Learn to Love Your Arpeggios

No matter the context, the arpeggio is the easiest and clearest way to outline harmony. I’ll prove it.

Chops: Intermediate
Theory: Intermediate
Lesson Overview:
• Learn different arpeggio fingerings.
• Apply arpeggio voicings in stylized riffs.
• Construct arpeggio lines for jazz improvisation. Click here to download a printable PDF of this lesson's notation.

I have been enamored with arpeggios for many years. They are the most direct way to spell out the harmony and provide smooth connections between chords. Using upper extensions, arpeggios can even create chords on top of chords. For example, a G13b9 contains an E major triad.

In this lesson I am going to give you a collection of great jazz riffs made up of arpeggios. Arpeggios are rather easy to play on piano but not so easy on guitar. I have borrowed techniques from my favorite players to make these exercises relatively easy.

Speaking of upper extensions, Ex. 1 is a Charlie Parker line over a IIIm7–VI7–IIm7–V7 chord progression in Bb major (Dm7–G7–Cm7–F7). Instead of outlining the dominant chords (G7 and F7) we use a tritone substitution, where we play the arpeggio of a dominant chord a tritone away from the root. In this case we play Db7 over G7 and B7 over F7. In this example, I give you two different fingerings for the phrase.

Click here for Ex. 1

Ex. 2 is a simple second inversion C minor triad (C–Eb–G) arpeggio that I transcribed from Joe Satriani. I know that he is not known for being a jazzer but this line is a great example of applying a specific picking technique—in this case picking down-down-up and fretting with your index finger for the first two notes and your pinky for the third note of each triplet.

Click here for Ex. 2

Ex. 3 takes the basic shape of the C minor arpeggio and adds new notes by moving it to different starting points. The enhanced line now covers C Dorian (C–D–Eb–F–G–A–Bb). Keep sticking to the down-down-up picking pattern.

Click here for Ex. 3

The Django Reinhardt playbook served as source material for Ex. 4. It's a demonstration of using two different arpeggios (Ebdim7 and Gm6) over a static chord, in this case Gm6. You will notice that the line keeps shifting in inversions as it climbs up the neck. It's a great line and a great exercise! The notes are always the same—they just keep inverting.

Click here for Ex. 4

Ex. 5 is an Oliver Nelson riff from his famous Blues and the Abstract Truth recording. It represents the major triads found in the augmented scale. The augmented scale is comprised of two augmented triads played a half-step apart. For this example we will combine the E+ and F+ triads to make an E augmented scale (E–F–G#–A–B#–C#). If we break this down even more it creates three different major triads: F (F–A–C), C# (C#–E#–G#), and A (A–C#–E). It sounds great over a C7#5#9 chord.

Click here for Ex. 5

Our final example (Ex. 6) steers us back to the maestro of minor, Django Reinhardt. Here is a riff over a IVm7–Im6 chord progression in G minor (Cm7–Gm6). Django uses some “extra notes" to make this arpeggio line fit nicely into two measures. He uses a more complex descending C minor arpeggio and a more traditional ascending Cm7 arpeggio. The line resolves nicely to the 5 of the Gm chord (D).

Click here for Ex. 6

Remember, arpeggios are the building blocks used to create melody and harmony. It's impossible to know them too well. And when in doubt, ask “What Would Django Do?"

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