Arpeggios: The DNA of the Phrase

Arpeggios: The Building Blocks of Jazz Piano Improvisation


In our ongoing journey through the intricate world of jazz piano improvisation, we’ve delved into various techniques to enrich our musical vocabulary. Today, we’re turning our focus to the pivotal role that arpeggios play in the construction of our melodic lines.

Understanding The Foundation

Before we dive into the specifics, let’s revisit the essence of jazz bebop improvisation. We’ve previously explored how to use target notes to navigate through the scales, resolving rhythmic complexities, and incorporating chromaticism using approach notes and enclosures. These concepts lay the groundwork for our current exploration.

Enter Arpeggios: The DNA of Melodic Construction

Arpeggios serve as the fundamental building blocks of our melodic phrases, think of them as strands of DNA shaping our phrases. Arpeggios are sequences of chord tones which are the target notes we need to move up and down the scales, to develop our melodic ideas.

Deconstructing A Chord Progression

To illustrate this concept, let’s consider a typical chord progression, such as the one found in ‘Jeepers Creepers’: 2-5-3-6-2-5-1. Let’s say we are in C Major, the first 4 chords are Dm7-G7-Em7-Am7, and the arpeggios would be…

Regular Arpeggios

Ascending The Ladder

Now, instead of playing the arpeggios in Root Position, we can extend them and transform them into musical ladders we can use to ascend and descend through the range.

Beginning with Dm7, we ascend through the arpeggios, gradually extending each chord to encompass a wider range. We start with the Dm7 arpeggio in Root Position (D-F-A-C), and then G7 on 1st inversion (B-D-F-A), here we are extending the chord to the 9th playing the Bdim7 arpeggio over our G7. Then, we continue with Em7 in Root Position in the higher octave (E-G-B-D), and then Am7 on 1st inversion, starting from C (C-E-G-B), here we are also extending the chord to the 9th playing the CMaj7 arpeggio over our Am7. Now, we can see how we formed a ladder of tonal centers going up the range of the keyboard.

Extended Arpeggios

Building The Phrase

Now that we have our ladder of target notes, all we have to do is build our phrase around it. Let’s explore all the different options we have to go about building our phrase.

Option 1: We can articulate the arpeggios directly.

Phrase option 1a

We can also connect the arpeggios using an enclosure.

Phrase Option 1b

Option 2: We can also seamlessly transition between the arpeggios using scales. We have to remember that when we are playing scales we are actually moving from center to center using approach notes.

Phrase Option 2a

We can also connect the scales using an enclosure.

Phrase Option 2b

Option 3: We can also alternate, we can play arpeggio in one, and scale in the other one.

Phrase Option 3a

We can also connect them using an enclosure as well.

Phrase Option 3b

Option 4: We can also do it the other way around playing scale in one, and arpeggio in the other.

Phrase Option 4a

And, we can connect them using an enclosure.

Phrase Option 4b

Each approach imbues our improvisation with distinct textures and nuances.

Watch the video to see how we build the phrase in descending motion as well as how we can create variations to add different colors and textures to our phrase, using augmented arpeggios, Blues, and Hexatonic scales.


As we conclude our exploration, remember that the beauty of bebop lies in its fluidity and spontaneity. Embrace experimentation, hone your craft through diligent practice, and above all, revel in the joy of musical discovery.

Mastery Through Practice

To fully harness these techniques, we need to master all of our arpeggios in every inversion and every key. Otherwise, we’ll be able to understand the concept in theory, but we will not be able to put it into practice.

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Until next time, keep exploring, keep improvising, and most importantly, keep playing.