Lesson 12: Triads - Part 1

Lesson Contents:

In this lesson I will show you how to play any triad in any position on the guitar. I will also explain the terminology used to identify the different voicings (or note arrangements) for these structures. So let's get on with it...


In the previous lesson I presented triads for all major keys. When I explained the components of these chords I made some simplifications for pedagogical reasons. Here are the simplifications I made:

  1. I made all voicings for the triads be in root position. That is, the root note of each triad was voiced (located) in the bass. (The root note was the lowest note of the chord.) For example: when I presented a C major triad, I voiced it as such: C, E, G -- the root, the 3rd, and then the 5th.

  2. I also made sure that all voicings were in close position. A closed voicing simply means that the notes in a chord structure are packed in such a way that you can't fit any other chord tones in between any two adjacent notes for that given voicing. In the example above, the distance between C and E is truly a major third and the distance between E and G is truly a minor third. No other chord tones can be squeezed in between the root and 3rd or between the 3rd and 5th.

Figured bass

To illustrate the next few concepts let's work with a C major triad in root position and close voicing. Traditionally, this voicing is called a five-three voicing. The two numbers refer to diatonic intervals relative to the bass note of the chord (triad). The five refers to a diatonic fifth above the bass while the three refers to a diatonic third above the bass. See the example below:

A Five-Three Voicing for a C major Traid

A diatonic 5th above C is a G while a diatonic 3rd above C is an E. Hence, we get a nice C major triad in root position and close voicing.

This terminology results from the way triads and chords were originally notated for keyboard players back in the baroque period (1600 - 1750) in Europe. This method is called figured bass and according to the Harvard Dictionary of Music it was a way of...

" ...indicating an accompanying part by the bass notes only, together with figures (numbers) designating the chief intervals and chords to be played above the bass notes."
We won't use this notation much, but it is good to be aware of it.

Now, if we take our root position C major triad in close voicing and raise the lowest note in the structure up one octave we get a major triad in first inversion. That is, the 3rd of the chord is now in the bass. In figured bass notation, this is called a six-three voicing.

If we apply this process to the six-three voicing we get a second inversion major triad. That is, the 5th of the chord is in the bass. In figured bass notation this is called a six-four voicing. Consult the following diagram.

Inversions of a C major Triad

Chord inversions, on the guitar and other instruments, in general can be voiced in many different ways, but these are the only 3 possible ways to arrange triads in close position. What you should also understand is that "first inversion" equates to "the 3rd of the chord is in the bass," and "second inversion" means "the 5th of the chord is in the bass." We use the modern "slash notation" to represent these structures. C/E means a C major triad with an E (the 3rd) in the bass. And C/G means a C major triad with a G (the 5th) in the bass.

All triads can be arranged in these 3 ways. Here are some more examples:

More Examples: F#m and Gm

How to Play These Suckers on a Guitar

Here are the shapes in a nutshell. A nice way to play these structures is with 3 notes at a time using 3 adjacent strings on the guitar. This gives us 4 "paths" through the shapes. The 4 sets of 3 adjacent strings are:

I leave the fingerings up to you. There are no strict rules, only some guidelines: Strive for efficiency, comfort and a good tone.

Major Triadic Shapes

Minor Triadic Shapes

Diminished Triadic Shapes

Augmented Triadic Shapes

Practice these shapes so that you can play any triad in any position on the guitar in any inversion. Play each triad in two ways: using the same set of 3-adjacent strings and moving horizontally along the three different patterns for the particular chord you are playing, or play them by sticking with one big pattern and jumping around on the 4 sets of 3-adjacent strings (playing vertically.)

These shapes, incidentally, happen to be basically the same shapes for arpeggios. An arpeggio is just a fancy name that equates to playing chord tones one at a time. Also, notice the 3 shapes for an augmented triad - they are all the same! Refer to the previous lesson for an explanation as the why this is so. Enjoy.

Go to the next lesson, Lesson 13, or go back to the main menu.