Using Arpeggios in Blues - an Introduction

First of all let me state that, as the title says, this is just an introduction to using arpeggios in Blues and it's by no means  a comprehensive guide (that would require a book or two). My aim is to show how to break out of the pentatonic scale to the ones among you who never used arpeggios, and maybe to give a couple of new ideas to people who already know something about arpeggios.

Ok, let's get started. We consider a standard dominant Blues in A. The chords in the simplest form of a dominant Blues in A are A7, D7, and E7, typically arranged in a 12-bars progression: A A A A7 D D7 A A7 E7 D7 A A7.  Most players when faced with soloing over chord progression revert to the use of the familiar pentatonic "box" shape, with a "blue note" added:

Pentatonic Diagram

Nothing wrong with that, I like this pattern like everyone else, but I think of it as a starting point rather than the the end of all Blues playing. Ok, the first step in learning how to use the arpeggios is to find the arpeggios of the three chords mentioned above (A7, D7, and E7) in a position close to the pentatonic box shape. This way we will be able to transition from the scale to the arpeggio and vice versa with ease. 

So let's see the arpeggios of the triads A, D and E that are close to the box shape:

And the arpeggios of A7, D7, and E7 close to the pentatonic box.

I want you to notice how these arpeggios superimpose PARTIALLY with the minor pentatonic scale. Learn how the arpeggios and the scale relate to each other, how they share some notes and not some other. This will be useful when soloing since you will need to jump back and forth between the scale and the arpeggio.

Ok, now that we know the shapes of the arpeggios, how do we use them? You can start by playing the arpeggio of the chord in the backing track, i.e. an A or A7 arpeggio when the A chord is playing, then a D or D7 when the D chord is playing, and an E or E7 when the E chord is playing. Of course, this gets old pretty fast since your playing would most likely be fairly predictable if you just play them up and down. In the following I show three simple ways of using arpeggio shapes in a more creative and interesting way.

1. Use Broken Arpeggios

Let's start with what you should NOT do. Here is how I would usually NOT play an A7 arpeggio on the A7 chord:

While a phrase like this can have its place, it still sounds more "Shred" rather than "Blues".  Don't get me wrong, there is nothing bad in shredding, but there have already been lots of articles on how to use sweep arpeggios in shred, and here I'd like to examine a more bluesy and melodic approach to it.

The key idea is to play the arpeggios, but not "in order" from the lowest to the highest note or vice versa. You need to "break" them up by playing the arpeggio notes in a different order, and with a different inflection for each note. Most people fail to realize that when they are first learning about arpeggios, so the erroneously conclude that there is no way of using them soulfully in Blues. Now, an example of what I mean here would be very difficult to convey using only tabs, so I prepared for you a free video (at the top of the page) with some examples. I suggest you have a look at it while using the tabs in this article for reference.

2. Use Arpeggio Notes as Ending Notes

One of the most important bits of knowledge that you should keep in mind while soloing melodically is this: "The arpeggio shapes contain the strong notes of the chord." What does that mean? It means that the notes contained in the A7 arpeggio are all going to sound good on the A7 chord, even if you play them isolated (i.e. if you are not playing through all the arpeggio, but only one or two notes). Of course this is just what we have seen in the section above, but there is more to it. It also means that no matter what kind of phrase you play (from an arpeggio, or a scale, or something completely out of whack) the phrase will sound better if you end it on one of the notes of the arpeggio. This is because any tension or dissonance you might have played in your phrase is going to be resolved once you stop on a note of the arpeggio.

In other words, you do not have to play the arpeggio shapes at all: you can just remember where the arpeggios are located respect to the pentatonic scale so that you are going to end your phrases on a note of the arpeggio. By using the arpeggio shapes as signposts of your solo, you will be sure that you are soloing "in" the chord progression. I talk at length about this in my free e-book "melodic guitar improvisation".

One note. I said that any phrase you might play will sound BETTER if you end it on a note of the arpeggio, as opposed to ending it on another note. This, on the other hand, does not mean that you can play the craziest dissonances you can invent and expect them to sound GOOD only because you end them on an arpeggio note. This trick helps, but it's not the end of the story: taste and experience still play a big part in it.

3. Use an Arpeggio Different than the Chord

I get lots of questions on this point by some of my students, so I'm going to make it clear and explicit even if it seems obvious to some. When the A7 chord is playing on the backing track, you are NOT restricted to use only the A7 arpeggio. You can play any  arpeggio over any chord as long as you like the sound of it. I stress the "YOU like" partly because some people do like the sound of dissonant arpeggios, and partly because generations of jazz players have repeatedly challenged music theory by playing the most improbable and dissonant arpeggios (while consistently avoiding the audience throwing them rotten tomatoes). Of course at this point you can go crazy with your arpeggios, but here and now we will limit ourselves to a couple of easy options.

Here for instance is how you might be using a D7 arpeggio while the A7 chord is playing. You see, the first part is just a descending D7 arpeggio, then the last note of the arpeggio (a C) gets "corrected" to a C# (which is a typical Blues trick). Ending the arpeggio on A makes it sound fine while A7 is playing, as we have seen above. 

Another arpeggio that I like on A7 is Em7. Notice how I concatenate it with a fragment of a blues scale:

To see these and other licks in action, please see my book on arpeggios.

Minor Blues

Everything we said up to now is valid also for the minor Blues, with the only difference that the chord progression is (in its simplest form): Am Am Am Am7 Dm Dm7 Am Am7 Em7 Dm7 Am Am7. This means that we need to use the following arpeggios:

Again, learn how these arpeggios relate to the pentatonic scale. Their use is exactly the same as we described above.

The only thing left for you now is to take up your guitar and hear how these arpeggios sound. I can write here at length and it will mean nothing until you have a clear sonic picture in your mind. With a bit of experience you will start to HEAR the arpeggios, and then they will make sense. My only recommendation is that you try these arpeggios with a backing track: the whole point of using the arpeggios is to be able to play a solo that reflects the chord changes in the blues progression. If you play the arpeggios by themselves then you are missing the most important point.

If you want to know more about using arpeggios in Blues, check out my book SweepingBlues: 101 Sweep Picking Licks for Blues Guitar

First of all let me state that, as the title says, this is just an introduction to using arpeggios in Blues and it's by no means  a comprehensive guide (that would require a book or two). My aim is to show how to break out of the pentatonic scale to the ones among you who never used arpeggios, and maybe to give a couple of new ideas to people who already know something about arpeggios...