Arpeggios on guitar are when the notes of a chord are played individually one after the other. Arpeggios provide a framework for targeting chord tones and can be used to add a bit of color to guitar solos and fills. They are also quite popular in metal and neoclassical styles of music when played with a sweeping technique.
In this lesson we’ll learn the major and minor arpeggio patterns, the intervals from which they are built, and how to play them.
But first, let’s start by better understanding what an arpeggio is.
What is an arpeggio?
An arpeggio is when you take the notes of a chord and play them one after the other instead of strumming all the notes at the same time. The notes are played either ascending or descending.
In a sense, you can think of an arpeggio as playing a scale made up only of the notes of a chord. However, because of the lack of notes, arpeggios on guitar can be a little awkward to play at first. Let’s go over a few techniques you can use to play them.
There are various techniques that we can use when playing arpeggios. The style you use will largely depend on the type of music you play. Below are links to a few examples:
- Straight picking – using all up/down strokes
- Alternate picking – alternating up/down strokes
- Sweep picking – advanced technique using a “sweeping” motion
As a beginner, you’ll definitely be sticking to straight picking and alternate picking. Sweep picking shouldn’t be attempted until you’re able to play through the arpeggios cleanly and smoothly.
One of the trickiest aspects of playing guitar arpeggios is fingering notes that are side by side on the same fret. For these notes, you’ll need to use a rolling technique in order to play them fluidly.
So now that you know what an arpeggio is, let’s take a look at how guitar arpeggios are constructed. We’ll start with major arpeggios.
Building Major Arpeggios on Guitar
Major arpeggios are built from the notes of the major chord. Major chords are made up of the 1st (root), 3rd, and 5th degrees of the major scale.
In the diagram below, you see the intervals of the major scale with the root 3rd, and 5th highlighted.
If we take these scale intervals and apply them to the guitar fretboard, we can create a scale pattern like the following:
If we isolate just the root, 3rd, and 5th from this scale pattern, we can create a major barre chord.
From this chord shape, we can build a major arpeggio. Since arpeggios are played one note at a time, we can complete this arpeggio by grabbing the major 3rd on the 5th string and adding it to the barre chord.
Similar to scales, we can utilize the CAGED system to outline the common major arpeggio patterns on the guitar.
CAGED Major Arpeggio Shapes
The diagrams below give you the CAGED major arpeggio shapes, the chord shapes from which they are derived, and the suggested fingering for playing each shape. Use the fingerings as a guide and feel free to adjust as necessary.
When playing through the guitar arpeggios, start with the lowest root note and play ascending and descending, finishing on the same root note in which you started. Each arpeggio includes a tab to follow.
C Shape Arpeggio
The C shape arpeggio is derived from the C chord form, but also includes the 3rd and 5th on the 6th string and the 5th on the 1st string. This shape is used quite frequently is music.
C Major Shape Variations
Guitar arpeggio shapes can be broken down into smaller 3- and 4-note variations. These smaller versions typically are more applicable and easier to apply musically.
4 Note Variations
3 Note Variations
A Shape Arpeggio
The A shape arpeggio comes from the A form chord. It also includes the 5th on the 6th string as well as the 3rd on the 4th string.
A Major Shape Variations
Below are the 3- and 4- note arpeggio variations for the A major shape.
G Shape Arpeggio
The G shape arpeggio is built from the G form barre chord and includes the 5th on the 2nd string.
G Major Shape Variations
Below are the 3- and 4- note arpeggio variations for the G major arpeggio shape.
E Shape Arpeggio
The E shape arpeggio is derived from the E form barre chord and also includes the 3rd on the 5th string. This shape, or a portion of it, is also frequently used in music.
E Major Shape Variations
Below are the 3- and 4- note arpeggio variations for the E major arpeggio shape.
D Shape Arpeggio
The D shape arpeggio is built from the D form chord, but also includes three additional notes; the 3rd on the 6th string, 5th on the 5th string, and 3rd on the 3rd string. This shape is very awkward to play in its full form and frequently you see just the 5th, root, and 3rd played on strings 1-3.
D Major Shape Variations
Below are the 3- and 4- note arpeggio variations for the D major arpeggio shape.
Building Minor Arpeggios on Guitar
Minor arpeggios are formed from the notes of the minor chord, which are built from the root, ♭3rd, and 5th intervals of minor scale. The minor arpeggio differs from the major arpeggio in that the 3rd interval is a minor 3rd (1/2 step lower) as opposed to a major 3rd.
In the tab/audio below, the whole scale is played first, followed by just the root, 3rd, and 5th of each scale. Listen to the examples to hear the difference the 3rd scale degree makes between major and minor.
C Shape Minor Arpeggio
In the Cm shape arpeggio, the lowest root note is found on the 5th string. You’ll use this note as the starting point and play across the fretboard and back, making sure to pass the root note on the way back to play the full arpeggio, including the notes on the 6th string.
Cm Shape Variations
Like the major arpeggio, the full minor guitar arpeggio shape shown above can be broken down into smaller 3- and 4-note variations.
The Am shape arpeggio begins with the same root note as the C shape, the root on the 5th string. However, instead of playing it with the pinky finger, you use your index finger. This moves your positioning down and creates the A shape instead of the C shape.
Am Shape Variations
Below are the 3- and 4- note variations for the Am shape arpeggio
The root of the Gm shape arpeggio is found on the 6th string and again starts with the pinky finger.
Gm Shape Variations
Below are the 3- and 4- note arpeggio variations for the Gm shape.
The root of the Em shape is shared with the root of the Gm shape. Similar to the Am & Cm shapes, the root of the Em is played with the index finger, shifting the position down the fretboard and creating a new arpeggio shape.
Em Shape Variations
The 3- and 4- note variations for the E shape arpeggio are below.
The last CAGED minor arpeggio shape is the D shape. It’s lowest root is found on the 4th string. It is the only complete arpeggio shape with the lowest root found on this string.
Dm Shape Variations
The 3- and 4- note D shape arpeggio variations are below.
In this lesson we looked at the major arpeggios, which are comprised of the root, 3rd, and 5th intervals of the major scale and minor arpeggios, built from the root, minor 3rd, and 5th intervals.
Arpeggios on guitar can be used to target chord tones in guitar solos and fills and help add a little color to your playing. You’ll probably find the 3- and 4- note variations a little easier to incorporate into your playing. Overall, learning arpeggios can take a bit of effort, so be prepared to put in some time with them.