What is a Triad?
While doing research for this article, I noticed that the average online triad tutorial makes this very simple idea much too complicated. Why?! Not only are triads easy to apply to songwriting, they are arguably more simple to perform than long winded note-by-note solos and add a dazzling texture to boot (especially with a little reverb thrown in). Triads can be used as rhythm guitar chords for solos, riffs, harmonies, and anything else you can think of.
What is a triad?
Like the name suggests, a triad consists of only three notes. I like to call triads “mini-chords” because unlike our standard open and barre chord shapes, these little guys take up a “mini” space on the neck with just three strings—no more, no less. (And less is more, but we’ll get to that).
Triads come in a few different colors, but let’s look at the two most important ones: the major (brighter) and minor (darker). Honestly, if these were the only two triads you ever learned, you could get a lifetime of material out of them.
Here are the major and minor mini chord triads with the root on string 1. Be sure that you are only playing the high strings—1(e), 2(b), and 3(g)—and mute the other three lower strings. If you don’t want to palm-mute, aim your pick or finger to the correct strings and avoid the low three.
- Rake one string at a time and let them ring out over each other. Play them backwards too (up strum, one at a time).
- Triads are moveable! Start by playing only the major shape on the first fret of the guitar and work your way up, fret by fret, until you reach the 12th fret. This is where the neck starts over, so anything you learn up to there can be repeated in the higher register (and people think you’re doing a magic act, but it’s really just the same thing).
- Now try the minor shape. If you use one finger to hold them all down, even better. Work your way up to the 12th fret again.
- Note for beginners (and all levels): do yourself a favor and draw or print out a map of the notes on the neck. It’s not cheating, it’s visual learning. It will help you remember the notes to the chords and build a foundation. I kept my map of the neck on the wall for about four years.
Here are major and minor triads using your middle strings: 2(b), 3(g), and 4(d). In this case, the root note is on the 3(g) string. How would you remember that? Well, these look a lot like the open A major and A minor chords for a reason. They are both based on the 5th string root shaped barre chords, minus everything but the triad itself.
- Start on the “A major” shape at fret 2 and move your way up the neck, being careful not to hit the lower 5th and 6th strings or the high 1st (e).
- Notice these moveable triads are more midrange. These are great for filling out songs, complementing other guitarists playing the barre or open chord versions, and keeping enough high-midrange to cut through a melody.
- Pick three chords, preferably an earworm like the I-IV-V progression, play the triad, and then move to the next applicable fret. An example is A, D, and E.
Note: The I-IV-V progression can be distinguished by picking a root note—the 1 of the progression—such as C, then counting down the alphabet until you get to the 4th and the 5th of the scale like, C(I), D, E, F(IV), G(V).
- Practice arpeggiating these chords—to play one string at a time, quickly and smoothly. Stay on just the first chord throughout an entire verse and see what happens. This is where less is more.
Triads are also called inversion chords. This means rearranging the order of the notes (voicings). Flipping the sound of your usual major and minor chords in this way can be refreshing and give a unique tone to your song. Now try these triads on the lowest three strings: 4(d), 5(a), and 6(e).
- The lowest string triads are useful when you’re playing in a group with no bassist.
- Practice all three types of triads—high three strings, middle strings, and low strings. How do they connect? Soak in the major shapes for as long as you need before tackling the minors.
- Say the notes of a triad out loud. Move beyond memorizing patterns and get into the language of music. If you’re determined, sing the notes. You’ll internalize them even more!