Blues Guitar Institute

Chord Theory: An Introduction to Triads

Country music hall-of-famer, Harlan Howard gave us the line, “Country music is three chords and the truth.”  I like to think of triads as three notes and the truth.  These little three note arrangements are the building blocks for all chord theory.

Learning basic major and minor triads along with their inversions was the jumping off point for me.  My lead and rhythm playing improved tremendously when these little devils were under my fingers.

Let’s take a look at what these animals are.

Build an Incredible Chord Vocabulary with Triads

If you know anything about triangles or tricycles, you could probably guess that a triad has three of something.  A triad is simply a chord with three notes.  That’s it.  For now, let’s look at the major triads.  To do that, we’ll breifly review the major scale and interval theory.

Chord Theory, The Major Scale and Its Intervals

The major scale is the foundation of most things we will talk about related to music theory.  Scales, chords are virtually all referenced from the context of the major scale.

Remember that the major scale has 7 notes for example, the C major scale is C, D, E, F, G, A, B.

Remember from interval theory that each note in the major scale sequence is given a (not so clever) name:  root, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh.

Chord Formulas

Just as each scale type is based upon a never changing interval pattern, each type of chord (called a chord quality)  is made up of a set pattern of intervals.  When referring to chords, you usually hear the word formula rather than pattern to describe the set sequence.

Each and every major chord is made up of a root, third and fifth.  Three notes is all it takes.  If you play an open major chord that has all six strings involved, you would think otherwise.  There’s six notes, right?  In any major chord that involves more than three strings, either the root, third or fifth will be repeated.

For major triads, use this as your formula:  root, third, fifth.  Usually you will see this written like this:  1-3-5.

Stepping Stone to Other Chords

Just as tweaking the major scale a note here or there will land you with tons of other scale possibilities, tweaking a note or two of the major triad formula will give you different chord qualities.  We’ll focus on the major triad for now, but for a preview of coming attractions:

  • Changing the chord formula to 1-3b-5 yields a minor chord
  • Adding a flat 7th to a major chord yields a dominant seventh chord (commonly called a seventh chord)

Use These 4 Steps to Find Major Triads All Over the Neck

  1. Identify the root
  2. Identify the 3rd by counting up 4 half steps from the root
  3. Identify the 5th by counting up 3 half steps from the 3rd
  4. Play these notes simultaneously
G Major Triad

For example let’s construct the G major triad.  We have our root, G.

Let’s begin with the G on the 5th fret of the 4th string.  Next we need a B since it’s up 4 half steps from G.  There is a B on the 2nd fret of the 3rd string which is conveniently located to the G we are using.  Then, let’s go for the 5th.  Up 3 half steps from the B is a D note.  The closest D we can play in this position is on the 3rd fret of the 2nd string.

Fret each of these and strum the chord.  You will hear a nice bell-like major chord in its purest sense.

Put These Three Notes to Work

Harlan Howard‘s ‘truth’ about country music was spot on.  The truth about triads is they are incredibly important bit of chord theory and completely versatile.

I think if you build these chords from the ground up on your own, they will stick with you.  Now that you know the G major triad construction, try to build a few triads on your own.

Coming up we’ll look at inversions, triads on different string sets, minor and diminished triads.  As you can see there is a lot to talk about!  Good luck with this lesson and if you have any questions, drop me a line in the comments below.



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