Keeping Arpeggios Fun on Classical Guitar

Arpeggio practice can get old fast.

So you have learned the basics of movement, and some (or all) of the primary arpeggio patterns.  But practicing them on open strings get really old, really fast.

Ideally, you practice arpeggios almost every time you sit down for your guitar practice.  If arpeggios are not enjoyable and satisfying, chances are you won’t practice them.  And that’s a shame because they are super-important to your overall classical guitar playing.

Want to make it just as fun as playing pieces?

So what we need is a way to make practicing arpeggios a rich and rewarding experience in and of itself.  Not as some dry “investment in my technique” (that sounds like fun…not.),  but as something that you can actually look forward to.

Arpeggio practice has to be every bit as fun as playing your pieces, or your scales (if scales are fun for you, like they are me).

To make that happen, there has to be something going on that sounds good.  Something that makes a simple arpeggio into a great work of art.

Bring the left hand into the game.

Enter the left hand.

There’s an old saying: “It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.”  It’s sort of true, but not entirely.

The left hand is what you say.  The right hand is how you say it.

You can be “saying it”, beautifully with your arpeggios, but if “what you are saying” is bland, the whole thing just may be bland.

So we get the left hand involved to say something a bit more interesting.  This way, we are actually making music, not just exercising.

The potential problem is that if the left hand gets too complicated, we can lose focus on the arpeggios (which are the point of arpeggio practice).

So the left hand has to be interesting enough to keep us fired up, but not so complex that it takes attention away from the right hand.

How do we strike this balance?

Two words: Practice Progressions

Ah, if only every problem had such a tidy solution!

Using a set progression of chords or shapes in the left hand, we can focus on what counts: the right hand.

The trick is to spend some time on the left hand by itself, so that the actions (chord changes, shifts, everything) get into our muscle memory and become easy for us.

Once we can easily perform the left hand, we can insert whatever arpeggio pattern we are practicing into the mix.

The right hand arpeggio pattern can switch up, but the left hand stays the same.

As we progress, the right hand can get faster and more complex, while the left hand get easier and easier (because of all the repetitions it gets during practice).

So the question now is:  “What exactly do I play with my left hand?”

Glad you asked.

One option:

One common solution is to use basic “cowboy” chords.  Open position chords that are the fundamental building blocks of guitar playing (classical or otherwise).  If you are not on top of your chords, commit to a few minutes a day on them.  They are well worth the time.

The explanation of this one starts at     in the video.

To start with, just use one chord if you like.  This is the easiest way to get your arpeggio practice sounding like music.

You can move between different groups of strings, or just stay in one place.  As time goes on, you can get more creative and challenge yourself.

Then graduate to chord progressions (a progression is just a bunch of chords in a particular order).  There are gazillions of different progressions.  The main thing is that whatever you choose should be easy for you.  If it’s not, practice the left hand by itself until it is (while practicing your arpeggios on just one or two chords).

Putting the hands together when you have a progression in the left hand and an arpeggio pattern in the right hand can be tricky at first.  Go slow.  It will happen, just be patient and forward-looking.

Another option (my personal go-to):

The explanation of this one starts at     in the video.

A former teacher of mine turned me on to a nice little progression for just this purpose (what, you think I come up with this stuff on my own?)

This progression only uses two fingers at a time in the left hand, which stay on the same two strings the whole time (fulfilling the “easy” requirement).  Combine that with two open strings, and you have a really nice sounding song that is easy to learn and play.

You should still learn and be completely ace at knowing and switching between your “cowboy” chords, but this progression sounds great and is probably easier.

Bonus: This one also moves all the way up the neck.  For beginning players, this is great fun, because so many beginning tunes stay down by the nut.

Once you learn it, you can use it for any and all of the arpeggio patterns.

This allows you to be musical.

I think one of the main benefits to practicing this way, using progressions, is that it takes something technical (arpeggios) and brings them into the realm of the musical.

To continue to sit down and practice each day, we need motivation.  We need to feel like we are creating something valuable and pleasing.  We need the reward that comes from hearing actual music come out of our instruments.

It’s encouraging to sound good.  So the more we can practice things that sound good, the easier it is to get excited and look forward to practicing.

And it builds other skills you need.

Ideally, everything we do in the practice room (or corner) contributes to our playing beautifully and expressively.

To play beautifully and expressively, we need chops.  Chops are the ability to do whatever is called for, with elegance and grace.

“This is what REAL technique is made of:”

Because our arpeggio practice now sounds like real music, we can more easily hear when something is off.  If we are not accurate with our rhythm, or if one of the notes is popping out all loud and another is too quiet, we can notice it and work to even things out.

This is what REAL technique is made of: the ability to hear and notice absolutely everything and make it any way we want it to be.

One of the things I love about practicing arpeggios using progressions is that it is scalable.  What I mean by that is this: As you get better and better as a player, this practice method moves with you.  Whether you have 10 hours of practice behind you or 10,000 hours in on your instrument, there is still value and enjoyment in it.

Having the left hand set and on autopilot allows you to focus more and more on the right hand.  You can incorporate new challenges, or really hone the fundamentals.

Now try it yourself.

If this all sounds like something that you could get into, print off some of the resources above and dive in.

At first, you may have to invest some time in learning the progressions.  That’s fine.  Just do it.  There’s plenty of time.

Allen Mathews

Hi, I’m Allen Mathews. 

I started as a folk guitarist, then fell in love with classical guitar in my 20’s. Despite a lot of practice and schooling, I still couldn’t get my music to flow well. I struggled with excess tension. My music sounded forced. And my hands and body were often sore. I got frustrated, and couldn’t see the way forward. Then, over the next decade, I studied with two other stellar teachers – one focused on the technical movements, and one on the musical (he was a concert pianist). In time, I came to discover a new set of formulas and movements. These brought new life and vitality to my practice. Now I help guitarists find more comfort and flow in their music, so they play more beautifully.
Click here for a sample formula.

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