A triad is a type of chord that only contains the essential notes necessary to make it a chord.
In order to create a chord, you need to play at least three distinct notes together (i.e. C, E, and G for a C triad).
But just so we’re clear, a double stop is not a triad. A power chord is not a triad. And even if you’re playing all six strings on your guitar, if you’re only playing one or two notes, you still don’t have a triad, let alone a chord.
But it is okay to think of triads as simplified chord shapes. In general, they are a little easier to pull off than open chords but still require the same basic skills.
Let’s take a look at how to play triads on the guitar.
Triads In The Key Of C
Since a triad requires three distinct notes to be played together, this means that you will be playing three strings at a time.
But there are a few different groupings of three on the guitar, aren’t there? There are basically four different combinations:
- The first, second and third strings.
- The second, third, and fourth strings.
- The third, fourth and fifth strings.
- The fourth, fifth and six strings.
It is possible to play triads on any of these four groupings, and we will be taking a look at each. But first, to keep things simple, let’s look at your triads on the first grouping: the first, second and third strings.
All four of these shapes represent C triads (C, E, and G). But when you aren’t playing these notes in the exact order (i.e. G, C, and E – the first shape in the above example), you get something called an inversion.
Let’s move onto the next grouping of three: the second, third, and fourth strings. These are all C triad shapes as well.
And here’s how to play triads on the third, fourth, and fifth strings.
Finally, here are your triads on the fourth, fifth, and sixth strings.
As a bonus, I will show you how to play the entire C major scale (C, E, D, F, G, A, and B) using triads, but just on the first grouping of three strings.
In case you’re wondering, you just played the following chords: C, Dm, Em, F, G, Am, and Bdim (where a small “m” means minor, and “dim” means diminished – all other chords are major). I’m not going to explain the exact theory behind this right now, but I thought you might want to know.
Having played through these examples, you should be starting to feel more comfortable with playing triad shapes. Don’t worry too much if you’re having trouble with some shapes – this is normal. With some practice, you’ll be able to master them.
Songs With Triads – Search How To Play Them
There are plenty of songs out there that prominently feature triads. You should look these up and see if you can figure them out on your own:
- “Sunday Bloody Sunday” by U2: particularly the picked intro/verse riff.
- “Island in the Sun” by Weezer: the intro part is played with triads.
- “Talking in Your Sleep” by The Romantics: the higher, funky guitar part is played with triads. Check out the intro/verse riff.
- “Red Flag” by Billy Talent: listen to the clean guitar parts in the verse.
- “Dance The Night Away” by Van Halen: the intro riff uses a mix of single notes and triads. You won’t hear Eddie playing straight triads very often, but he does tend to use them in his music quite a bit.
Learning riffs from these songs should give you a better idea of how to use triads in your own playing.
Using Triads To Create Riffs & Songs
It’s quite easy to get stuck in a rut as a guitarist. You might find yourself playing the same types of riffs or rhythms all of the time. This isn’t terribly inspiring.
When I find myself in such a space, I like to take a big picture view of the possibilities.
Even if you’re just a beginning guitarist and you’re learning triads for the first time, you still have single notes, double stops, and triads available to you. If you can add each to the techniques to the mix and keep things varied, you can come up with some pretty creative riffs.
Although I won’t be talking too much about this, it’s important to understand that there are certain chord combinations that work, and others that don’t. When you’re looking to create songs or riffs with triads, you have to look for (or hear) combinations that sound good together.
This is pretty easily achieved when you understand some basic music theory around key signatures, but that’s beyond the scope of this lesson.
For now, I’m going to give you an example of a riff in the key of G.
I’ll give a very simple explanation of what’s going on here. In the key of G, the most commonly used chords are: G, C, D and Em. This riff uses triad shapes of each of these chords.
If you played this same riff through the entirety of a song, it would probably get boring fast. But it does make for a nice “hook”, and could even be used as an intro or a chorus.
As a bonus, I’m going to give you an example that combines single notes, double stops, and triads. With enough variation, repetition and some accompaniment, you could definitely create an entire song out of these riffs. You would probably want to put your own spin on it though. This example is also in the key of G.
Hopefully your eyes are beginning to open to the possibilities. Triads certainly are not the be-all-end-all of guitar or music, but they can spice up your playing, and can be quite effective in genres like Ska, Funk, Reggae, and even Pop or Rock.
From a theoretical perspective, the only chords that contain three notes are simple major and minor chords. When it comes to other chord types like dominant 7ths, major 7ths, minor 7ths, diminished and others, you may need to play four to six different notes at a time!
But it is still possible to “approximate” some of these more complex chords with three notes, making triads handy tools even when you’re trying to play through difficult passages of music.
You should also know that it is possible to do more with triads than what was demonstrated here. I’m sure we’ll have the chance to explore more together.