Arpeggios for beginners
Basics required for this lesson : None
Practice this lesson : None
Welcome to this lesson on arpeggios for beginners. Today, we will see the basics that will allow us to play our first arpeggios, which will start by explaining what these so-called arpeggios are.
The first part will therefore spend a little time defining arpeggios, the second part will show a concrete example that will allow us to bring some life into the subject matter, and the third part will give us some ideas on how to take it further before we go ahead and take on the next lessons that will delve deeper into the subject.
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 the picking patterns that we see in today's lesson, and on the other hand, arpeggios used in solos – especially in jazz – which we will not visit at all in this course. So just be aware of this confusing matter.
The idea behind arpeggios is simple. Usually, they are in a song where we have a chord progression that is played with a rhythm. Well, to play arpeggios, instead of strumming all of the strings at once, we will pick them one after the other, in a specific order.
The first thing to note: you do not have to pick the six strings with every picking pattern. In fact, most of the picking patterns use only 4 out of 6 strings.
We call "picking patterns" the order in which we pick the strings with the right hand. This picking pattern can be used on various chords, without changing the order of the picked strings (or almost, 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 reverse is also true: a song normally played using arpeggios can be adapted to a strumming pattern. Do not 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 it is much more difficult to achieve for a beginner and it is therefore not what we will see today.
There isn’t much more to say but the possibilities are almost endless so let's go forth slowly to avoid skipping any steps.
Working the arpeggios
In this second part, we drop the theoretical blab-blah and we go right to the heart of the matter.
For this, we will play a E minor chord with the left hand, which you will find the chart right here:
If you ever feel like a total beginner at the guitar and can’t bring yourself to play this chord, there are two solutions: either you work on it and then you go over it again later :p or you do not rest any finger from the left hand for the time being (I explain why a little later on.)
Right hand position
With the right hand, we will start by setting down the basic rules so we can simplify things, which we can modify later on. We will only use four fingers: the thumb, index, middle and ring finger. These four fingers will be placed on very specific strings:
The thumb on the low E-string, that is to say, the sixth string;
The index will be placed on the G-string, that is to say, the third string;
The middle finger will be placed on the B-string, that is to say the second string;
The ring finger will be placed on the high E-string, that is to say the first string.
And since a picture is worth a thousand words, here is the basic position:
Later, in more complex arpeggios, we will use our fingers on other strings but to start, we will limit ourselves to this position while we work out the independence and strength of our right hand.
To perform our first picking pattern, once our fingers are properly in place, we will simply pick the strings, one by one, starting with the low ones and going towards the higher ones. We therefore begin with the thumb, then the index, then the middle finger and we finish with the ring finger. If all of the strings sounded correct, it's all good and you have successfully played your first picking pattern!
Important things to note
Let’s now look at some important things to note as not to pick up bad habits and try to develop the correct motion:
Start slowly. VERY slowly. Do not hurry, take your time so that you progress properly.
Keep your right hand relaxed. You do not need a lot of strength to pick chords so do not you tense up, as your fingers should play with a fluid motion.
Move your fingers, not your hand. Your hand should not raise itself, each finger must have an independent movement. It's not easy at first but soon, you will gain accuracy and thus, speed, if you move just one a finger at a time.
Play at the regular rhythm. Do not speed up, do not slow down - all of the notes must have the same duration. We will see more advanced picking patterns with rhythm later on but for now, keep it simple: all notes should have the same duration.
Play at a regular volume. Your picking pattern should be homogeneous and we do NOT want one note to sound stronger than another (for now). Be aware of the power differential between your "strong" fingers (thumb, major and index, usually) and your "weak" finger (ring finger). Take the time to listen to the sound coming from your guitar.
Do not hesitate to pick the strings. You have to hear what you’re playing to be sure that you aren’t making mistakes. In the beginning, we use the tips of our fingers because we’re concerned about errors but this is not the way to go about avoiding mistakes as you may not hear them. Furthermore, if you exaggerate the movement a little, it will help imprint the action into your memory and it will therefore be easier the next time you do this. So pick your strings!
We can also discuss the anchoring technique, which consists of pressing down the little finger to the body of the guitar (under the strings). This technique allows your hand to gain stability but it will also cause you to lose flexibility in the ring finger (the little finger and ring finger share a tendon). It is up to you to see if you prefer to work with an anchor or without. There is no obligation and there is nothing against doing it either. Try both methods (for a long enough period) and find which one suits you best.
