Playing Over Changing Harmony With Arpeggios

How to improvise over jazz chord progressions and build strong melodies with arpeggios.

Ultimate Guitar
This is a subject that is often a struggle to master for beginning jazz players so I figured I'd write one approach that I use when learning tunes and also that I teach to students who wish to learn jazz. The method is fairly simple, but still requires a bit of preparation technically and theoretically. This lesson is written for guitarists with tabs as well as notation, but essentially it works for all instruments of course.

The goal is to become able to make melodies over chord changes so that it is clear when the harmony moves from one chord to the next. This is obviously not the only way to do this, but just a simple approach that is easy to do on a few chords and fairly easy to move to simple songs.

The Arpeggios

As an example I've taken a II V I in Bb, I assume you are familiar with what that is. Since we are trying to practice making coherent melodies in 8th notes over these chords I've chosen the following arpeggio fingerings:

It is important that in the arpeggios are in the same range and pretty much the same position on the neck, that helps getting more freedom while improvising. I found it to be more important than starting on the root. There are many ways to construct fingerings for arpeggios, and I leave that up to you for other examples. You need to know the fretboard and you need to know what notes are in the chords you play on to do this.

Target notes

I was taught by Bjarne Roupé, who I studied with in Copenhagen, that constructing lines that point forward to a target note in the next chord is a good way to build logical sounding 8th note lines. I think that jazz-pianist Hal Galper has written articles and books on the subject.

In the beginning it is handy to aim for notes that are not in the previous chord so that if you play that note on the 1 of the bar you really hear a new harmony introduced. This is a restriction you can leave out quite quickly though.

For my II V I in Bb we can just take the 3rd of each chord:

In voice-leading you learn that the 3rd moves to the 7th, but in this case that would give you the same note on the Cm7 and the F7 and that is less clear than introducing the A on the Cm7. In general you can use other notes. Melodically the 3rd and the 5th are very strong and clear.

So here are a few examples using the 3rds as targets:

Of course the idea is that you sit down and practice making lines like these playing towards the different target notes. Some thoughts on how to practice that can be found here.

The type of lines you end up with in the beginning will (like my examples) very much be moving through the II V I and then stop which is a very predictable movement, but for learning the harmony it is in part a necessary step. This procedure is not so difficult to move to a simple song like "Tune Up," "Take the A-Train" or "Blue Bossa." And once you're familiar with how it works on a cadence like the II V I it is easier to free up the rhythm and amount of notes per bar for more musical lines.

Here's a final audio example of a solo only using arpeggio notes, but freed up a bit when it comes to target notes and rhythm:

Thanks for taking the time to check out the lesson, I hope you found it useful!

About the Author:
By Jens Larsen. If you are interested in more jazz lessons or my music then check out my website:

