When you enter the guitar world and begin practicing and playing and getting progress, gradually you will start getting “exposed” to many new words and expressions related to music in general, and guitar, in particular. Some of those expressions are used to describe specific techniques or methods for guitar playing, such as the word “arpeggios”, and below I will be giving an exact definition to arpeggios and some guidelines on how to play arpeggios on the guitar and practice it properly.
What is “arpeggios”?
An arpeggio, or a guitar arpeggio, is simply a phrase used to describe the act of playing a chord's notes one by one, instead of strumming it simultaneously. Some refer to it as a “broken chord” or a “blocked chord”, because you would normally play the chords simultaneously by using strumming patterns and techniques, but with arpeggios, you basically “break” the chord down into notes and you play each note individually, using fingerstyle picking for classical and acoustic guitars, and using a pick to pick down or up the notes on the electric guitar. How to pick the notes or in what order, will produce a whole different sound and arpeggio.
Take a simple chord, like the C or Dm, and “arpeggiate” it (a synonymy to playing the chord as arpeggio instead of strumming), and make different variations and patterns for the arpeggio, and it will sound as if you're playing different songs and licks, although you are just playing the same chord.
How to play arpeggios on classical guitar
All you have to do to start playing arpeggios and practice on the classical guitar, is pick a random chord, for example “Em”, and play its notes one by one slowly and clean! clean is the most important factor here. Then speed up a little bit (if you are a total beginner, this could take you days), and do the same exercise until you reach the same level of “clean” as the previous speed. Take note though, you do not have to play ALL the notes of the chord to produce an arpeggio, you can play 3 or 4 notes in a progressive manner and still produce an arpeggio. An example of that is the intro to Nothing Else Matters by Metallica, where the Em chord is played in an arpeggio manner as follows:
As you can see, this is the Em chord, being played without the notes on the A and D keys, this is a simple and easy example of an arpeggio used in a song. Then it follows like this:
So basically, you can take those two tabs sheets and practice them, and add your own variation to it, or in a similar manner you can take any other chord and do the same, you can play it in an ascending manner, descending manner, any random pattern that may sound cool to you, really just use your imagination, and if you spend some time practicing like this, your right hand will quickly get hold of the action and you will start playing arpeggios faster and more accurately. Again, time and practice, and dedication, will take you far.
Important tips that you should know here:
- Watch your body posture as always, watch your hands and fingers at all time, especially if you are a beginner and just started playing, read the guitar Basics here for more info on that, your hands and fingers should be in the right position and moving correctly, in order to benefit most from the practice
- In the example above, and in most arpeggios, you play the first note (on the lowest string) with your thumb, and then the other higher notes, with the other fingers respectively. Basically this is how fingerpicking style works, when a note falls on one of the three lowest strings, you play it with your thumb. When the notes fall on the highest three strings, you play them with your three other fingers respectively (Index, middle, and ring). Lots of practice will get you used to this “system” quickly.
Another great song worth mentioning here, and I highly recommend it for advanced players and above, is Dust in The Wing by Kansas, which is a very beautiful song that I deeply love, and is played only with arpeggios! watch me play it in the video below:
How to play arpeggios on the electric guitar
Arpeggios on the electric guitar, unlike with classical guitar where you can use your fingers to “pluck” the different chord's notes, is played with your Pick, and this requires a whole new approach of exercising and a different technique. Playing a note as a pick down, or pick up, makes a whole different exercise and sound! as well as incorporating effects and techniques such as hammer-ons, slides, bending and vibratos.
As a beginner, you don't want to get busy with all these stuff and effects, and only concentrate on pressing the right notes, and make them sound clear and accurate, and as usual, play slowly. With time as you progress, you will speed up the tempo, and your fingers will naturally start to develop the required agility and speed to play like the pros. Time, and practice, never forget. And please, as I mentioned in the Basics page, do NOT try to skip the early beginner exercises and jump right into the more advanced ones, your hands and fingers MUST get the correct training GRADUALLY, otherwise, you will not get better no matter the time or effort you put into it.
Arpeggios on the electric guitar are mainly played using two techniques: Sweep Picking, and Alternate Picking. Hammer-on's and Pull-offs are sometimes used instead of Alternate Picking on the last and first notes of the arpeggio, but this is totally up to the player to choose.
So here's my advice, if you want to be able to play fast arpeggios on the electric guitar and accurately, you need to practice both sweep and alternate picking techniques intensively. These are advanced techniques and take a lot of exercises, time, and discipline to master in high speed. You must be patient and dedicated enough to NOT surrender, because I'm telling you right now, don't expect to start today and notice any progress the next week, or the next month even. I'd say giving yourself a year to train your fingers and brain for these techniques is something totally acceptable. Scroll down to the last paragraph for my suggestions on where to find good exercises for arpeggios and the different picking styles.
However for the meantime, you can check the menu above under the Tips and Info, there is a page named “Important Links“, check the website Ultimate-Guitar for guitar tabs there, and search for “arpeggios”, you should get plenty of exercises tabs for free as a txt file. I highly recommend though, that you download the Guitar Pro tabs and get the software from here, so you can also hear the exercises and all the effects and techniques involved. One that I recommend, for the more advanced players up to expert level, is the Arpeggios from Hell by the Swedish famous guitarist Yngwie Malmsteen, and it starts like this:
Get the full exercise from the website mentioned above or click here to get right into the website and the arpeggios search results.
Here is Yngwie Malmsteen himself playing the Arpeggios from Hell, and he sounds like a beast! check it out below:
Note: this is a very advanced arpeggios exercise, however, you don't have to play it as fast as Malmsteen played it in the video above, you can start playing it slowly and skip the very hard parts, and you should be fine. If you could pull off the whole thing, then you are amazing and congratulations!
Sweet, where to go from here?
So, now you know what “arpeggios” is, how to play and practice them, and where to find exercises and songs that include arpeggios. However, you should not stop here. In the Reviews – Books section, there is a great book that focuses on all the guitar techniques, including arpeggios, it is a book that I myself, and many other well experienced guitarists recommend and you can check the review I wrote about it there. And in case you felt that it's difficult for you to practice alone or feel the need for more exercises and guidance, I also wrote reviews on great guitar teaching online programs of which you can check out here and choose one that suits you and feel comfortable with.
Good luck with your quest to mastering the guitar and should you need any assistance or have any question, you can always leave a comment below and I'll answer as soon as I can.