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Style Guide: All About Arpeggios

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The chords themselves don’t really seem to relate to one another very well. Finding a scale that traversed through this would be very difficult. (Hint: There isn’t a single scale for this set of chords.) What we can do is see if there’s a way to connect the arpeggios without flying all over the neck. And luckily for us, there is. The lick illustrates that you don’t have to go flying across the neck in order to hit the right notes. We’re able to walk through the harmony largely using arpeggios in the 10th and 11th positions.

For the first two chords, we focus on F# as a common tone in both the Bmaj7 and D7 chords and construct a line that pivots around the F#. For the G and Bb7 chords, we focus on the B in the G chord and the root of the Bb chord. The rest is basically just arpeggios of each chord with passing tones to smooth things out. Notice how Am7 and D7 are basically just straight-up arpeggios with a passing tone to the 9th on the D7 chord. The long G on the Ebmaj7 chord is just there to give you a break from having to keep playing so many notes.

Now if we apply this to the first eight measures of “Giant Steps,” we end up with an easy way to traverse the progression without having to have a PhD in Jazz Harmony. Fig. 11 combines a lot of what we’ve talked about in this lesson, but applies it over a more challenging chord progression. We’re using small arpeggio shapes, scale connections, and seventh chords to help tame this difficult chord progression. The end result is something that’s fluid and works well over the chords.

Pay attention to measure five. I did my best to keep the movement as constrained as possible by popping back and forth between a few notes, largely G, B, and D, and only altering those notes when the chord progression absolutely requires it. We’re still thinking arpeggios, but to avoid playing too much, we’ll let the rhythm take over and play with more of a syncopated feel while keeping the notes simple. The end of the example is just a long descending Bmaj7 arpeggio, which is followed by a scale run that heads back up the neck, landing on the note Bb, the 5 of Ebmaj7 for some well-deserved rest.

There are thousands of ways to play over this tune, and this example captures a single improvisation. If I played it again, it would be completely different, but the concept of using arpeggios to outline the harmony would be the same.

Also, so you can practice over the first eight chords at home, here’s the progression looped a few times. Each pass of the backing track includes a two-bar break so you can catch your breath!

To wrap up this lesson, I selected a video of modern jazz guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel playing “Inner Urge,” a jazz standard that is famously hard to play because it traverses through a number of difficult tonal centers at a pretty rapid pace. Check out how easily he moves through the solo. He’s connecting the chords by playing a number of arpeggios to outline the harmony, while also using passing tones to connect everything.

While arpeggios are a simple concept, they sound great and can really change the way you play. Take the concepts here and apply them to your favorite songs and chord progressions to craft some amazing solos, licks, and riffs. Go slowly and enjoy yourself—that’s what music is all about. Good luck!

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