Now I want to come back to a point that I raised earlier: why can we get away with playing a chord with our left hand to perform our first picking pattern? Well, if you look at the diagram of E minor, one realizes that the string 1 2 3 and 6 (respectively high E string, B-string, G-string and low E string) are played in a vacuum. The only fingers that are raised for this chord are placed on the 4 and 5 strings (strings D and A). These two strings are never played in our picking patterns. Whether you place your fingers to play the E minor or not, your picking pattern will sound EXACTLY the same. So if you want to work your picking pattern by focusing exclusively on the right hand, you do not have to play a chord with 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 you work a picking pattern that requires picking of strings 4 or 5 later on, you will need to place your fingers, otherwise it won’t be correct.
So these are the basics of arpeggios, with a first picking pattern that is easy to implement, which already allows you to be aware of the difficulties that you may encounter in the future. Take the time to perform the first picking pattern, without forgetting all of the important points mentioned above. Now that you are an expert on this picking pattern, we attack the next section to bring a little variety to things.
Enriching your picking patterns
We are now in our third section where we will see how to improve our picking patterns. Beware, though, you won’t find any magic formula here, there are only avenues for us to explore, just to give you an idea of what to expect for the future. Do not worry as there will be other subsequent lessons in which we will explore these things together but there are just too many things to say about these right now and if we went into them, it would not really be a beginner’s lesson anymore!
Let’s start out by talking about chord changes. Because it's fine to make a minor half but it would be interesting to play other chord, just to be able to play a complete song arpeggios.
Let’s lay the foundations: the same picking pattern (like we did in the second part) can be played exactly the same on other chords, except for one detail. An example for A minor:
If you have absorbed the lesson on reading chord charts, you know we do NOT pick the 6th string (low E) in the minor. This is the string that is supposed to be picked with the thumb. So as not to "lose" a finger, we will move the thumb to the 5th string, which is the lowest string of the chord.
This is therefore a rule to keep in mind (again, we can stop doing this later, once you get more comfortable): when you play a picking pattern on a chord, we ALWAYS place the thumb on the lowest string of the chord in question. Once again, this is important when we are starting out so that we don’t off ourselves, but this is also something that we can change later on. For now, be happy that you can do it and that you will save yourself from playing a lot of incorrect notes.
You can watch the video to see an example where I can link Am Em CG and D in order to show the placement of the thumb for these chords.
Another important thing to note for those who already know several chords is that the position of the chords will change the sound of the arpeggio. If, for example, you take an open Em (022000) or a Em barre (x79987), the picking pattern will not sound the same! Do not hesitate to vary the positions of your chords to find some beautiful picking patterns.
Back to our dear beginners who are read this, you can play any chord progression (one of your own composition or a song that you like), and you can play the same picking pattern once or twice on each chord. You will have then played your first chords using an arpeggio! It may be basic but it's pretty!
Modifying the picking pattern
Another way of taking advantage of arpeggios is to modify the picking patterns rather than changing the chords. Obviously, you can go on to change the picking pattern AND change the chord later, but let’s just stick to the realm of the beginners for the moment. The possibilities for picking patterns 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 do complicated rhythms, reserve those for later.
Always play with the thumb first. Once again, this is a rule that isn’t mandatory but this helps ensure that your picking pattern will be structured and it will sound good (and do not forget: the thumb is always on the lowest string of the chord.)
After picking the thumb, you can then pick with the remaining fingers in any order. Unleash your imagination!
A little tidbit that may be of interest: nothing prevents you from picking with several fingers at the same time, it gives a sound that can sometimes be very interesting.
You can also start to break the rules: try placing your 3 "high" fingers (index, middle and ring) on other strings than three treble strings. Keeping the same order of fingers to pick, you will have new sounds for your picking patterns.
So those are some tips to help you create your own picking patterns. Of course, from there you are free to do what you want, as long as you are happy with the way it sounds!
If you’re lacking inspiration or if you simply do not want to create your own picking patterns, you can dip into the our Riff Library. You will find an "arpeggios" section which contains several picking patterns that are more or less basic, presented in this form:
Reading this weird thing is simple enough: the xs indicates the strings to be picked in their proper order. If you follow the basic position explained at the beginning of the lesson (the thumb on the base with the other three fingers placed on the three high strings), you will have no problem picking them correctly. However, pay attention to the base! In fact, all of the picking patterns 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 that you are playing. So remember to shift the thumb to the proper chord!
Once you have worked a few picking patterns from the Riff Library, use them in pieces or in chord progressions that you like, but do not forget that you can also modify the picking patterns. By applying the same guidelines as provided above, you can easily create new picking patterns that are based on those you know, for example by changing the strings fingers or by reversing the order of the notes. Experiment!
So that concludes the third part as well as this lesson, where we saw a few ways to make our picking patterns a little more interesting. But keep in mind that things don’t stop here because we can complicate things later on by adding rhythms to our arpeggio, the thumb will be able to play several strings, we will be able to play more interesting chords with the left hand, etc. You’ve basically just made the first steps on a long road! Move forward slowly and little by little, you will progress!