From the January 2017 issue of Acoustic Guitar | BY GRETCHEN MENN

The Problem

You’re having difficulty keeping a steady flow when playing arpeggios—chords played melodically, rather than harmonically, which serve the dual function of establishing harmony and its movements while also providing melodic contour and interest. Arpeggios can be valuable technical exercises, as well as great tools for accompaniment. You can employ this technique on Led Zeppelin’s “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You,” Steve Morse’s “Tumeni Notes,” and Pink Floyd’s “Us and Them,” among others.

The Solution

Start with chord shapes you already know. Learn a handful of increasingly complex fingerstyle picking patterns and then begin incorporating arpeggios into your vocabulary. Both your rhythm and lead playing will benefit in the process, as will your compositional ability and overall musicianship.

Step 1. Start slowly

Begin with your basic open-G chord, fretted with your second, first, and third fingers on strings 6, 5, and 1, respectively [scroll down for music examples]. Play the chord harmonically, as notated in bar 1 of Ex. 1, and then arpeggiated (bar 2). Fret the chord and leave it held in place. Play through each note, letting it ring out as you move on to the next one. Try bar 2 fingerstyle and with any other chords as well.

Step 2. Add a chord

Now play Ex. 2, which introduces another chord, E minor (the vi chord in the key of G). Notice how you can hear the harmonic movement with the change of only one note (G major is G B D; E minor is E G B). In other words, B and G are common notes in both chords. It’s always a good idea, by the way, to seek out smooth movement like this when playing arpeggiated chord progressions.

Step 3. Delve into some basic pick-hand patterns

For Ex. 3 and its reverse pattern, Ex. 4, take the same two chords, G and E minor. Note that the right-hand fingering is indicated in traditional format: a = ring finger, m = middle, i = index, p = thumb. Pay attention to the individual sounds of each string and to various strengths and weaknesses in your pick hand. If you’re new to fingerstyle technique, you’ll likely find your ring finger is weaker than your middle or index. Let your ears be the guide to finding balanced volume and tone.

Step 4. Mix it up with more patterns

In Ex. 5, notice that the chords are the same as in exercises 2–4, but because of a change of melodic direction and the rhythmic placement of the lowest note, the arpeggios start to take on a more melodic quality.

Ex. 6 extends the melodic workout introduced in Ex. 5 by introducing bass notes, played with the thumb, on the first and third beats of the measure. This adds fullness to the sound while helping reinforce the harmony. 

Step 5. Bring in some bass movement

Ex. 7 demonstrates moving bass notes against stationary chords, creating graceful harmonic movement that is also graceful to play with its open strings.

Ex. 8 combines the pick-hand pattern and added bass notes of Ex. 6 and the chord progression of Ex. 7. The one addition is a D on the last beat of the second bar.

Once you’ve polished all of these examples, try some finger patterns of your own invention, as well as chord progressions that intrigue or move you. Create a new song, riff, solo, or symphony. The possibilities are endless.

Gretchen Menn is a guitarist and composer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She writes, records, and performs original music and is a member of the popular Led Zeppelin tribute band Zepparella. 


This article originally appeared in the January 2017 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.