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Improvisation Tools - Part 2: Arpeggios

This is the second of a series of articles to familiarize you with the tools used in improvisation. See "Improvisation Tools: Pentatonic" for Part 1 in the series. In order to get the most out of this article you should have at least some experience in improvising.

The series of articles "Improvisation Tools" does not attempt to be a prescriptive method that specifies exactly how you should apply a particular tool to a specific chord or give you exact practicing schedules. Rather, they are intended to show you some ideas on how to approach and practice these tools.

If you have any questions, comments, suggestions or criticism please feel free to post them in the forums here at iBreathe. I hope that this article is helpful and that you have fun studying it.


Before we actually start working on arpeggios we have to define the term "arpeggio" and how it is used throughout this article. An arpeggio is a series of single notes that spell out a Triad or a 7th chord (For further information refer to the harmony section on this site). Notice that this article is entirely about 7th chords arpeggios, meaning the 4 different single notes that make up major7, minor7, dom7, m7b5, and dim7 . Therefore, knowledge of intervalic construction of each chord family is absolutely vital.

Whereas chordal thinking has a more vertical direction arpeggios show a strong horizontal direction and therefore are very useful in improvisation. Due to the fact that 4 note arpeggios contain all notes of a chord the term "Chord Tones" sometimes seems to be more appropriate. I will use both expressions interchangeably. For clarity: when saying arpeggio I refer to a fingering or pattern, when saying chord tones I am thinking of individual intervals that make up the chord, e.g. root or perfect fifth.

Important: You do not have to learn everything at once in this article. I encourage you to read through it and see what you can apply to your playing. Go as far as you are interested in and/or pick out the topics that you have the feeling of being helpful.

Part 1: Arpeggios in 5 Positions

Major 7

I don't know what your first experience with arpeggios was or if you ever had one. In my case I learned my first fingerings in close connection with 7th chord voicings and looking back I think this is a good way to start out. In most books arpeggio fingerings are presented in more or less 5 main positions. Although you may have learned different ones I encourage you to follow the fingerings and exercises on the next few pages.

I will demonstrate everything with focus on maj7 arpeggios. At the end of Part 1 you can find the fingerings for the other chord families to which you can then apply the learned maj7 approach on your own.

The 5 positions are demonstrated by listing the most common major7 voicing with the arpeggio next to it, so that you can set them in relation to each other. Furthermore I included the individual intervals/chord tones of the voicing and the arpeggio. Note that it is very important to learn the positions of the chord tones. On the bottom of each position I included a notation part with fingerings of the voicing and the related arpeggio. Notice that I start the arpeggio on the lowest possible root.


First Drill & Exercises

Before you take a look at all 5 positions you should perform some exercises with each fingering. If you have finished the drill to your satisfaction, move on to the next position.

1) Take the voicing and the arpeggio and transpose them through the circle of fifth, i.e., C, G, D, A, E, B, Gb, Db, Ab, Eb, Bb, F, and back to C. Play the maj7 voicing first followed by the arpeggio. I recommend the use of a metronome. Try to bring the rests between voicings and arpeggios to an absolute minimum.
Example: Metronome bpm = 80 -100

2) Improvise with focus on chord tones. This exercise will help you to memorize the location of individual chord tones in each position.

Record a Cmaj7 vamp (3 minutes) -- now let's say we focus on the root. Try to improvise using only the note C . Our first fingering includes twice the root which are an octave apart (on A and g string).

Now take the 3rd (E), 5th (G) and 7th (B) and repeat the procedure.
Then take combinations: Improvise with roots and 3rds only -- or 5th and 7th.

Transpose the exercise in different keys. I recommend to think in numbers and not in note names because the location of the Chord tones in relation to the root stay the same independent from the position you are in.

More Patterns and Exercises >>