In music theory chords are represented by a harmonic set of three or more notes. These simplest three note chords are known as triads; they form much of the basic building blocks of western music. During this article we will breakdown the science of guitar triads: how to play triads on guitar, how to find triads shapes on the fretboard, and why it is so important to learn them.
In the late Renaissance music relied heavily on counterpoint techniques, which focused on melodic interactions, and less on harmonies. With the rise of the triad, music became more oriented towards the specific and simultaneous soundings of particular notes, i.e. chords. Regardless of the musical scale we play in, when we follow the rules of triads, we will have pleasant sounding chords and harmonies on our guitar!
A triad is a set of three notes that can be stacked in thirds, lets use the simplest musical scale of C to break this all down. A major triad is made up of the 1st or root note, the 3rd note, and the 5th note of a scale. The C major scale consists of the notes C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C, using this scale we will find the notes of the C major triad.
The root and 1st note is of course C, the 3rd note as we count up the scale is E, and the 5th note is G, which makes the C major triad or C major chord C-E-G. It is ok to label this interval either way, or even to simply call it the C chord.
We can also use the terms of half-steps and whole-steps to describe the C major triad. If you take a moment to pick up your guitar you can get a better idea of this method. Each fret on the guitar is a half step up from the last, if we move up two frets than that of course is a whole step.
To create the C major triad using steps we start with the root note of C and move up two whole steps to get E and then we move up one half step and one whole step to get to G. That is the formula for all major triads or major chords on any instrument, we find the root take two steps up to the 3rd and then one and a half steps to the 5th.
Using this simple formula for major triads we can find any basic major chords necessary. Let’s say we want to find the G major triad, well the G major scale is G-A-B-C-D-E-F#. The root note is G, the 3rd is B, and the 5th is D, and if we look on the guitar fretboard we will notice that the same formula works again; two whole steps up to the 3rd with a half step plus a whole step to the 5th.
If all of that seems a little confusing, just take a moment away from reading and spend some time studying your fretboard. Try forming different major triads for other scales, and be sure to check your progress. Next we will move on to minor triads… and if you have any frustration over music theory…
remember there is method to all this madness. By understanding the concepts of these triads your playing, skills, and even your ability to compose and solo will be greatly enhanced.
Say we are playing a C major triad on our guitar, now we all know that major chords are often used for an uplifting and rocking feeling, but let’s say we want to change the mood of that chord. How do we play the C minor triad/chord? Well of course we could just look it up, but it is a huge time saver to remember that a minor triad simply has a flattened 3rd note!
Before we had the C major triad made up of the 1-3-5 interval, which was C-E-G, now when we flatten the third note we get C-Eb-G, the C minor triad! It is really that simple as 1-3b-5. Jumping from the major to the minor is simply cutting back a half step on the third note.
Now if we use the step method, a minor triad is one half and a whole step from the first to the third, and two whole steps from the third to the fifth. Each time, with every single scale we pick, the minor triad or chord, will always be this same formula. Above we mentioned the G major triad, so what would the minor be? After flattening the third it is G-Bb-D!
With knowing how to form all basic major and minor triads, our musical world has opened up immensely. Next we will learn some basic triad shapes on the guitar to give you a better idea of how this works while playing.
Many stringed instruments have specific triad shapes to be used and memorized while playing. It is a helpful way of always knowing where to find the basic notes of any chord. Before we mention a couple of these specific triad shapes, we first must comment on inversions. Inversions deal with the relationship to the bass note of the triad.
In a regular C major triad, the note order is C-E-G, with the C note being the bass note of the chord. This chord is in its root position. Sometimes we play a C chord shape on the guitar where the notes are arranged as E-C-G, this is still a C major triad, but it is known as the first inversion.
If we have the G as the bass note, this is the second inversion. These inversions allow us to play the same triad in different positions and allow for different musical voicing’s.
There are a plethora of triad shapes out there, below are just some examples starting with the root note on each string.
C major triad with root on the sixth string
C major triad with root on the fifth string - position 1
C major triad with root on the fifth string - position 2
C major triad with root on the fourth string - position 1
C major triad with root on the fourth string - position 2
C major triad with root on the fourth string - position 3
C major triad with root on the third string - position 1
C major triad with root on the third string - position 2
C major triad with root on the third string - position 3
C major triad with root on the second string - position 1
C major triad with root on the second string - position 2
C major triad with root on the first string
You will notice some of the them are a little easier to play than others, of course the ones that are the easiest to play will be the more popularly used shapes. One of my favorites happens to be the major triad shape made when the root note C is on the 3rd string;
Notice in this triad shape the G is actually the bass note, making this shape a 2nd inversion of the C major chord. However, I choose this particular triad formation because it allows us to see what is so great about these major triad shapes. Pick your guitar up and play these exact three strings on the 5th fret, you will of course have a C major.
Now move this same shape down one fret, you will have a B major triad or chord, one fret further up, and we have a C# major triad. This exact shape will always form a chord on each fret as long as the fingers are kept in the same position. And this goes for every triad shape out there, as long as you follow the same patterns up and down the fretboard, you will have specific corresponding chords.
