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Arpeggios for beginners

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Welcome to all beginners in this tutorial about arpeggios. We will clear the ground and see the basics you need to learn in order to play arpeggios properly.

Basics required for this lesson : None
Practice this lesson : None

Welcome to this tutorial on arpeggios for beginners. Today, we will see the basics that will allow you to play your first arpeggios. In order to do so, we will start by explaining what these so-called arpeggios are.

In the first part, we will focus on the definition of an arpeggio. In the second part, we will see a real and concrete example of an arpeggio, and in the third part we'll explain how you can take this further, until you explore this topic with more details through other tutorials.

What is an arpeggio?

First of all, the term arpeggio is used to define two "types" of very different arpeggios: on the one hand, there are arpeggios as an accompaniment - those are the onoes we deal with in this tutorial - and on the other hand, there are arpeggios used in solos – especially in jazz music – which we will discard in this tutorial. So just be aware of that, to avoid any confusion.

Arpeggios as an accompaniment

The concept of arpeggios as an accompaniment is simple. Usually, songs include a chord progression played with a rhythm pattern. Well, when playing an arpeggio, instead of strumming all strings at once, each string is strummed one after the other, in a specific order.

The first important remark is: you do not have to strum all six strings on each arpeggio sequence. In fact, most arpeggios use only 4 out of 6 strings.

An "arpeggio sequence" is the order in which the strings are strummed with the right hand. The arpeggio sequence can be used on various chords, without changing the order in which the strings are strummed (or barely changing this order, see below).

Any existing song can be played with arpeggios, even if the original is played using a specific strumming pattern. This is an adaptation, a form of interpretation. The opposite is also true: a song that is normally played using arpeggios can be adapted to a strumming pattern. Don't hesitate to try out what you learn today on the songs you already know!

Note that you can also play arpeggios with a pick, but this is much more difficult to achieve for a beginner and therefore this is not what we will see today.

There isn’t much more to say, except that this offers endless possibilities, so let's go step by step and make sure we don't miss anything.

Practicing arpeggios

In this second part, we'll drop all theoretical blah-blah and go straight to the point.

So let's play an E minor chord with the left hand, as shown on the chart below:

diagramme mi mineur

In case you are a total beginner on the guitar and you can't play this chord for now, there are two solutions: either you work on it and come back on this tutorial later :p or you do not use any finger from the left hand for the time being (I will explain why later on).

Right-hand position

As for the right hand, let's start with some basic rules, to make it simple, though things will get more complex later on. For now, let's use four fingers only: thumb, index, middle and ring fingers. Let's assign each finger to a very specific string:

  • The thumb goes on the lower E-string, i.e the sixth string;

  • The index goes on the G-string, i.e the third string;

  • The middle finger goes on the B-string, i.e the second string;

  • The ring finger goes on the high E-string, i.e the first string.

And since there's nothing like a good picture to get things straight, here is the basic position:

position main arpèges

Later on, in more complex arpeggios, fingers will be assigned to other strings, but for now, let's stick with this position and practice so that the right hand becomes independent and stronger.

In order to play this first arpeggio sequence, once your fingers are placed appropriately, you just have to strum the strings, one by one, starting from the lower ones and moving towards the higher ones. So, you begin playing with the thumb, then the index, then the middle finger and you end up playing with the ring finger. If all of the strings sounded right, then it's all good and you have just played your first arpeggio sequence successfully!

Important remarks

Let’s now focus on a few important remarks, so you don't pick up bad habits and you make sure to get used to the right movement:

  • Start playing slowly. VERY slowly. Do not hurry, take your time to improve.

  • Keep your right hand relaxed. You don't need a lot of strength to pluck the strings, so make sure your hand is not tense and your fingers move with agility.

  • Move your fingers, not your hand. Your hand should not go up, each finger must move independently. It's not easy at first, but soon, you will improve in terms of accuracy and thus, speed, if you play one finger at a time.

  • Keep a steady beat. Do not speed up, do not slow down - each note must have the same duration. Later on, you'll learn arpeggio sequences following a specific rhythm, but for now, keep it simple: play each note with the same duration.

  • Maintain the same volume. Your arpeggio sequence should be homogeneous and you do NOT want one note to sound louder than another (for now). Be aware of the different strength between your "strong" fingers (thumb, major and index, usually) and your "weak" finger (ring finger). Take some time to listen to the sound that's coming out of your guitar.

  • Do not hesitate to pluck the strings. You have to hear what you’re playing to be sure that you aren’t making mistakes. Usually, people start off playing with the tip of their finger because they're worried about making mistakes, but that's not the way to go to avoid making mistakes - it's just a way that may prevent you form hearing your mistakes actually. Furthermore, if you overplay the movement a little, it will help you memorize it, and then it will be easier for you play it again. So pluck your strings!

  • Let's also mention the anchor technique, which consists in putting the pinky on the guitar body (under the strings). This technique allows your hand to gain some stability but it will also make you lose some flexibility with the ring finger (the pinky and the ring finger have a common tendon). It is up to you to see if you prefer to work with an anchor or not. There is no obligation to use and there is nothing wrong in using it either. Try both ways (long enough) and find out which one suits you best.