45 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Chris Zoupa
    10/10. I will need to read this a few times it's very cool. And Jens I write for this website nearly every week. I have a lot of work to do if you're writing gold like this. Much respect man.
    Thanks Chris! I've checked out quite a few of your lessons. I am very proud that you like it!
    Chris Zoupa
    Too much metal and not enough jazz. I want to post a lesson for 'Minor Swing' by Django in a few weeks! Just loving all these weird arpeggios and accidentals at the moment!
    Minor swing is a great song for getting to know Django's playing and also an easy theme to learn if you want to jam with other people (which is what jazz is all about to me..) That's a great idea, I'll be looking forward!
    Thank you so much! I have been sitting with a load of theory knowledge and playing technique with no way to express it and no new perspectives on playing and this is great for me to take along Great job on the lesson
    Thanks Sir_Taffey! If you want to see more on how I approach making music from technical and theoretical exercises there's blog on that on my site
    Went through a fair amount of content on your blog and i have to say thank you so much for putting this out there. I have been watching videos on outlining chords with arpeggios but this is the first time I have encountered the way you teach it. Such as outlining the actual transition to the target notes (and how they sound and work)
    Thanks Sir Taffey! I am glad it is clear. It's true that it often gets lost along the way when you try to teach people how to play. When I was introduced to this approach it had the same effect for me.
    You know, I'm a metal guy, but I just clicked on this link for fun, and it was really quite pleasant to listen to these figures, and pretty informative too. Thanks, jenslarsen!
    If you have any other ideas or lessons which focus on soloing and phrasing ..,, Please do post another lesson. That'll really help beginners like me. Thanks and keep rocking..!!
    I think it is great that you ask, always nice to get feedback and add information! I'll post more lessons, some on soloing some on harmony. Today UG published a lesson on drop2 voicings that I wrote, you could check it out!
    Hey Jens, You're talking about targeting certain notes and it is clear to me which notes are to be targeted in this lesson (and I can figure out how to get from targeting the 3rd to targeting the 5th). However, I'm wondering what exactly makes it that these notes in particular are targeted. What does it mean to target a note? Is it because they are on the 1st and 3rd beat in these sequences? Thanks for the lesson. I really feel that it's a good way to be introduced to this topic. Looking forward to hearing from you!
    Hey Jen, I just started to learn about soloing, pretty new to this. So if its not too much trouble can you please explain this sentence in this article, " In voice-leading you learn that the 3rd moves to the 7th, but in this case that would give you the same note on the Cm7 and the F7 and that is less clear than introducing the A on the Cm7. " Thanks.., looking forward to your reply.
    Thanks Rehaa, that is indeed a typo, it was meant to be A on the F7. What I mean is that in voice leading you try to go the shortest way from one chord note to the next, so if you play Eb on Cm7 you'd sustain it on the F7. In this case it is very handy to play the A on the F7 because it is not there on the Cm7 so it introduces a new pitch making the change of harmony clear. I hope that helps?
    Excellent article! I've been tinkering with jazz progressions for a while but have been stumped as to how I could play over them but this article seems like a great place to start. Hope to see more from you on this site soon, Jens
    One of the best lessons I've seen on here in quite a while. The contributors as of late have really been quality. UG is finally stepping up in the world \m/
    Thanks! I am very happy that you think it is a good lesson! I'll try to upload another lesson some time this week, and then I hope they'll publish it! If you have suggestions for subjects feel free to let me know here or connect via mail, FB, G+ or twitter to let me know.
    Justified Death
    GOD THE END AUDIO CLIP WAS BADASS!!! Sorry, I don't know theory but I try and follow these like I know what you're saying. XD That'd be so cool to be able to write stuff like you did on that last audio clip.
    My 2 cents: just the other day my teacher explained to me the II V I sequence and gave me the following exercise to practice. I found it so damn beautiful to play because it modulates and uses only barre-chords with easy fingerings (good for nubs like me) |Em7 / A7 / Dmaj7 / Dmaj7 | |Dm7 / G7 / Cmaj7 / Cmaj7 | |Cm7 / F7 / Bbmaj7 / D#maj7|
    That's great! You should check out recordings of the song Tune Up, since the chords are the first 12 bars of that song, and probably you'll get the last 4 in one of the next lessons I think the famous recordings would be Miles Davis or for guitar : Wes Montgommery.
    Jens, do you have the chords written up for the final improvisation in example 6?
    Do you mean the specific voicings that I use when I am comping? No, I don't. I am essentially just repeating the II V I I so A bar each: Cm7, F7, BbMaj7, BbMaj7. I was thinking about writing some lessons on jazz chords and how to use them in different situations, that's a subject with a lot of aspects to it and a lot of applications too. Thanks for taking the time to check out my lesson!
    Could to write a lesson talking about how there are other progressions in jazz other than 2-5-1's? I've always been a little lost about other progressions..
    Sorry I did not see you comment until now... That is not a bad idea actually, even if these progressions are often turned in to "funny" II V's very often. I might do that. Though I already submitted another lesson on chord voicings.
    A targrt note is here indeed a note on 1 or on 3. I choose a chord note that was not in the previous chord as target note. That is easier to hear in the beginning.
    In this lesson? I don't have that issue so it is a bit hard to say why, and judging from how often it's been played it was not a problem for most people. Maybe try to check out and see if they have anything on whatever setup you use to play it?
    Jen, I have one issue though, I'm not able to play the audio files that you've included with the tabs..,, its showing as " file not found ". Can anything be done..?? Thanks .
    Thanks! If you keep working on the stuff here and try to pick up some more stuff like it I am sure you'll get there!