Everyone from Charlie Christian to Yngwie Malmsteen has used arpeggios in their guitar solos – here's how you can do it, too

Yngwie Malmsteen
(Image credit: Carlos Santiago/ Eyepix Group/Future Publishing via Getty Images)

Previously, we've looked at how arpeggios are a valuable tool to add melodic and rhythmic interest to rhythm guitar. This time, we will see how they can enhance the sound of your lead solos.

One of the strengths of using arpeggios in lead playing is that harmonically you can’t go wrong by outlining the notes in a chord. This idea is often attributed to early jazz, where arpeggios were used to play over chord progressions. For anyone new to this technique, it can be challenging at first. It requires the guitarist to have certain information and skill.

First, one needs to know what notes are present in each chord they are playing over. Secondly, it is important that the notes on the fretboard are fully known, so that the required notes from the accompanying chords can be accessed with ease, no matter where on the neck. 

The guitar fretboard can be difficult to master, since the same note can be found on different strings. For example, the E note on the 12th fret of the sixth string can also be found on 7th fret of the fifth string, and then again on the 2nd fret of the fourth string. The way the guitar is tuned can bring its own challenges. 

Most of the strings are tuned in 4ths, with the exception of the second string which is tuned a major 3rd above the third string. It is these factors that can make using arpeggios to navigate chord progressions more difficult than using a single scale across an entire sequence. However, using arpeggios can yield incredibly musical results, while at the same time  helping you master the guitar’s fretboard.

Players who are often associated with the use of arpeggios include all the jazz greats, from Charlie Christian through to Pat Martino, blues aficionados along the lines of Gary Moore and Eric Gales, rock players such as Steve Lukather and Steve Morse and neo-classical masters including Yngwie Malmsteen and Jason Becker. Let’s not forget the late, great Jeff Beck, whose mastery of the fretboard along with his unique individuality led to some incredible pieces where arpeggios were all-important.

If you want to explore the use of arpeggios further in your lead playing, mastering the CAGED system will be of immense help, along with the ability to quickly identify the notes in individual chords and where they are found on the guitar neck. This skill will add a whole new layer to your playing if it is something you haven’t explored before. Remember, patience and practice will always yield results. 

Get the tone

Amp Settings: Gain 7, Bass 6, Middle 5, Treble 6, Reverb 3

As we so often say with articles not based around a certain player’s style or sound, it’s best to opt for a pleasing tone that will help you concentrate on the licks you need to learn, rather than going for full-on distortion with tons of effects. So, select your neck pickup, dial in a moderate  amount of overdrive, then add a touch of reverb and/or delay to taste. 

Examples 1-5. Video and tab

Example 1. Classic rock

Here we use the 1st, 3rd and 5th of each chord to outline the chord tones of Am (A-C-E) and G (G-B-D). Watch out for the octave jump at the end of each bar.

Example 2. Jazz

The use of arpeggios, along with chromaticism, is a fundamental technique for jazz guitarists. This example uses a II-V-I progression based around the chords of Dm7 (D-F-A-C), G7 (G-B-D-F) and Cmaj7 (C-E-G-B) with added chromatic notes.

Example 3. Alternative rock

This example outlines the chords of Am9 (A-C-E-G-B) and G (G-B-D) combining palm muted bass notes with a melodic line to produce a syncopated lead guitar part. 

Example 4. Neoclassical metal

A first-string pedal tone idea is used as the basis for this example, using a series of syncopated pull-offs to outline the chord of Am (A-C-E). Take care when negotiating the syncopated movement of the fretted notes.

Example 5. Psychedelic rock

This final example outlines an Am chord (A-C-E) by connecting triads in multiple positions. Try this same approach over major chords as well, to increase your fretboard knowledge. Heavy usage of arpeggios can be an exciting sound but is often best used alongside, say, pentatonic licks for melodic light and shade.

Study piece  

This piece starts off with a pedal note idea using the first string to outline the chords of Am (A-C-E) and E (E-G#-B). Aim for as even a volume as possible between the pull-offs and picked notes. Between bars 9-12 the main chord progression appears, using the chords of Am (A-C-E), E (E-G#-B), C (C-E-G) and F (F-A-C). 

The licks within these eight bars show how chord tones can be used in a variety of ways to construct guitar lines. 

Bars 13-20 show how arpeggios can be used on one string to create smooth lines. Midway through, a harmony line showcases how multiple parts can be stacked to create interest. Scale tones are used here for musical effect; these have been outlined in the accompanying chords above the stave. 

Bars 21-25 use arpeggios on the first, second and third strings, continuing with a harmony line that’s on the backing track. The inversions are different from chord to chord here. See if you can spot them.

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Simon Barnard

Simon is a graduate of the UK's Academy of Contemporary Music and The Guitar Institute, and holds a Masters degree in music. He teaches, examines and plays everything from rock to jazz.