Triads can provide a very effective way to learn the fretboard, and identify where the chord tones sit on the fretboard when improvising. There is a lot of overlap between triads and the CAGED system shapes (the CAGED shapes are, in fact, triads), but the triads in this lesson are only made of 3 notes that fall into tidy little clusters on groups of 3 adjacent strings, which you may find a little bit easier to put to use on the fly. You’ll be able to use these clusters as a basis on which to build blues licks, mode-based licks, and more. For this lesson, it would be helpful (but not 100% necessary) to have a basic grasp of chord construction, which you can get from the HCG Music Theory lessons.
Definition of a Triad
First, we need to define exactly what triads are. As the word implies, triads are groups of three notes that create chords. All of our basic chords are triads–a C chord, an A chord, an E chord, etc. Minor chords are also triads–Bm, Am, etc. When you start seeing numbers in your chord names (C7, Dmaj7, F9, Bb13(#5), etc.), it’s a sign that you are no longer talking about a triad. Note that when guitar chords (made up of 5-6 strings) have more than 3 notes, most of the time at least one, if not two, of the notes in the chord are actually doubled or even tripled, so the chord still counts as a triad.
It’s also worth mentioning that this lesson only covers major and minor triads. There are two other families of triads, augmented and diminished, that are not covered here because they are not particularly common outside the realm of jazz.
A basic major triad is “spelled” by taking the 1, 3, and 5 from a major scale. So a C major triad would be spelled C – E – G. And a minor triad is “spelled” by taking the 1, b3 (a.k.a. “minor 3rd”), and 5. So a C minor triad would be spelled C – Eb – G. These are sometimes referred to as “root position” triads, where the root (the 1) is the lowest note.
If we put the 3rd on the bottom, the triad is now spelled 3 – 5 – 1. This is a “1st inversion” triad. So a first inversion C major triad would be E – G – C. This chord would commonly be referred to as “C/E”. If we put the 5th on the bottom, the spelling is now 5-1-3 we now have a “2nd inversion” triad. In C, this would give us G – C – E (and usually be called “C/G” on a chord chart). But all of these would still be called “C major triads.”
The bottom line for now is that we have three possible spellings of triads, which will fall in 3 different ways on any group of 3 adjacent strings. You will probably find that many of these look pretty familiar, and if you know the CAGED system, you’ll also see that they comprise a 3-string chunk of the CAGED shapes. I think you’ll find these 3-note chunks to be more useful than the full CAGED shapes, especially when you’re thinking “on the fly” in improvisation.
I find these 3-string clusters to be very useful in improvising. More useful, in fact, than the full, 6-string CAGED shapes. Once you know where the root, 3rd, and 5th sit within these triads, you’ll find it’s pretty easy to locate the 7th and all of the other notes that you can use to create modes, play blues licks, etc. Subsequent lessons will cover these ideas.
Learn Major & Minor Triads Together
As I put this lesson together, I realized that it makes sense to learn both the major and minor shapes at the same time. By doing it this way, you’ll learn where the 3rd (both the major & minor 3rd) sits within the triad shape. This will be extremely helpful in learning your way around the fretboard, and will also be very effective for putting licks together in a blues/rock/country/bluegrass context, where you might incorporate both the major & minor 3rd. BTW, you may want to check out HCG’s blues clinic to explore this idea, and the video that goes with this lesson (top of page) also digs into this topic.
OK, let’s get to the triad shapes. For some extra visual help in memorizing them, go ahead and grab this PDF document.