How to solo using jazz arpeggios

Pat Metheny
(Image credit: Paul Natkin/Getty Images)

Arpeggios are a mainstay of jazz guitar soloing vocabulary. Scale runs certainly have their place and can be incredibly effective, but overuse them, or fail to be creative with them, and they can begin to sound boring and robotic. 

Arpeggios, on the other hand, beautifully spell out the chord changes and ground our melodic lines in the underlying harmony. Jazz standards have rich harmonic progressions, so the ability to seamlessly articulate those changes with arpeggio-based lines is a great skill to own. 

In this series of lessons, we’re going on a jazz guitar arpeggio bootcamp! We’ll follow a five-step method you can use to master any arpeggio and, more importantly, turn it into authentic jazz vocabulary.

Arpeggios are usually taught as simple box shapes. This is helpful to begin with, but what we really need is an approach that allows us to break out of those boxes and play an arpeggio anywhere on the fretboard with freedom. Starting with the Major 7 arpeggio, here are the steps we’ll follow to achieve our goals. First, we’ll learn the basic box shape patterns for the arpeggio. 

Next, we’ll learn extended patterns that use more of the range of the neck. Then we’ll move onto arpeggio connections. These are lines that connect together arpeggio shapes across the fretboard and help you understand more about the arpeggio’s fretboard geography. 

Next we’ll learn a selection of arpeggio lines that avoid starting from the root note every time. These are important for ‘disguising’ the arpeggio and they sound more like melodic lines than patterns. 

Finally, we’ll introduce passing notes and see how it’s possible to spice up our arpeggio lines with chromatics. This is the part of the process where our use of arpeggio patterns becomes really musical and we’re able to create lots of authentic jazz guitar vocabulary. Cmaj7 will be our workhorse arpeggio for this lesson, and we’re going to get to grips with steps 1-3 of the above method. Cmaj7 is spelled C (root), E (3rd), G (5th), B (7th). 

In this lesson we’ll learn all the arpeggio shapes starting from root notes on the sixth and fifth strings. However, all the shapes will be two-octave patterns, which will also take care of the shapes with root notes on the fourth and third strings.

But first, let’s look at the standard box position shapes that are typically arranged in a four- or five-fret zone on the neck.  

Example 1. C maj7 arpeggio

Here’s the sixth-string root shape for Cmaj7 covering two octaves, ascending and descending.

Example 2. C maj7 with fifth-string root

Next, the fifth-string root box position shape. Notice that you will need to reach outside the box to play the final B note.

Example 3. C maj7 extended

These Major 7 shapes are useful when we want to work in one small zone of the neck, but often we’ll need to move between positions to accommodate chord changes, and for this we need an extended arpeggio shape that uses more of the range of the neck. 

Here is the sixth-string root Cmaj7 arpeggio in extended form. Given the pattern of this shape, it makes sense to continue it and add more notes on the first string. 

Example 4. Fifth-string version extended

Here is the extended pattern for the fifth string root arpeggio.

Example 5. 2-1-2 arpeggios

There is another useful way to play these arpeggios, favoured by players such as Tim Miller and Greg Howe. ‘2-1-2’arpeggio shapes lend themselves to playing quicker, legato-style arpeggios. 

They are so named because they comprise two notes on one string, one note on the next, two notes on the next, and so on. I like to use them myself, as the shapes fall under the fingers and it definitely feels like you are flowing across the strings more easily once you get used to them. 

Example 6. 2-1-2 from the fifth string

And now the fifth string root shape. It may feel like you’re making unnecessary stretches but persevere and you may fall in love with this approach.

Example 7. Linking arpeggios

Making arpeggio connections by linking these shapes together will help us to use the full range of the neck. These patterns are the bridge that help us to move seamlessly between zones on the fretboard. The following exercise links the fifth-string root extended arpeggio with the sixth-string root box position arpeggio.

Example 8. Combining both 2-1-2 shapes

This idea requires a fast, first- finger slide on the first string to change position. Play the arpeggio as normal until your first finger frets the G note on the first string, 3rd fret. Quickly slide up to the 7th fret and pause fractionally before sliding up one more fret. Now you’re in position to play the descending shape.

Example 9. Connecting shapes

The next example connects together parts of three different shapes to cover a wide range of the neck. Play through this slowly and focus on playing each note evenly, making smooth position changes as you ascend.

Example 10. As above but descending

Now, reverse this pattern and play it descending. This is trickier than it sounds, because it requires different fingering on the way down. Work out a fingering that feels comfortable and allows you to execute the line efficiently. 

Practise it slowly and embed the pattern into muscle memory so you can play our final example...

Example 11. Ascending and descending

Finally, let’s drill this whole pattern, ascending and descending. The result is a beautiful sounding line that rises and falls as it ascends. It’s quite tricky to play cleanly, so focus on getting the fingering changes sounding smooth. 

So far, we’ve taken one arpeggio and combined box position and extended shapes to play it across the range of the fretboard. Until next time, practise the connected arpeggio patterns until they become second nature. 

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Tim Pettingale is the author of five bestselling books on jazz guitar, and has collaborated with the likes of Mike Stern, Oz Noy, Ulf Wakenius, Robben Ford, Josh Smith, John Patitucci and Allen Hinds. He is founder of the Fundamental Changes music tuition publisher, which has sold over one-million books to date.