Playing fingerstyle arpeggios seems to be fairly intuitive for most players.
On the other hand, playing arpeggios with a pick is one of the techniques that is absolutely abused by guitar students.
I think it’s because pick-style arpeggios offer too many possibilities.
Since they can be handled in various ways, an educated guitarist should have some sort of guideline for taking care of this common playing situation.
In this Definitive Lesson, we’ll put you on the path to arpeggio awesomeness by detailing the two main approaches for picking through these jingle-jangly lines!
Dude…what’s an arpeggio?
Arpeggios are often called broken chords since the notes of a chord are “broken up” and articulated one at a time. Contrast that with strumming a chord; in that context, you hear all the notes blur together so that they sound to the listener like one, big sound.
[THEORY NOTE: Technically, the Italian term arpeggio means “harp-like”. If you can visualize a harpist, they often articulate notes by plucking the strings one at a time.]
The methods for arpeggiating a chord – yes, we can turn the noun arpeggio into a verb – are varied. We can play ascending arpeggions, where the notes move in pitch from lowest to highest. We can go the opposite route and play descending arpeggios. We can even mix the notes randomly. The only limit here is your creativity and/or what the song requires of you.
If you’ve never actually played an arpeggio before, try this to get your feet wet:
1 – Grab a basic G chord.
2 – Strum the chord normally. That’s not an arpeggio.
3 – Pluck the notes of the chord randomly, one string at a time. That’s an arpeggio.
The Basic Approaches
With pick-style arpeggios, understanding the concept is the easy part. Understanding the execution is the hard part. In other words, “How do I pick ’em, JB?”
For me and my students, the answer lies in how the notes are laid out across the strings.
I recognize the arpeggio shape, or architecture, and let that dictate the picking approach that I use. Matching the picking approach to the shape is the key to arpeggio success!
[Disclaimer: This is my personal approach and, after studying lots of other pro players, a somewhat common one. You can feel free to find your own method, but give this an honest effort first. You should find that after a while it becomes a no-brainer.]
The first approach to playing arpeggios uses a technique that many of us already know: alternate picking.
This method can be used for any arpeggio shape, but it seems to work best when the notes are located in a “back and forth” manner on the strings; that is, lower string, higher string, lower, higher, etc.
As in standard single-note picking, the alternate approach for arpeggios still aims to place downstrokes on the number of the beat and upstrokes on the “and”:
The second approach is sometimes referred to as economy picking or sweep picking, but I prefer to call it directional picking, because the name sounds like what we’re trying to accomplish: picking notes in one direction.
The best time to use the directional approach is when the notes are located on the strings either in ascending order of pitch (such as string 4, 3, 2, 1), or in descending order (strings 1, 2, 3, 4).
These arpeggio shapes are very common and a piece of cake to recognize. Arpeggios in ascending order can be executed easily with all downstrokes. This is a very efficient method since each downstroke moves us in the direction of the next note:
[A note about TEMPO and STYLE: Remember that sometimes our technique is tempo- and style-dependent. For instance, this type of directional picking might be considered a bad choice for the bluegrass player, who is typically playing at a fast tempo and with a driving picking style. He/she might favor alternate picking – called crosspicking in that genre – for its simple back-and-forth stability. On the other hand, a metal or jazz player would view this as a sweep picking technique, especially useful for blasting through an arpeggio quickly.]
At first glance, it looks like all downstrokes is a cut-and-dried way to tackle our ascending arpeggios, and sometimes this will work just fine.
However, since it is very common for an ascending arpeggio to be followed by a descending arpeggio, we’re presented with a small technical issue: the final downstroke in our series is actually taking us away from the strings.
Since our objective with directional picking is to efficiently move our pick in the direction we need to go, my strongest recommendation here is to train yourself to change direction on the highest note of the phrase, like so:
You may think that this is no big deal when applied to just the phrase above – and you would be correct – but when looking at the arpeggio “big picture”, it becomes clear why this is a good habit to develop. The reversal on string 1 sets you up perfectly for your descending arpeggios played with all upstrokes:
Question: Why not just play all your downstrokes in series and reverse only when necessary?
I’m sure that can work too, so feel free to experiment. But the above method, where you’re essentially performing an outside stroke on the two highest strings, has always had a superior “feel” to me.
Note that the overall rhythm and phrasing plays a role in which picking approach you decide to take.
The above examples all have long notes at the end of phrases or in the middle of phrases, to separate them and give a clean break between arpeggios.
But what if arpeggios run chord to chord continuously, with no rest or held note between them?
The answer again lies in the strategic reversal.
The term “strategic reversal” is one that I coined for this very picking concept. It sounds very technical and highbrow, like we’re playing a game of chess or something, but it just means that we reverse our picking direction at a strategic point. That strategic point is typically at the highest note or lowest note of a phrase.
Continuous arpeggios, like the example below similar to “Everybody Hurts” by REM, require reversals on the high and low notes of each chord:
In the opening riff of “867-5309/Jenny” by Tommy Tutone, the strategic reversal is applied multiple times. Note that if you did not reverse on the high note each time, you would have to circle around and play each of the lowest notes with an upstroke (the phrase is much too fast for all downstrokes):
Case By Case
As with most things in life, arpeggios are best handled on a case by case basis.
It would be great to have some strict rules about how to play them, but the honest truth is, there is no single method that will work all the time, given all the possible permutations.
This is why sometimes I’ll use alternate picking and other times I’ll use a directional approach, often in the same phrase. A great example is this classic intro to “More Than a Feeling” by Boston:
In the most extreme cases, where the arpeggio seems awkward to play no matter what, then just do whatever seems best and most logical at the time. But own it!
Playing Devil’s Advocate
For the sake of truly understanding why certain techniques are superior to others in a given situation, I like to play “devil’s advocate” and say to myself, “What if I used the other technique here? Would it be equally useful? If not, WHY?”
The why is the key to depth of understanding.
Why is alternate picking good for this over here but not that over there? Why does directional picking make the most sense in one case but not in another?
With this is mind, I recommend that you take another run at the above arpeggio examples and try to play them with the “wrong” technique. See what happens.
Classic Pop and Rock Examples
In addition to the REM, Tommy Tutone and Boston examples above, here are two dozen MORE pick-style arpeggio examples for you to investigate:
“Hotel California” by The Eagles
“Mr. Brightside” by The Killers
“Babe I”m Gonna Leave You” by Led Zeppelin
“Message in a Bottle” by The Police
“House of the Rising Sun” by The Animals
“You Shook Me All Night Long” (chorus) and “Hells Bells” by AC/DC
“Wanted Dead or Alive” by Bon Jovi
“Bringin’ on the Heartbreak” and “Photograph” by Def Leppard (chorus)
“December” by Collective Soul
“Love of a Lifetime” by FireHouse
“Patience” by Guns N’ Roses
“Kryptonite” by 3 Doors Down
“Don’t Fear the Reaper” by Blue Oyster Cult
“Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love” by Van Halen
“The Cave” by Mumford and Sons
“Sweet Home Alabama” and “Simple Man” by Lynyrd Skynyrd
“Closer to the Heart”, “Fly By Night”, “Limelight” (chorus) and “Red Barchetta” by Rush
“Brain Damage” and “Hey You” by Pink Floyd
If you’d like to see this lesson demonstrated on YouTube, check out Mastering Pick-style Arpeggios.
QUESTION: Any great arpeggio examples that you’d like to add? Got a technique for playing them that you’d like to share? Leave me a comment below!