios and use them to help visualize the guitar fretboard.

The focus here will be on major and minor arpeggios, but the concepts will apply to 7th arpeggios and others as well.

If you’re not sure what an arpeggio is, you should review the major and minor arpeggios lesson first and then come back to this one.

CAGED Arpeggios

If you’re already familiar with arpeggios patterns you’re probably familiar with the CAGED arpeggio shapes. They’re probably the most commonly used arpeggio shapes.

CAGED arpeggios are broken out into 5 patterns that correlate to the CAGED chord shapes. Both major and minor CAGED arpeggio patterns can be seen in the diagrams below.

CAGED Major Arpeggios

CAGED major arpeggio shapes

CAGED Minor Arpeggios

CAGED minor arpeggio shapes

When learning these arpeggio shapes, it’s typically done in a vertical fashion. You start on the lowest root note and play across the fretboard ascending and then descending back across the fretboard and end back on the root in which you started.

For example, the C major shape arpeggio from above would be played like this:

C shape guitar arpeggio tab

This vertical approach would be applied to each of the major and minor arpeggio patterns.

Diagonal Arpeggios

The CAGED system is great for learning arpeggios because it groups the notes into distinct shapes and patterns. This is a good thing because it makes them easier to learn.

However, these notes (and shapes) are connected across the whole fretboard.

Major arpeggios full fretboard
Major Arpeggios
Minor arpeggios full fretboard
Minor Arpeggios

What this tells us is that we’re not confined to just moving vertically across the fretboard. We can combine vertical and horizontal movements to create diagonal arpeggios.

By moving diagonally through these arpeggio patterns, we can tie the fretboard together a bit better and visualize it as a whole instead of only individual patterns.

Let’s take a look at a couple examples using the key of G major.

Example 1

The first example starts with the G shape arpeggio and moves through E, D, C, and A before descending back down to the G. Pay close attention to the descending sequence in the tab as it differs from the ascending sequence.

Diagonal arpeggio visualization diagram
Horizontal arpeggio exercise 1 guitar tab

Example 2

Let’s take a similar approach, but change it up just a bit. This exercise starts with the E arpeggio shape and moves up through to the G shape. Again, pay close attention to the descending sequence as it differs from the ascending.

Horizontal arpeggios diagram for exercise two
Diagonal arpeggio visualization guitar tab

Start from different positions and change up the movement of the run. You can blend ascending and descending movements through the arpeggios.

The key to these exercises is to visualize the CAGED patterns as you play through the run. It can be helpful to call out the CAGED shape as you play through it just so you make the connection.

Practice these exercises with both major and minor arpeggios.

Triad Arpeggios

Triads are the foundation of chords, and thus arpeggios. As such, we can explore arpeggios through the use of triad shapes across the fretboard. Triads break up the full arpeggio patterns into smaller, 3-note variations which can be a little easier to incorporate musically.

I think the easiest way to visualize these triads is by using the 3-strings approach.

The examples shown here are for G major and G minor, but can be applied to any key.

Triad Arpeggios on Strings 1-2-3

The diagrams below show the three distinct major and minor triad arpeggio shapes that occur on strings 1, 2, and 3. These shapes repeat up and down the fretboard (ie. after the third shape, if you continue up the fretboard you get shape 1 again).

If you’re not familiar with these shapes, or triads in general, it may be a good idea to review the following lessons:

Major arpeggios strings 1, 2, 3
Major Triad Arpeggios – Strings 1, 2, 3
Minor triad arpeggios strings 1, 2, 3
Minor Triad Arpeggios – Strings 1, 2, 3

Triad Arpeggios on Strings 2-3-4

We can do the same with strings 2, 3, and 4. Below are the triad arpeggio shapes for those strings.

Major triad arpeggios strings 2, 3, 4
Major Triad Arpeggios – Strings 2, 3, 4
Minor triad arpeggios string 2, 3, 4
Minor Triad Arpeggios – Strings 2, 3, 4

Triad Arpeggios on Strings 3-4-5

Below are the triad arpeggios for strings 3, 4, and 5.

Major triad arpeggios strings 3, 4, 5 guitar diagram
Major Triad Arpeggios – Strings 3, 4, 5
Minor triad arpeggios strings 3, 4, 5 guitar diagram
Minor Triad Arpeggios – Strings 3, 4, 5

Triad Arpeggios on Strings 4-5-6

While not used as triad chords quite as much as the previous groupings, you may find the triad shapes on strings 4, 5, and 6 more useful when played as arpeggios.

Major triad arpeggios strings 4, 5, 6
Major Triad Arpeggios – Strings 4, 5, 6
Minor triad arpeggios strings 4, 5, 6
Minor Triad Arpeggios – Strings 4, 5, 6

With the triad shapes outlined in the diagrams above, let’s take a look at some examples of playing over them.

