Most guitarists start playing leads by learning how to play scales, which is a great way to begin, but scales are just one way to play solo lines. Scales move from note to note in a stepwise manner—like walking up and down stairs one at a time. This works, of course, but it can be more interesting when you skip a step or two every so often. One way of skipping notes in scales is by playing arpeggios.
Think about the anthemic, fading melody line in the Eagles’ “Hotel California,” the climax to the solo in the Dire Straits song “Sultans of Swing,” or the melody in the Allman Brothers song “Jessica.”
These are all arpeggios.
When you break a chord up into its individual notes, you’re playing an arpeggio. Take a first-position E chord and play the individual notes from the sixth string up to the first string and back down, as shown in Ex. 1, and you’re arpeggiating an E chord. Playing chords as arpeggios works great as an alternative backup pattern to strumming.
Try this the next time you’re playing rhythm—especially when there is more than one guitar playing the chords. In Example 1 each note of the E chord is played in sequence, but you can jump around, playing the notes in any order, as in Ex. 2. You can arpeggiate six-string chord shapes like these, but to play every possible note in an arpeggio, you’ll need to play a few more notes. That’s because a full six-string chord shape like this doesn’t include every possible root, third, and fifth of the chord—the notes you use to build a major chord. Ex. 3 shows an E arpeggio that includes all possible notes in the first position.
These arpeggio examples are excerpted from Acoustic Rock Basics.