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Home > Theory > Triads

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Economical Guitar Triads - An Easy Way to Dominate the Neck

Triads are the most basic chords you can play on guitar, consisting of just three notes. Therefore, we only need three strings to play them.

Now, I like to make your time learning guitar as productive as possible. So in this lesson I'll not only show you the most economical way to play these triads, but I'll also show you how to dominate the neck, in any key, using a simple method known as scale harmonization.

First, take a look at the video below for a clear introduction to this powerful method...



Guitar Triads in Theory

There are four triad types that form the basis of harmony in music:
Note: In the video, we didn't use augmented triads, because they don't exist in the particular scale we were harmonizing. That doesn't mean you can't try using them in places. Your ears are always the judge!

Extra info...

One way to see triads is a sequence of major 3rd and/or minor 3rd intervals. For example:

Major triad = 1 - major 3rd - 3 - minor 3rd - 5

Minor triad = 1 - minor 3rd - b3 - major 3rd - 5

Diminished triad = 1 - minor 3rd - b3 - minor 3rd - b5

Augmented triad = 1 - major 3rd - 3 - major 3rd - #5

Triads exist on the fretboard in many different shapes and positions. For example, if you've learned barre chords, you'll most likely be familiar with these six string major (1 3 5) and minor (1 b3 5) triad forms...

E shape major and minor barre chord intervals

Even though there are six strings being used in these chord shapes, there are still only three tones (the triad) in the chords. We just repeat some tones to fill out the voicing of the chord.

Barre chords are useful, especially when it's just you playing, but this lesson is all about economising our triad playing for more of a voice leading effect. As there are three notes in a triad, we only need three strings to voice the chord.

3 String Guitar Triad Chart

In each of the shapes below, look at where the root (1) note is positioned, because this will tell you where to position the shape to get the chord you want (e.g. for G major, position the major shape on the root of G)...

Major Triads

major 3 string triads

Minor Triads

minor 3 string triads

Diminished Triads

diminished 3 string triads

Augmented Triads

augmented 3 string triads

I'm sure you're wondering... why are the augmented shapes the same? I won't get into that now, but it's to do with the symmetry of their intervals.

In later lessons, we'll look at additional triad shapes that cover other strings, but the above is a great starting point (and easy on your fingers!).

Major Scale Triad Harmonization

The major scale is the harmonic and melodic basis for a lot of songs you'll hear (and write). It contains both the natural (diatonic) major and minor key centers.

Using the above triad shapes, we can cover the entire width of the neck on the top three strings in any given key.

The example key I used in the video was A major:

chords in A major key

This A major key corresponds to the A major scale, which we can visualize on the same three strings "underneath" our chord shapes (if you don't already know the major scale by heart, don't worry because we're bringing together a lot of elements here).

A major scale on the G B and E strings

Recommended...

To fully understand how scales, keys and chords are related, take a look at Jonathan Boettcher's easy to follow guitar theory crash course - Unlocking I IV V.


When you've established a key, simply find the scale's root (1) on one of the top three strings and build its related major triad shape. So for A major, there are three positions as shown below. This is our I (or tonic) chord...

A major triad positions

For the next triad in the scale (ii) we move each shape up by one note. The root becomes the 2 of the scale...

B minor triad positions

On to the iii chord, again we move each note in the ii chord up by one degree. The root becomes the 3 of the scale...

C#m triad positions

Follow the degrees of the scale up to the IV chord...

D major triad positions

V chord...

E major triad positions

vi chord (our relative minor key tonic, F#m in this case - more on this in another lesson)...

F# minor triad positions

and the vii chord - the "odd one out" because it's the only diminished triad in the scale...

G# diminished triad positions

So we now have three positions for each of the seven triads that exist in A major. Amazing how it all fits together isn't it?

Together, these triads make up the seven notes of the A major scale. Hopefully, by following this process, you can see the intrinsic connection between the "parent scale" and its chords.

So what if we wanted to harmonize a different key? Simply move the 1 of the scale (the root of the tonic major chord) to the appropriate note. For example, for C major harmony, we'd move the 1 to the note... C and build the sequence from there.

Your task is to explore this triad sequence in different keys so you can internalize it and commit it to memory. Take your time.

To make this process more fun, and to test your knowledge, come up with exercises that move between the triad degrees in interesting ways, like the following (we're back in A major again)...

triad exercise in A major

small chevron Click to hear

Listen closely to the melody you create as you move between chords. This is the musical statement formed through the movement of each note to the next. For example, you could focus your ear on the highest note in the triad as the melody, the middle or the low note. More on chord melody another time.

Remember you can also arpeggiate these chords (play them one note at a time). Go nuts!

As demonstrated in the video, we can also harmonize the scale/key by using two string, root-3rd forms...

two string harmonization in A major

small chevron Click to hear

The more ways you can come up with to explore the fretboard in this way, the better.

The whole purpose of this method is to bring together harmony and melody into a unified musical expression. Use the scale as the "scaffolding" for your triad playing, even embellish your triads with short melodic phrases.

The great thing about this method is, once the roadmap is memorized, you can improvise ideas fluidly and musically, without getting lost.

Let us know what you come up with using the comments form below (upload a tab with your comment if you have time).

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