There are also minor triad shapes, and since minor triads are simply a flattened 3rd of the major triads, you can guess their shapes will not be a drastic change from the majors. By learning as many of these as possible you expand your fretboard knowledge and will be able to build your own chords without constantly looking at a chord dictionary. Of course triads can eventually be built on to make bigger chords, but in the beginning let’s get our major and minor shapes down and practiced.
C minor triad with root on the sixth string
C minor triad with root on the fifth string - position 1
C minor triad with root on the fifth string - position 2
C minor triad with root on the fourth string - position 1
C minor triad with root on the fourth string - position 2
C minor triad with root on the fourth string - position 3
C minor triad with root on the third string - position 1
C minor triad with root on the third string - position 2
C minor triad with root on the third string - position 3
C minor triad with root on the second string - position 1
C minor triad with root on the second string - position 2
C minor triad with root on the first string
Beyond expanding your knowledge of the guitar fretboard there are a couple of major benefits to triads. Arpeggio’s, melodies, and riffs are all often composed using triads and their different shapes. An arpeggio is playing a chord one note at a time as opposed to all at once, it can be played slowly or quickly, and in any order you want.
Instead of playing that 5th fret C major triad all at once, try plucking each string quickly one after another. Arpeggios can sound beautiful like a harp solo, or they can sound like heavy metal when played fast enough (with some more distortion too!).
The three notes of each triad, the root, third, and fifth position make up much of the basic harmonies of all pop, folk, and rock music out there. By just playing these triads in various positions on the guitar, you will have the chops to play in a simple band.
Over time you will want to expand on your triads, but you would be surprised how great you can sound with just the 3 note major and minor chords. Many guitarists use these shapes to come up with new riffs, melodic lines, and of course for soloing. Let’s say your band has 8 bars of repeated chords C, G, and F… for a simple solo you can play each note in the triad of the chord you are in.
This is a great way to learn to solo and improvise, it is hard to go wrong with the notes in the basic triads of each chord!
It will take some initial memorization of these triads when you first start to learn them. Pick a major triad shape and make sure you play the root, third, and fifth, and pay attention to which inversion you are playing.
Once you have the shape down move it up and down the fretboard calling out each chord as you come to it. Continue to also practice this with minor triad shapes in all their forms. This link here will take you to the Fretboard Cyber Trainer, use this software tool to help you get started on the variety of triad shapes to learn.
This video shows some tiny triad shapes derived from the form 1 barre chord
Now once we have the basics of the major and minor down, we can begin to build more on our chords. Remember that the major triad is the root or first note, the third, and the fifth… beautiful music occurs when we start to stack more notes onto these original three. Take the C major chord of C-E-G, let’s add the 7th note of B. We get a chord called Cmaj7 which sounds great in jazz, or gospel, and many other genres.
If we take that 7th and flatten it (a minor 7th) we get C-E-G-Bb, which is a C7. Seventh chords like those are the backbone to many oldies rock tunes and are found in a variety of other styles. Or we can add the 6th not to C-E-G which is A. This is known as the C6 chord. C6 is the tuning of lap steel guitars and ukuleles, so that chord can often give that island Hawaiian sound.
It seems there are near endless ways to stack more notes onto our major and minor triads, including 9ths, 11ths, and 13ths! Of course once we start stacking too many notes we run into some problems on a guitar. We only have 6 strings so once we stack to high we have to decide which notes to leave out. On a piano it is easier to hit all the necessary notes, but on a guitar you will find you have to leave something out on those 13th’s!
C major triad with a major seventh: Cmaj7 chord
C major triad with a minor seventh: C7 chord
C major triad with a sixth: C6 chord
C minor triad with a minor seventh: Cm7 chord
C major minor with a sixth: Cm6 chord
It will not be overnight that you will be playing these more complicated chords. It still helps though to understand this basic note stacking principle. Once you practice and study your major and minor triads, you will find more difficult chords falling into place. While it may not seem like it at first this simple aspect of music theory will slowly help you master the guitar.
Over time you will increase your ability to solo, comp, create melody lines, and even arpeggiate a backing rhythm. Major and minor triads are a must in your journey to be the best guitar player you can be!
Hopefully now you have the basics down for major and minor triads, how to form them, what they mean, and what they can do. However, it is always helpful to have some ideas of what others have done with these simple 3 stacked notes. Of course there are a bazillion songs out there that use triads and arpeggios. So let’s pick one of the more famous pieces out there to give a great example, the song by Led Zeppelin “Stairway To Heaven.”
Now awhile back in the news there was a story that perhaps the opening riff to Stairway was borrowed from another band.
Of course all musicians are known for doing this, and there seems to be some striking similarities, but we are not here to point out these potential legal discrepancies, we want to point out how that amazing intro was simply triads being played. It starts with an A minor triad, followed with arpeggiated major chords like G#, C, D, and there is even a major seventh stacked onto an F triad!
There almost could not be a more famous example of how useful, popular, and great sounding major and minor triads can be! The next time you play or listen to that song, remember, triads are just plain terrific!
In the next article we will continue our discussion on guitar triads, but this time using augmented and diminished triads, check it out!
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