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Style Guide: All About Arpeggios


If you only play exactly the notes in the chord progression, it can be a little limiting. One way you can continue to generate materials is to include additional arpeggios within the same key. It’s the same idea as a passing tone, but this time, you play a passing arpeggio. Let’s go back to our original example of C-G-Am-F. We’re going to target the Am chord and add another arpeggio between the Am and the F chord. Let’s add a G arpeggio after the Am, which basically steps down the harmony (Fig. 8). Notice how Am-G-F and creates a nice cascade down to the F chord.

It’s a really nice sound, and you can do this as long as the extra arpeggios you’re adding don’t conflict with the overall harmony. Ultimately, you have to let your ears be the judge of what works and what doesn’t.

One more way that we can expand our sound is to extend the chords and make them a little taller by turning some of the chords into seventh chords. If we turn the C and F triads into major 7 chords, as in Fig. 9, we can inject some color into the passage.

Not only does it extend the sound, but it also makes it easier to connect the arpeggios on the fretboard.

Tough Progressions
Another great thing about arpeggios is that you can simplify extremely difficult progressions by using arpeggios to navigate the changes. For example, take “Giant Steps”—a famous jazz tune by John Coltrane and a rite of passage for all jazz musicians. It’s really stinking hard to play over because the chord changes are fast and the tune changes key after only a few chords. It’s thrilling, though. Check it out:

Before y’all freak out. No, we don’t have to play it that fast. Check out Pat Metheny’s bossa nova version of “Giant Steps” at a much more reasonable tempo.

What we can do is start to break the harmony down into pieces. Let’s just take the first three measures in Fig. 10.