Most guitarists play chords by learning shapes. By learning commonly used shapes, you have the tools to play thousands of songs. This is a great way to enter the world of chords and start playing music.
One of the downfalls of this is that it is very easy to learn how to play chords, without knowing exactly what chords are. In this lesson, we are going to break down exactly what chords are, by exploring triads.
The Major Triad (1 – 3 – 5)
To understand chords, you first need to understand major scales. If you need to, you can read up on major scales here. The major scale can be thought of as a set of intervals, but for the sake of understanding chords, let’s reduce the Major scale to its most basic form – seven notes:
1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5 – 6 – 7
This is an overly simple summary, but it is very useful to look at it this way, for the sake of building chords.
The major triad is the most important and commonly used chord that you will ever learn. How do we construct it? By taking the 1st note, 3rd note and 5th note of the major scale.
1 – 3 – 5
Let’s do a few examples. The C major scale contains the following notes:
C – D – E – F – G – A – B
Therefor, the C Major triad (1 – 3 – 5) contains the following notes:
C – E – G
Let’s do another example. The A Major scale contains the following 7 notes:
A – B – C# – D – E – F# – G#
The A Major triad (1 – 3 – 5) is made up of the following:
A – C# – E
Simple right? So why is the Major triad so important? Well, the first thing to realise is that if you have played chords on the guitar before, you have probably already played the Major triad many times over. For example, when you play the D chord, you are actually playing the D Major triad. D Major is just shortened to ‘D’.
The D chord is really just the D Major triad. B is the B Major triad, and so on.
Doubling Up On Notes
If triads are made up of only three notes, why is it that when you play an E chord (for example), you play every string? How can it be that you strum six strings, when a triad only contains three notes? The reason is that often, when playing chords, we double up on notes.
The E Major triad for example, contains the following notes:
E – G# – B
But let’s look at the common E chord shape, played in the open position. If you have played open chords before, chances are that you have come across it.
Below are the notes contained within the shape:
As you can see, we are doubling up on notes. That is why we are technically still playing an E major triad, when playing the standard E Major shape. Doubling up of notes does not affect the function of the chord, it just adds a certain fullness (which can be favourable or not, depending on the sound that you are after). Also, the notes do not have to be in order. In the above E chord, the bass note (lowest note in pitch) is the ‘1’. The next highest note is the ‘5’, then the ‘1’ again, and so on. Again, this doesn’t affect the function of the chord. It’s basic identity is the same. It simply changes the colour, or the tone, slightly.
It should be pointed out that this is a very common practice on the guitar. The layout of the guitar makes it difficult to play chords in a logical, predictable fashion. Often, we double up on notes and change the order around. This means that guitarists more or less identify with chords based on shapes, rather than the notes contained within each chord.
It should also be pointed out that while any Major chord that you play on the guitar is technically a triad, sometimes, when people refer to triads, they are talking about a ‘pure’ version of the triad, without any double ups of notes. This is because by stripping triads back to their most basic form, it allows us to analyse and explore the triad in a more methodical and organised way.
Guitarists often avoid doing this. We like to learn shapes, give them a label and then rely on them, without really going ‘under the hood’. But exploring triads and all their inversions is a great way of really understanding how chords work, and it allows us to explore the guitar on a much deeper level.
When we play ‘pure’ triads, we strip the triad back to it’s most basic form – 1, 3 , 5. By taking the ‘pure’ triad and changing the order of notes, we get different inversions, that we can give labels to.
The first thing we are going to do is look at the ‘root position’ Major chord triad. Root position means that we will play the three notes in order, starting from the root note (1 – 3 – 5).
Let’s use the key of C as an easy example. The notes in the the C Major triad are as follows:
C – E – G
Playing these notes in root position means playing each note in order, like this:
Now we want to play this on the guitar. How do we do that? There are a number of options. This is one of the recurring challenges of the guitar. There are usually a few different ways of playing the same thing. To keep things simple, we’re going to use only the first three strings.
As you can see, the root position C Major triad produces a nice easy shape of its own. Of course, we could move this shape around to play root position Major triads in other keys, but for now, let’s stick to the C Major triad, as we’re not done with it just yet.
Our root position triad was nice, neat and logical (1 – 3 – 5). The next logical thing to do is invert the triad. What this means is that instead of the root note being the lowest note (the bass note), we’re going to make one of the other notes the lowest note. For a ‘1st Inversion’ triad, the 2nd note of the chord (the ‘3’), becomes the bass note. We therefor end up with this:
3 – 5 – 1
Sticking with the C Major chord, we get the following notes
E – G – C
Of course, the next logical thing to do is to put this 1st inversion triad on the guitar. This requires knowledge of the fretboard (so did the first shape). Sticking to the first three strings, it would look like this:
Play the root position triad and then play the 1st inversion triad. You should hear that they are really just two versions of the same chord. Non-musicians would probably struggle to hear the difference. Remember, they are effectively the same chord, but have a subtly different shade or tone.
There is one more inversion to look at. The inversion where the 3rd note of the chord (the ‘5’) is in the bass. This is known as a 2nd inversion chord.
Played on the guitar, it looks like this:
So now we have three ways of playing the one chord. It’s important to understand that we have produced each chord systematically and logically, by changing the order of notes. You should practise playing each inversion, one after the other, in different keys. This allows you to really get to know the three shapes as a ‘set’. Here is an example, in the key of B:
Here is an example in the key of D:
Notice that in the key of D, I started with the 2nd inversion chord. I did this simply because that was the lowest position possible. If I had started with the root position triad, I would have ended up with the following three positions:
As you can see, the 2nd inversion chord is on the 14th fret, when it could be on the 2nd (down the octave). Therefor, in any given key, you can either start from the root position triad, or the lowest triad available in that key (sometimes they are the same). It’s up to you. I like to start from the lowest position available.
