Guitar triads and the fretboard

Guitar triads is one of the key harmony concepts you'll need to unlock the fretboard. People complain:

"I've been playing with a live band every week for years and although I don't know all the chords I play, I am able to get by and that contributed to my complacency."

People play chords they don't understand. They skip steps and don't do what it takes to learn the fretboard, yet they complain:

"Sure I can play chords and strum reasonably well and belt out a few songs but to me this is not enough, I want to master the fretboard – not be intimidated by it."

What these people don't know is that the source of their frustration is hidden in the very words they use. CHORDS. GUITAR CHORDS. To us guitar people the words 'guitar chords' are synonymous with fingering patterns: boxes with dots in them that tell you where to put your fingers. But that's all the information you get from them. Think about it:

"I play other instruments and I learned "properly" how to apply theory and I could play the instrument. Unfortunately, the guitar was riddled early on with bad, lazy teachers who just taught me how to play songs and a few chord shapes and scales here and there. I feel like I just 'fake' the guitar, that it's not my own.

Couple that with a bout with apathy and I just have not been able to find the motivation to punch through this ceiling I feel trapped under."

Of course our friend here is apathetic. But, in fairness, it's not just self-inflicted. We trust our teachers implicitly. So when they say "here take these chord shapes," which is code-speak for 'put your fingers there', that's what we do.

No wonder we feel like we're faking it and can't even play the instrument. No wonder we feel intimidated and just wind up using fingering recipes we don't understand: after all, it gets the job done. Clap clap, well done.

So when your teacher insults your intelligence by telling you, whether out loud or implicitly to put your fingers there, run. When you feel inclined to "just learn those chords" and get it done for your next gig, you'll know it's time for a revamp.

Guitar triads: chord charts

These guitar chord charts will help you start making real sense of triads on the fretboard. To the left, you'll see the scale degree of each note position. These scale degrees are not just cute numbers. They are the key to using these shapes and make sense of the fretboard.

C D E F G A B
1 2 3 4 5 6 7

Scale degrees come from scales. The value of this approach is that the scale degrees tell you what the structure of each triad voicing. With that information, you can relate chords to scales in improvisation, composition and arranging in any genre.

Guitar triads are some of the most important building blocks of music whether you play Blues, Jazz, Country, Rock, Flamenco, Classical or whatever. You cannot escape triads.

"But I use CAGED and get along just fine!"

CAGED fingering formulas... the bane of the land. They blind you to what you're really doing. All they do is give you quick-n-easy access to triads in voicings that sound nice and full: they duplicate scale degrees in order to fill up as many strings as possible. But they're still triads. Don't be fooled.

Guitar triads: general structure

Triads are the simplest chords there are. They are composed of three distinct tones. Another name for them is simply three-part chords. (Click here for four-part chords). Click on the numbers below the image to display major triads, minor triads, diminished triads and augmented triads.

Major triads, minor triads, diminished triads, augmented triads

  • major triads guitar chords chart
  • minor triads guitar chords chart
  • diminished triad guitar chords chart
  • augmented triads guitar chords chart

The interval structure of triads

What sets these guitar triads apart from each other is their interval structure. Let's start with the basics: all triads start with a root, up from which the rest of the triad is built. The next note is the third, and the last is the fifth:

  • Major triad: 1 -> 3 = major third; 3 -> 5 = minor third: 1 -> 5 = perfect fifth

              (major third + minor third = perfect fifth)

  • Minor triad: 1 -> 3 = minor third; 3 -> 5 = major third: 1 -> 5 = perfect fifth

              (minor third + major third = perfect fifth)

  • Diminished triad: 1 -> 3 = minor third; 3 -> 5 = minor third: 1 -> 5 = diminished fifth

              (minor third + minor third = diminished fifth)

  • Augmented triad: 1 -> 3 = major third; 3 -> 5 = major third: 1 -> 5 = augmented fifth

              (major third + major third = augmented fifth)
  • Guitar triad inversions

    When you play a guitar triad starting on the root, we say that it's in root position (aka '1st position'). You will find the root position of each of the triad types in the first row. Pay attention to the numbers at the left of the first row: '1', the root, is at the bottom, followed by 3 and 5.

    You can, however, invert your triads, for variety, convenience, or voice-leading. This means that you play the exact same tones, but with either the third or the fifth as the lowest note. This changes the overall interval structure: the chord type and but and the function of each of the chord tones remain unchanged. The second row of each of the four chord charts above shows the first inversion (aka '2nd position') of each of the triad types; notice that '3' is the lowest note here. Similarly, the third row shows their second inversion (aka '3d position'); '5' is at the bottom this time

    String groups

    You can play closed-position triads in any of four different string groups: strings 6, 5 and 4; strings 5, 4 and 3; strings 4, 3 and 2; or strings 3, 2 and 1. Since the guitar's tuning system is asymmetrical, you need to adjust your fingering as needed for each of the string groups. This I call semitone compensation.

    The four columns of the chord diagrams above show you exactly how to play each triad and triad inversion in the different string groups.

    Open and closed positions

    All the fretboard fingerings of triads in the guitar chord chart shown above are in closed position. This means that all three tones are within a single octave, without any 'gaps' in between. There are countless ways of playing open position triads of all four types on the guitar fretboard, so start with the basics; understand the interval structure of triads, in root position as well as in both inversions: all three positions. Understanding the structure of triads is the best way to lay a strong foundation from which to later explore all the possibilities.

    The number of positions grows even more when you start duplicating chord tones. It is very common for the root, for example, to be doubled an octave above, as in CAGED chords and other commonly used fingerings. Again; understand and practice guitar triads in their simplest form first, then you will make real sense of the myriad fingering options available on the fretboard.

    Triads and the major and minor modes

    Of the four types of guitar triads shown above, the first three —major triads, minor triads and diminished triads— occur naturally on the major scale. The augmented triad comes from the minor mode: it is found in both the harmonic minor scale and the melodic minor scale.

    What's next?

    four-part chords

    Once you've come to grips with guitar triads, the next chords to explore, on the fretboard, are four-part chords (aka 'seventh chords') Four-part chords are built by stacking on an additional third on top of a triad —adding up to a the interval of a seventh between the root and the highest note— so it is key for you to understand guitar triads before you move on to seventh chords...

    The seventh above the triad adds a whole new dimension to its sound. These chords are very common in blues, jazz, funk, and many other styles and genres; make sure you're able to play at least some of the common fingering to spice up your playing!



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