An Introduction to Jazz Guitar Arpeggios

Using Positions to Unlock Chord-Tone Arpeggios in Improvisation

Arpeggios are commonly used to outline chord changes in jazz improvisation. Jazz guitarists of all eras used them in their solos as a means to effectively “run the changes”. In this article, we will look into arpeggios derived from scale positions.

The arps can be very useful as is and will become a powerful tool that deepens your understanding of scale positions. However, please read these posts if you’re new to position playing: The Definitive Guide to Scales Positions for Guitar: How Jazz Guitarists Memorize the Fretboard with Basic Positions and Patterns

This “scale positions” approach is very effective, compared to the usual learning and memorization of arpeggios in “shapes” on the fretboard. Ready? Read on!

Up to the 13th (aka “complete arp”)

Let’s start with the widest possibility for arpeggios which has seven different notes in the arp. Let’s start in G with the “6-2” position (see above linked articles) and play something like this:

jazz guitar arpeggios - 1

The arp contains the notes G B D F# A C E G, which,
in “scale degrees” means 1 3 5 7 9 11 13 and 1.

In fact, this arpeggio contains all the notes present in the scale. That’s why it’s often called “complete”. It is the entire scale played in non-consecutive scale tones.

To clarify; this is the scale on two octaves, and the 13th “complete” arp is bold:

G    A    B    C    D    E    F#    G    A    B    C    D    E   F#  G

1    2     3    4    5    6    7    8    9     10   11    12   13   14   1

I like to describe this type of arp as “playing the scale and skipping every other note” or, “playing the scale by third intervals”. When you see arps like this, (as non-consecutive scale tones) learning the proper scale positions will automatically unlock all the possibilities for arps in every position.

It is even more interesting and possible, to unlock every arp for all seven  major and melodic minor scale positions. It takes a bit of work, of course, but it’s well worth the effort! Go ahead and do it.

Play seven note arps in seven positions seven days a week! (Just had to say it.)

Points to keep in mind:

  • No matter what position, you will be playing all the notes present in the scale (by third intervals).
  • Make sure that you keep the original fingerings found in positions. Be strict at first, then come up with your own fingering concepts for playing the 13th arps.
  • It will be tempting NOT TO stretch the index or pinky. Be careful and make your hand “stay” as much as possible. (See, The Definitive Guide to Scales Positions for Guitar)
  • For every position, start on the root and go up as far as possible … then down as far as possible. (aka “completing the position”)

Some positions have more notes below, than above the root. Go as low as possible, no matter what. Here’s a good example (4-1 in G):

jazz guitar arpeggios - 2

Go ahead and do it now! Just play (!) the 13th arps in the seven positions in major, then in melodic minor. Try it for a while and you’ll notice stuff happening in your playing.

Don’t Forget the “Negative”!

And, just to double the amount of stuff you can work on, (thus doubling the possibilities when you improvise) notice that every seven note arp has a “negative”, like photographic film. It is the arpeggios “on the flip side” so to speak!

Here’s what I mean (in G major, “6-2” position) :

jazz guitar arpeggios - 3

Each position contains a “starting on the root” seven-note arp, plus “the other way around”.  You are playing every possible third interval in each position… all over the neck in major and melodic minor.  This is great to know!

Again, go ahead, try it! If you do it in all 12 keys you will basically be playing ALL the available thirds (major and minor) on the entire fretboard. That is cool!

But, only thirds? (-;

Let’s talk about the other arps in position (that are made of less than seven notes.) …Triads and Seventh Chords

Arps are a powerful tool when used with scale positions.  Check out this article to build that scale positions foundation: The Definitive Guide to Scales Positions for Guitar

Let’s go on to the “small stuff”…

Diatonic Triads

It is time to look at the “smallest” possible arpeggios, triads. They consist of three notes, being the root, third and fifth. There’s a triad built on each degree of any scale.

The triads are only small segments of the 13th arps we played above.

In the key of G major we get :
G, Am, Bm, C, D, Em and F# dim.

This is demonstrated in the “6-2” position here:jazz guitar arpeggios - 4

 

I encourage you to play the above in G melodic minor so you can hear and feel the difference. Try it on your own.  The triads of G melodic minor are : Gm, Am, Bb augmented, C, D, E dim and F# dim.

Triads are often overlooked by beginning improvisers but they’re still very important. Every good jazz solo contains triads to a certain extent. Listen to bebop recordings and you’ll hear plenty of “disguised” triads (check out Charlie Parker heads like “Anthropology” and “Ornithology”!)

And, of course, triads are to be applied in the 7 positions of major and melodic minor. By doing so, you will really start to “feel” the positions and the sounds that can be made with them…

Make sure you keep the correct fingerings for each position!

Different Patterns

Other patterns are possible for triads. They’re shown above as 1-3-5 in eighth notes… but this could (and should) be practiced in all kinds of ways such as :

  • backwards (5-3-1)
  • with different rhythms (use quarter-notes, triplets, etc.)
  • skipping and coming back (3-1-5)
  • repeating a note (making them 4 notes such as 1-3-5-1)
  • as inversions (see below)
  • etc.

Here’s an example of a common pattern in triplets (in G major “6-2” again). The first triad is played upward (1-3-5), the second downward (5-3-1) and so on:

jazz guitar arpeggios - 5

Don’t worry about finding ALL the patterns and playing them perfectly. It won’t happen! There’s just too much stuff out there for us to grasp in our lifetime… you have to choose small amounts of material and work at it.