Example 1

In this first example, we’ll use the major triad arpeggios on strings 1, 2 and 3. We’re just going to arpeggiate each triad up the neck, moving from the 1st string to the 3rd string.

Major triad arpeggios on strings 1, 2, 3 of guitar
Guitar tab for triad arpeggio exercise

This exercise can be applied to each of the major and minor triad groups from above.

Example 2

In this example, we branch out a little to include some string skipping and change up the picking pattern a bit.

Minor triad arpeggios strings 1, 2, 3
Triad arpeggio guitar tab

Again, this can be applied to all of the triad arpeggio groups from above and also any key. Feel free to experiment and start mixing the different groups.

Applying Arpeggios to Harmonized Scales

When we talk about harmonizing scales, we’re referring to building chords from the notes that are contained within the scale. Here is a whole lesson dedicated to harmonizing the major scale: Building Major Scale Chords

For example, let’s take a look at the G major scale.

The G major scale contains the following notes:

G – A – B – C – D – E – F#

When you harmonize the scale, you get the following chords:

G – Am – Bm – C – D – Em – F#dim

For a quick reference on scales and chords, check out this guitar chord key chart.

Arpeggiating the Harmonized Scale

We can take these chords from the harmonized scale and play the arpeggio for each one after the other. A lot of times when we practice arpeggios, we tend to stick with a specific arpeggio…G major, D minor, etc. Arpeggiating the harmonized scale gets us away from that process and starts building the relationship between chords and arpeggios within a key.

There are several different approaches you can take with this process, but for this lesson we’re going to look at playing by position.

Arpeggios by Position

If you’ve read the lesson on the guitar number system or playing chord progressions by position, this will be familiar to you.

What we’re going to do is take a given position and play all of the arpeggios in a given scale from that position.

In this example, we’ll be playing out of the first position of the G major scale. The root arpeggio will be the E form barre chord at the 3rd fret (G major barre chord). Note that the arpeggio for F#dim is left out. It’s a diminished arpeggio and just isn’t used that frequently.

G scale arpeggios in the E form position, position 1 of the scale

Going chord by chord through the scale, we get the following sequence of arpeggios:

G major arpeggio tab
G Major
Am arpeggio guitar tab
A Minor
Bm arpeggio guitar tab
B Minor
C major arpeggio guitar tab
C Major
D major arpeggio guitar tab
D Major
Em arpeggio guitar tab
E Minor

Apply to All Positions

The same concept can be applied to all major scale positions. I won’t lay them all out in this lesson, but you can download the cheat sheet at the end of the lesson that contains all positions.

Combining Arpeggio Approaches

Outlined above are three different approaches to visualizing and playing arpeggios across the entire fretboard. These approaches shouldn’t be treated independently of each other, but instead should be combined to create a full picture of the fretboard.

Combing these approaches will reinforce the interconnectivity of these notes and patterns up and down the neck.

Let’s take a look at an example that combines each of the approaches from above.

Combined Approach Example

The combined example below starts on G major, moves to A minor in the second bar, then back to G major to finish up. Sliding between notes that fall on the same string adds a nice touch to make it more musical.

Combined arpeggio exercise tab

In the first bar, we’re starting with the D shaped G arpeggio and moving up to the A shape G triad arpeggio on the 10th fret of string 1, 12th fret of string 2, and 12th fret of string 3.

G major combined arpeggio diagram bar one
G Major – Bar 1

The second bar shifts to the minor 2nd chord of G major, A minor. It starts out with the minor triad arpeggio on strings 1, 2, and 3 then transitions to the G minor shape arpeggio to finish out the bar.

Am combined arpeggio diagram bar two
Am – Bar 2

The third bar picks back up with the G major arpeggio using the E form. It moves diagonally back up the fretboard to end with the triad shape on strings 2, 3, and 4 (9th fret of string 4, 7th fret of string 3, 8th fret of string 2).

G major combined arpeggio diagram bar three
G Major – Bar 3

This is one of many different ways to combine these approaches, so again experiment and be creative to see what you can come up with. Start simple with 2-chord progressions and add chords to have 3-, 4-chord progressions once you get comfortable.

Wrap-up

The guitar fretboard is complex. In this lesson we’ve taken a look at how we can expand our view of arpeggios and use them to help create a more complete visualization of the guitar fretboard. Play through, and expand on, the examples shown in this lesson and be sure to practice these concepts over different chord progressions to develop a feel for applying them in a more musical context.

Arpeggio Visualization cheat sheet thumbnail

Cheatsheet: Arpeggio Visualization

Download the cheatsheet for this lesson: