If you’ve heard of arpeggios, you have probably wondered how they could possibly be used for improvising on the guitar?! This column talks about the use of chord tone structures as a grid for progressively adding the in-between elements, such as passing tones, bebop sequences and many more important musical building blocks of improv. We will illustrate how modes are arrived at in the context of chromaticism, metric control, and bebop scales.

Let’s take a modal chord progression and progressively layer the tools we will need to create to get to those above-mentioned in-between elements. Here is a chord progression taken from Coltrane’s Impressions:

||—- 16 bars of Dm7 —||— 8 bars of Ebm7 —||— 8 bars of Dm7 —||

Let’s examine the first of the two chords: Dm7; here’s the arpeggio at the fifth position (that is, starting at the fifth fret on the neck):

Example 1

In a different layout (root on 5th string, 5th position):

Example 2

Looking at the “partials,” the notes that make up this chord, we have the root (D – all of which are circled on the fret chart), the b3 (F), the 5 (A), and the b7 (C). These are arranged in a range of just over two octaves with the lowest note being a fifth and the top note a seventh.

Practice this form on the guitar for a few moments, starting at first very slowly on the lowest root, playing to the top note, back down to the lowest note, and back up to the root. Always use alternate picking! It helps to realize that this is the same as a D minor pentatonic scale with the fourth (G) omitted.

Once this gets easier after a few minutes (or however long it takes to practice to the point of the arpeggio becoming automatic in your movement), play a Dm7 chord voicing before and after you play the arpeggio; this is helpful, because it creates a reference point to something familiar. Start the arpeggio now on not only the root, but the other partials (third, fifth, or seventh) as well.

With chord tones you are able to truly reflect the sound of the changes in a tune. The notes in-between give you options as to how to color your lines. Notice how the chord tones (boxed) in the illustration below fall on the strong beats (1, 2, 3 ,4 ) and the passing tones on the weak beats; also, the passing tones in this ascending line approach the chord tones by half steps, practically functioning as leading tones to the chord tones.

Example 3
Example 4

Practice this approach now in similar fashion: Slowly from the lowest to the highest notes in this position; make sure to play the notes of the arpeggio (the boxed chord tones) with down strokes, and the passing tones with upstrokes. It is amazing how fast you can get at playing this type of phrase with alternate picking – but take several days to slowly build speed;

start the phrases on different notes – down beats as well as up beats, but be aware of metric placement:

Example 5

The most common choice for the downward movement is the use of the Dorian scale (add major 7th) as illustrated blow:

Example 6

In some circumstances, the following scales [with differences to dorian indicated] need/can to be used:

  • Aeolian (add major 7th) [step 6 is minor]
  • Phrygian (add major 7th) [steps 2 and 6 are minor]
  • Melodic Minor [a special case that will be discussed in the following]

It will take a bit of time and practice to assimilate the elements illustrated above. But it will be very rewarding to then move on to the application part with taking a play-along track (self-made or a recording of So What by Miles Davis or the song Impressions by John Coltrane) or with a musician friend, and to try a few improv techniques.

Briefly apply the same practice steps to Ebm7 by moving everything up one half step. Then play along with the music using the elements elaborated on; make sure to change after 16 bars to Ebm7 – the arpeggio, the passing tone layout, the resulting Dorian bebop scale.

Take time to get used to the new tools, and focus on the metric placement of the notes. You will notice how your consistent practice with careful regard to up and down strokes has paid off by giving you control over what notes to play when. The important chord tones will reflect the changes in your playing, enabling you to resolve your lines carefully and true to the harmonic background. With consistent practice this metric control will be accompanied by astonishing facility and speed and greatly improve your alternate picking.