Triads are a super useful tool on guitar. They can help you both understand how music is constructed and help you navigate the fretboard.
In this article, you’ll learn what guitar triads are and what they look like on the fretboard.
Let’s dive in!
What is a triad?
To know how triads are constructed, we need to know a bit about chord construction.
For this explanation to make sense, you need to know about intervals. (In short: the distance between two notes). I’ll assume you’re familiar with the basics of intervals going forward!
We can build a chord by taking one note and placing other notes ‘on top of it’.
The distance between that first note and the other notes (a.k.a. the interval), determines what the chord then sounds like.
In that way, each chord has a ‘recipe’ with certain ‘ingredients’.
For example, the ‘recipe’ for a major chord is:
- root note
- major third
- perfect fifth
As you can see, this recipe consists of three ingredients, making this chord a triad. So this is also the recipe for a major triad!
Here’s an example of what a major triad looks like on the fretboard:
Now, you might be thinking: most of the chords I play have way more than three notes in them! Does that mean those chords aren’t triads?
Let’s check out a few open guitar chords to figure out the answer to that question.
Here’s the open A chord for example.
We hit five different strings, so you might think that that means we’re playing five different notes. But when we take a closer look, we’ll see that this chord actually has a few notes in there twice.
We’ll anaylse the intervals to see that, check it out:
As you can see, we only have three different intervals in this chord:
- root note
- major third
- perfect fifth
And that’s what makes this chord into a triad!
Let’s check that out for another open chord. But this time, you analyse it! Here’s an open D chord. First count the number of frets (or semitones) between the root noot and every other note. Next, determine which interval (a.k.a. ‘ingredient’) that makes that note.
Hope that went well for you! This exercise was taken from my course Music Theory from Scratch. Check it out for more practice like this!
Here are those four triad qualities:
Let’s take a look at each of them.
First, we have the major triad, which we saw earlier. It’s ‘recipe’ is:
And here’s how we could play it on the fretboard:
Next up, we the minor triad. All we have to do is change the major third into a minor third. Check it out.
Now, the major and minor triads are by far the most important. But we also have diminished triad. This is similar to the minor triad, except we make the perfect fifth into a diminished fifth.
Finally we have the augmented triad. This is similar to the major triad, except we turn the perfect fifth into an augmented fifth.
And those are our four triad qualities. As I mentioned, the major and minor triads are by far the most important. So in the next section, we’ll check out how we can play them in different ways.
There are three basic ways we can play a triad. The root position, the first inversion and the second inversion.
So far, we’ve played triads in ‘root position’, where the order of our ingredients is root, third, fifth. For example, here’s a D major triad in root position.
To get the first inversion, we change the order to third, fifth, root.
And for the second inversion, we change the order to fifth, root, third.
Here’s a quick recap:
Now, you might wonder, when would you use these inversions? Why bother with them?
There are two reasons. First, each inversion has a slightly different sound. The root position sounds more stable, while the first and second inversion sound a bit more ‘up in the air’.
Second, inversions allow us to play the same chords in different places on the neck. This allows for really smooth sounding chord changes, as we’ll see in a bit.
First though, here’s an example of how we can take a G major triad, and play it in different spots on the neck using inversions.
Notice how we’re still playing the same notes, just in a different order!
We can also play a G minor triad all over the neck using inversions too:
Sounds good doesn’t it?
This is the most useful though, when we are playing different chords. For example, here’s how we could play Am – Dm – F – E.
Notice how the notes on each string only move one or two frets between chords? That’s what makes these chord changes sound so smooth. There are no large jumps.
The next step? Give this a try yourself! Take a simple chord progression, such as Am / F and see how you switch between those two chords using inversions.
Exploring the power of triads
Of course, knowing how something works isn’t enough in music. We need to practice it so much that it becomes so obvious, that we can use it anytime. So the next step is to take what you’ve learned and to play around with it and practice!
As always, if you have any questions or thoughts on how this article could be better, feel free to get in touch with me here.