Major and minor chords. If you could only learn two types of chords, they would be the ones that you would learn, without question. Every other chord is in a way, just a variation of either the Major or minor chord.
In this lesson, we have already covered the Major triad. Let’s now look at the minor triad.
We know that to produce the Major triad, we take the 1st note, 3rd note, and 5th note of the major scale.
So, we would use some sort of minor scale to produce the minor chord, right? Well, actually, no. We stick with the Major scale. Remember, the Major scale is the master scale!
Here’s how it works. To produce the minor chord, we simply take the 1st note, 3rd note, and 5th note of the Major scale. We then lower the 3rd note by one semitone. This effectively gives us a ‘flat 3rd’, which is the identifiable characteristic of the minor chord. The minor triad looks like this:
1 – b3 – 5
For example, the C minor triad is made up of the following notes:
C – Eb – G
The F minor triad is made up of the following notes:
F – Ab – C
The A minor triad is made up of the following notes:
A – C – E
Notice with the A minor triad, none of the notes have a ‘flat’ next to it? This is because in the key of A, the 3rd note is a ‘C#’. Lowering C# by a semitone gives us C natural (expressed simply as ‘C’). Therefor, the ‘C’ is indeed a b3, but the note itself is a natural note. This can be confusing at first.
It’s important to understand that you have probably already played minor triads. When you play an A minor chord, for example, you are playing an A minor triad. This is the same principle that we looked at before with the Major chord. Often, when playing chords on the guitar, we double up on notes and change the order of the notes around.
Minor Chord Inversions
We are now going to look at the three different inversions of the minor triad, just like we did with the Major triad. This time though, we don’t really need to dissect the theory. It’s the same as with the Major triad, but now we’re using the minor triad.
Root Position Minor Triad (root in the bass)
The root position minor triad (1 – b3 – 5) contains the root note in the bass. Using C minor as an example, it would be made up of the following notes:
C – Eb – G
It would look like this:
1st Inversion Minor Triad (b3 in the bass)
The 1st inversion minor triad (b3 – 5 – 1) contains the b3 in the bass. Using C minor as an example, it would be made up of the following notes:
Eb – G – C
It would look like this:
2nd Inversion Minor Triad (5 in the bass)
The 2nd inversion minor triad (5 – 1 – b3) contains the root note in the bass. Using C minor as an example, it would be made up of the following notes:
G – C – Eb
It would look like this:
Again, just like with the major triad, you should learn the shapes and practise playing each one in different keys.
Identifying The Root Note
Although we have really broken down the triads and analysed the theory involved, in the end, we want to be able to use the triads easily and quickly. To do so, just like with many other things that we play on the guitar, memorising shapes is a good way to go.
The best way to do this is by locating the root note of each shape, then using the root note to find the key that you are looking for. Let’s use the 2nd inversion Major triad as an example.
As you can see, the root note is dark, meaning that wherever we play the shape, the dark note (the note on the 2nd string) will determine which key we are in. Suppose we want to play the F# Major triad, using the above shape. We would simply need to locate F# on the 2nd string (it’s on the 7th fret) and make sure it is where we are playing the chord. Like this:
What ends up happening is that for each chord that you know, you have multiple shapes available to you, that are identifiable based on where the root note is.
Let’s look at the six shapes that we have covered in this lesson, with root notes highlighted:
Maj Triad Root Position
Maj Triad 1st Inversion
Maj Triad 2nd Inversion
Min Triad Root Position
Min Triad 1st Inversion
Min Triad 2nd Inversion
You can identify each one based on what chord type they are (major or minor) and where the root note is. You don’t need to worry about which inversion you are playing, as you’re playing them. Understanding the theory is important, and you should be able to analyse the different inversions from a theoretical perspective, but in the context of using the chords in a piece of music, it’s much more practical just to know which chord you are playing (e.g A minor, G Major etc.).
Using The Chords In Music
Understand the theory. Be able to play each inversion in any given key by identifying the root note.
The next step is to use the triads in a musical context. The easiest way to do this is to take a chord progression (you can make one up or you can use an existing one that you know) and practise using the triads that you have learnt. This is where it starts getting fun.
Let’s take the simple chord progression of Dm – G – C – Am
What we are going to do is play the above chord progression using the triads that we have learnt in this lesson.
The first thing you should realise is that based on the shapes that we have used in this lesson, we have three options for each chord (root position, 1st inversion, 2nd inversion). A good place to start is by playing the chord progression using only root position chords.
We could also play the same progression using 1st inversion chords:
But of course, we don’t need to stick to the same inversion for each chord. We could use the root position shape for D minor, then the 2nd inversion shape for G, then the 1st inversion shape for C, then the 1st inversion shape for A minor:
Obviously, just with this one chord progression, there are many different combinations and possibilities. This is why it’s so important to experiment and explore. You will find combinations that appeal to you. There is no right or wrong, just possibilities. Some will sound more organised, based on voice leading principles, but each combination will have its own unique colour and flavour.
The most important thing is that you are exploring and experiencing chords at a deeper level of understanding. With this little bit of theory, a simple chord progression that was once straight forward and perhaps a little boring, becomes a canvas for exploring many different combinations of shapes and sounds.
Keep in mind that we have only explored the Major and minor triads and have restricted ourselves to the first three strings of the guitar. There are other string combinations available, that throw up more shapes and sounds, and there are obviously other chord types too. But that’s for another lesson!