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Classical Guitar Arpeggio Practice Patterns

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Chasmac is a semi-retired guitar teacher who has taught in various schools in London and elsewhere for over 30 years.

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Arpeggio Patterns

An arpeggio in music is a chord in which the notes or chord tones aren't played all at the same time but are spread out by playing them individually. The effect is flowing and harp-like (the words 'harp' & 'arpeggio' are related). Sometimes arpeggios are referred to as broken chords.

In actual music, arpeggios can be any kind of pattern in terms of pitch and rhythm. In standard classical guitar practice routines, however, they're logically arranged to ascend and descend and to include every chord tone along the way. The idea is to develop finger dexterity and improve finger stretch in reaching for the notes as well as gain an aural awareness of the sound and position of each chord tone within the chord. Those specific technique improvements are what make practising arpeggios very useful not only in classical guitar study but in any style of guitar playing.

The following are major and minor arpeggio patterns based on a previous classical guitar syllabus of Trinity College of Music, London.

Chord Tones

All major and minor chords consist of three chord tones (all of which can be doubled at any octave). The three chord tones are called the 1st (or root), the 3rd and the 5th of the chord. The numbers correspond with the position of notes in the major or minor scale scale based on the chord's root. The chord of C major, for example, contains the notes C, E & G, which are the 1st, 3rd and 5th notes (degrees) of the C major scale, while the chord C minor's notes: C, Eb (E flat) & G, correspond with the 1st, 3rd & 5th notes of the C minor scale.

Every two-octave arpeggio pattern goes through the sequence in exactly the same order:

  • 1st, 3rd, 5th, 1st, 3rd, 5th, 1st, and then immediately descends in reverse order as 5th, 3rd, 1st, 5th, 3rd 1st with exactly the same fingering in both directions. Three octave-patterns add an extra 1st, 3rd and 5th on ascending and 5th, 3rd, 1st on descending.
Right and left handed fretting-hand  and picking-hand fingering

Right and left handed fretting-hand and picking-hand fingering

Fingering

The fretting-hand fingering is given under the ascending notes in the notation, and the tab is included if you're more familiar with that. The Roman numerals indicate the fretboard position that your first finger will control.

Picking-hand fingering isn't marked but the standard classical guitar approach is to use the thumb (p) only for the lowest note followed by a strict rotation of your i, m and a fingers (index, middle, ring) until the highest note is reached with your a finger. Then descend in reverse order m, i, a, m, i etc., as shown below:

  • Two octave arpeggio
    Ascending - p, i, m, a, i, m, a
    Descending - m, i, a, m, i, p
  • Three octave arpeggio
    Ascending - p, i, m, a, i, m, a, i, m, a,
    Descending - m, i, a, m, i, a, m, i, p

Major Arpeggio: Two-Octave Movable Pattern

The first pattern is a two-octave completely movable major chord arpeggio pattern. The example is in C major, in 2nd position (starting with finger 2 on fret 3 of string 5) but you can play the pattern starting from as low as position one, which is B major (2nd fret -2nd finger-5th string), or you can start as high on the fretboard as far your guitar lets you reach.

Two octave movable arpeggio pattern. Example key C major

Two octave movable arpeggio pattern. Example key C major

Minor Arpeggio: Two-Octave Movable Pattern

Minor chords differ from major chords by one chord tone, which is the 3rd of the chord. The 3rd of a minor chord (and also of a minor scale) is one semitone or half step lower than the 3rd of major chords (and major scales). In chord construction, it's often referred to as a b3 (flat 3rd).

This single change can completely affect the arpeggio patterns, though, as the following pattern shows.

Minor arpeggio - two octave pattern. Example key C minor

Minor arpeggio - two octave pattern. Example key C minor

Major Arpeggio: Three-Octave Movable Pattern

This is a three octave movable pattern. The example is in F major, and this is as low as the pattern can be started without involving open strings.

Major arpeggio - Three octave movable pattern: Example key F major

Major arpeggio - Three octave movable pattern: Example key F major

Minor Arpeggio: Three-Octave Movable Pattern

This is a movable three octave pattern based on F minor. As with the major version, F minor is as low as the pattern goes without involving open strings.

Minor arpeggio - Three octave movable pattern: Example key F minor

Minor arpeggio - Three octave movable pattern: Example key F minor

Open String Three-Octave Major and Minor Arpeggio Patterns

The following two patterns are useful major and minor patterns based on E. They're not strictly movable as they contain notes played on open strings. They're the open string equivalent patterns of the movable major and minor shapes based on F, above.

In the E minor arpeggio, the choice of finger 3 for the second lowest note (G) is standard technique, but the choice of finger 4 is also given so that, if you prefer, you can hold a familiar E minor chord shape for the first two octaves and use finger 4 to play the 2nd note (low G on string 6, fret 3)

Major arpeggio - Three octave fixed pattern in E major

Major arpeggio - Three octave fixed pattern in E major

Minor arpeggio - Three octave fixed pattern in E minor

Minor arpeggio - Three octave fixed pattern in E minor

Playing the Arpeggio Patterns

Unlike scales, arpeggios are harmonic in nature. You're playing a chord so try to let every note sustain as long as possible. That involves keeping your fingers on fretted notes longer than their written duration and only lifting any finger when it's needed for a different note somewhere else on the fretboard.

Practise slowly at first and gradually build up speed, but always aim for clarity and consistent timing above speed.

Major and minor arpeggios are, by far, the most important arpeggios in classical guitar studies and are well worth practising on a daily basis, along with scales.

© 2012 Chas Mac