Mandolin Technique: Arpeggios and soloing

Lately I’ve been working with beginner jammers as an assistant to a Wernick style jam in Seattle. It’s been a real fun few weeks and I’ve found that I learned a lot from the class. One thing in particular is how important understanding arpeggios can be for beginners trying to take breaks. So, today’s Mandolin Technique will cover the basics of arpeggios and how you can use them

This is likely more an “advanced beginner” topic, but still has value for all levels of players I think.

What is an Arpeggio?

An arpeggio is simply playing the notes of a chord one by one. For major chords, that will be the 1 3 5 of the major scale. For example, a G major chord is made up of the 1 3 5 of the G major Scale. The G major scale is G A B C D E F# – counting through, that means G B D are the 1 3 5 for G. Below is a simplified chart to help explain this better

Ideally you should know the arpeggio notes for every chord. That may seem daunting – but it’s really just a matter of focus and going back to school. I recommend writing up flash cards that have the name of the chord on one side and the 1 3 5 on the other.

How can I use them?

There’s millions of ways – but one really useful aspect of arpeggios for beginners is using them for soloing. In most straight ahead bluegrass tunes, you can play a real simplified solo break by just using the arpeggio for the key of the song. For example, playing the G arpeggio (G B D) in a G major song. This works because all the chords used in a simple 1 4 5 song include at least one of those notes. The 4 chord (C here) includes the G note (root in G) while the 5 chord (or D) includes the D (5th of G).

The chart below should help clarify this.

When you play a note that is in the chord you’re playing over, that note (or chord tone) will always sound good. Also, the 3rd of the 4 chord (the E in the C chord) is the relative minor for the root – which almost always sounds good.

With this in mind, the easiest path to soloing is simply to play the arpeggio tones of the key of the song over the whole progression. If you want to take that a step further, playing the specific arpeggio for each chord will sound even better.

How can I practice Arpeggios?

Below are some of my favorite practices for arpeggios. Also, here’s a PDF for practice.

  1. 1 4 5 practice – in this I’ll play through the arpeggios of a basic 1 4 5 straight through to a metronome. I usually use either a straight 1 4 5 pattern (G arpeggio followed by C arpeggio followed by D arpeggio) or a 1 4 1 5 1 pattern (G C G D G). Start off practice specific keys like G C D A etc. Eventually you’ll want to string along a pattern that moves you through multiple keys
  2. Target notes – Similar to the above, I’ll play the arpeggios for a progression, but I’ll target a specific note to play at a specific time. For example, targeting the root of each chord when the chord changes (playing the D note when the chord changes to D) or the 3rd of each chord (playing the F# note when the chord changes to D). Doing this can help provide more direction in your breaks.
  3. Adding tweener notes on the “and”s – this just takes the above ideas and adds playing a non-chord tone on the “and”. These non-chord tones shouldn’t always be liner (like G A B) as that will just sound like a scale. The idea is to jump around a bit and make things chaotic. While this isn’t usually practical for playing a break – it really helps with driving home where those notes are.

Wrap Up

I hope this lesson helps you get more comfortable with soloing on mandolin.

If you liked this topic, please leave a comment below with any questions or feedback. For a deeper dive in to this topic, click here for more information on private coaching.

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