Take a pattern you like and practice the heck out of it (in each position.) You may work a long time (weeks or even months) on the same pattern. Some positions are more difficult to master, but they will help improve your technique tremendously.

Diatonic Seventh Chords

We can apply the same concept we used for triads to get 4-note arps in a certain key. This gives us the diatonic seventh chords.

The key of G major:
G maj 7, Am7, Bm7, C maj 7, D7, Em7, F# min7 (b5)

Demonstrated in “6-2”:

jazz guitar arpeggios - 6

Play this in G melodic minor. The seventh chords of G melodic minor are: Gm maj7, Am7, Bb maj7 (#5), C7, D7, Em7(b5) and F# m7(b5).

Seventh chord arpeggios are also to be played in the 7 positions of major and melodic minor. Keep the correct fingerings for each position.

The above demonstration uses 8th notes in an ascending way but, other patterns exist. The possibilities for different patterns becomes scary when playing four notes! Find and stick to something you like so you can work on it for a while.

A little “pep talk”:

You will unlock great fingerings and ideas for improvisation by figuring out the arps by yourself in each position. Otherwise, you would have to memorize “shapes” that could turn out to be completely useless for you.

You will make sense out of the guitar fretboard and understand what works best for you by learning position by position! Roll up your sleeves and get to work because the process is the reward!

Running Changes

You can start applying diatonic triads and seventh-chord arps to chord progressions once you get familiar with them in most of the positions. One of my favorite ways is to isolate the II, the V and then the I.

Here is an example in G major, “6-2” position:

jazz guitar arpeggios - 7

I find the example above just plain and boring but that is the main concept. Find different ways of playing the chords and arps. Create lines like these II V jazz guitar arpeggios.

jazz guitar arpeggios - 8

More to do: Extensions and Inversions

Build up to “higher” chord tones using the concept we’ve discussed for triads and seventh chords. Play a 1-3-5-7-9, or even a 3-5-7-9.

Consider this for a moment;  a 3-5-7-9 for G major 7 is B-D-F#-A. These are the same notes you get from a Bm7 (seventh) arpeggio.  When playing on a G major 7,  play the extensions 3-5-7-9, thus playing Bm7 over G major 7. Charlie Parker was known to do this. He would blow on the extensions of chord progressions.

Example:

jazz guitar arpeggios - 9

Arpeggio inversions are also very common practice in jazz improvisation. I won’t go into details, but it implies starting the arps on notes other than the root, and playing it up or down.

Create different intervals by keeping the exact same notes in the arp. This adds new sounds to the very same arpeggio.

Example:

jazz guitar arpeggios - 10

This is something to consider.

Arpeggios Wrap-up

We looked at:

  • Triads in positions
  • Seventh chords arpeggios in positions
  • Running II-V-I changes using arpeggios in positions
  • Arps extensions and inversions

Next, why not try your hand at some jazz improv with our FREE guide?

This guide will teach you the very basics of jazz improv covering subjects such as outlining the changes, hitting the right notes, and most importantly making music. We’ll cover the basics with you and take you through an actual jazz standard showing you how to play over it!

beginners guide to improv w store background

 

Hey, thanks for being here, and if you have any questions, please leave it in the comments box below 🙂


Marc-Andre Seguin is the webmaster, “brains behind” and teacher on JazzGuitarLessons.net, the #1 online resource for learning how to play jazz guitar. He draws from his experience both as a professional jazz guitarist and professional jazz teacher to help thousands of people from all around the world learn the craft of jazz guitar.

12 thoughts on “An Introduction to Jazz Guitar Arpeggios

  1. I’m a beginner and practicing for a couple a months. I have practiced the arpeggios for a while now. I know the basic shapes. I give an example. When I play Autumn Leaves (in Em) the first two bars Am7 and D7. I play the Am7 arpeggio in eighth-notes starting on the low E-string with my pinky, than the last note is G on the high E-string. Than I start the next arpeggio with the nearest note F# than D, C, A, F#, D, C and A. The shape of the notes/patterns is different from the basic shapes. How can I quickly find all the notes. Do I have to learn also the shapes of the inversions? That’s a whole lot of shapes. Or is it just knowing the notes? What if the chord is Gbminmaj7? Do I have to instantly know all the 4 notes and all the possibilities of playing them as an arpeggio on the fretboard?

    Greatings from Arnold
    Leeuwarden, The Netherlands.

    • Hi Arnold, this won’t be a very satisfying answer, but yes, you do need to know it all. But keep in mind that this is a process, not a destination. Practicing the arpeggios in the way you’re doing it is a great way to outline the basic structures for yourself, but finding musical ways of improvising or writing arpeggio lines really helps you to solidify arpeggio shapes on the guitar. So try finding ways through arpeggio lines that sound like music to your ear, and take note of what notes you cover…and what notes you neglect. Then try to fill in the gaps.

      If you also want some help solidifying your understanding of the notes on the fretboard, check out our course Learn The Fretboard 2.0 here: https://store.jazzguitarlessons.net/p/learn-the-fretboard-2-0

    • Yes! You’ll get access to all of the JazzGuitarLessons.net premium content, including the Improv series of courses – you’ll learn about how to improvise leveraging arpeggios effectively and much more.

  2. I’m having conceptualizing the negative can please make it clear. Is it the melodic Minor scale that the negative or its arps 🤔

    • Hi Barrick, the “negative” that Marc refers to here is the continuous arpeggio pattern that contains the remaining notes that weren’t played in the first arpeggio, in that guitar position. Remember, when you play an arpeggio, you skip every second note; you can make an arpeggio from those notes that are neglected.

Was this page helpful? Let us know!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.