Now let's go back to something that was mentioned earlier: how come is it possible to play an arpeggio sequence without playing a chord on the left hand? Well, if you look at the E minor chart, you will notice that strings 1, 2, 3 and 6 (respectively high E string, B-string, G-string and lower E string) are played open. The only fingers pressed for this chord are placed on the 4th and 5th strings (strings D and A). These two strings are never played in this arpeggio sequence. Whether you put your fingers to play the E minor or not, your arpeggio sequence will sound EXACTLY the same. So if you want to practice this arpeggio sequence focusing exclusively on the right hand, you do not have to play any chord on the left hand. Be careful, though: this will not work with all chords (in fact, it does not work with almost any of them except for the E minor). And if, later on, you practice playing an arpeggio pattern that requires strumming strings 4 or 5, then you will need to put on your left-hand fingers, otherwise it will sound out of tune.

 

So these are the basics of arpeggios, with a first arpeggio sequence that is easy to get, and that allows you to be aware of the challenges you may encounter in the future. Take some time to practice this first arpeggio sequence, and don't forget all of the important remarks mentioned above. Now that you are an expert on this arpeggio sequence, let's move on to the next part and twist things a little bit.

Make your arpeggio sequences more complex

This third part explains how to improve arpeggio sequences. Beware, though, there's no magic trick for that. There are just hints to explore, just so you know of what is awaiting. Don't freak out, there will be more tutorials which will further explore these things. There are just too many things to mention right now, and if we wen through everything, this would not be a beginner’s lesson anymore!

Chord changes

Let’s deal with chord changes. Because it's fine to be playing an E minor but it would be interesting to play other chords, so you can play an entire song with arpeggios.

Let’s set the basic rules: the same arpeggio sequence (such as the one played in the second part) can be played the same exact same way on other chords, except for one detail. Let's see an example with an A minor:

Diagramme La mineur

If you memorized the lesson on reading chord charts, you know that the 6th string (lower E) is not strummed on the A minor. This is the string that is supposed to be strummed with the thumb. So to avoid "skipping" a finger, the thumb is moved up to the 5th string, which is the lowest string for this chord.

Therefore, this is a rule to keep in mind (again, you'll be able to break free from this rule once you get more comfortable): when you play an arpeggio sequence on a chord, the thumb is ALWAYS placed on the lowest string of such chord. Once again, it's important to follow this rule in the beggining to keep things simple, but you'll be able to twist it later on. For now, just play this way and that you will spare yourself many distorted notes.

You can watch the video to see an example where I play the chord progression Am Em CG and D in order to show you the thumb position on these chords.

Chord positions

Another important thing to mention for those who already know several chords is that the position of the chords will change the sound of the arpeggio. For example, between an open Em (022000) and an Em barre (x79987), the arpeggio sequence will not sound the same! Do not hesitate to try different chord positions chords to find some beautiful arpeggios.


Back to our dear beginners who are reading this: you can play any chord progression (one of your own or from any song you like), and you can play the same arpeggio sequence once or twice on each chord. Then, you'll have played ​​your first chords using an arpeggio! It may be basic but it's nice!

Change the arpeggio sequence

Another way of taking advantage of arpeggios is to change the arpeggio sequence rather than changing the chords. Obviously, later on you'll be able to change both the arpeggio sequence AND the chord, but let’s just stick to the beginner's league for the moment. The possibilities for arpeggio sequences are almost endless so here are some tips to help you build your own:

  • Start with 4, 6 or 8 notes, using a steady flow. Do not try to play complicated rhythms, save that for later.

  • Always play with the thumb first. Once again, this rule isn’t complusory but it helps ensure that you play a well-structured arpeggio sequence that sounds great (and don't forget: the thumb is always on the lowest string of the chord.)

  • After strumming with the thumb, you can play with the other fingers in any order you like. Unleash your imagination!

  • A little tip that may be of interest: feel free to strum with several fingers at the same time, you'll get a sound that is sometimes very interesting.

  • You can also start breaking the rules: try placing your 3 "high" fingers (index, middle and ring) on other strings than three high strings. While sticking to the same order of fingers, you will get new sounds for your arpeggio sequences.

So those are some tips to help you create your own arpeggios. Of course, from there you are free to do what you want, as long as you are happy with the way it sounds!

Reading

If you lack inspiration or if you simply do not want to create your own arpeggios, you can pick some from our Riff Library. You will find an "arpeggios" section which contains several more or less basic sequences, that look like this:

Exemple mouvement d'arpège

Reading this weird thing is actually quite simple: the xs indicates the strings to be strummed and the order in which they should be strummed. If you follow the basic position explained at the beginning of the tutorial (the thumb on the base with the other three fingers placed on the three high strings), you will have no problem playing this correctly. However, pay attention to the base! In fact, all arpeggio sequences in the Riff Library are written with the low E-string as the base but do not forget to adjust this base to the chord you are playing. So remember to move the thumb to the appropriate string!

Once you have practiced a few arpeggio sequences from the Riff Library, use them in songs or in the chord progressions you like, but don't forget that you can also change the arpeggio sequence. Using the tips mentioned above, you can easily create new arpeggio sequences based on those you know, for example by changing the finger positions on the strings or by reversing the order in which you play the notes. Experiment!

So this is the conclusion of both the third part and this tutorial, through which you learnt how to make your arpeggio patterns a little more interesting. But keep in mind that it doesn't end here, since things can get more complex when adding rhythm to the arpeggio. The thumb can strum several strings, you may play more interesting chords on the left hand, etc. Basically, you've just walked the first miles of a long road! Move on slowly and you'll improve little by little!

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(Victor Hugo)