Beyond power chord riffs: Major and minor triads

In the power of power chords lesson, I explain how the power chord can come very handy since it doesn’t have the “third” note of the key it’s being played in.

That third note is what changes a power chord into a major or a minor triad.

In this lesson, you’ll see that while power chords can be enough to make great guitar riffs, if you want to inject more variety into them, you should consider other options.

One of these options is to add guitar techniques and vary rhythms to make your power chord riffs more interesting.

Another thing you should consider is adding major and minor guitar triads to your riffs.

The following example shows you the notes for the C major and F major triads on music notation, and where you should play them on guitar in the tab section.

As you can see, the chord shape formed by the guitar triad that starts on the low E string and the one that starts on the A string is the same.

For the purposes of the lesson, we’ll stick to the major and minor triads that have the root note on these strings since they are the ones you will be using most in riffs. If you had to form triads from the D and the G string, the patterns would be different.

What makes the above guitar triads different from power chords, is the second note in each bar in the example above, which is the third note in the key of C major and F major respectively.

Power chords don’t have that note at all.

What makes the minor triad pattern different from that of the major is that the third note is played a fret lower. In music theory terms it is called flattening the note since a flat tells you that you should play the note before the one notated.

The following are the guitar triads for C and F minor.

In the C minor triad, the note E is replaced with the note E flat while in the F minor triad, the note A is replaced with the note A flat.

You may notice that this note has changed the sound of the chord and that while the major triads sound happy and bright, the minor triads sound sadder.

How to use guitar triads to add flavor to your power chord riffs

Now that you know what a guitar triad is and the difference between a major and a minor triad, I will show you how they can add interest to your power chord riffs.

As a template, we’ll use a riff made of just a succession of power chords, some of which I will later substitute with major and minor triads.

The next riff, has exactly the same guitar chords and rhythm as the riff above, except that I substitute the power chord of G with a G major triad and the power chord of E with an E major triad.

In case you’re asking why the guitar riff ends with the whole E major chord, instead of an E major triad, the answer is that they’re actually the same thing. Though you will be strumming six notes you’re actually playing the same three notes of the triad, with some notes being played more than once at different octaves, on different strings.

This lesson on guitar notes, intervals, scales and chords explains how all this stuff works on your guitar.

In the next riff, I’m changing the power chord of A to an A minor triad, and the C and D power chords to C and D major triads. This, once again, gives a different flavor to the guitar riff.

If you’re fed of using only power chords in your guitar riffs there are many ways you can use major and minor triads creatively to have more choices and come up with different things than you’re already doing.

Before you start experimenting with substituting your power chord riffs with major and minor chords I want to leave you with a little word of caution.

If you’re playing with others, you can’t just substitute power chords with major and minor guitar triads at random.

When you were playing power chords only, if you played the power chord of C, you weren’t concerned whether the other musicians were playing a C major or a C minor chord, since it’s the third note, the one the power chord doesn’t have, that makes them different.

With major and minor guitar triads, you need to make sure you’re playing the same chord as the rest of the band because if they’re playing a major chord and you’re riffing on the minor triad of that same chord, you’re going to sound bad no matter how cool your riff is.

There are two skills you should be developing, that will help you find when and where to put major or minor triads in the riffs you’re writing:

  1. Auditory skills: Train your ear to easily distinguish between major and minor triads so that before you substitute the power chord with the triad, you already know how it’s going to sound.
  2. Music theory tells you, for instance, that if the song is in the key of C, the triad starting on the note A in that progression should be minor, while the triad that starts on G, should be a major.

Learn the basics of how guitar chords are formed and the relationship between them and as soon as you learn something new, start applying it.

Your ear, backed by your musical knowledge, will start showing you what options you have before you play the coming chord!

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2 thoughts on “Beyond power chord riffs: Major and minor triads”

  1. It’s about 11pm. , I’ve been reading your lessons on songwriting.
    I thought I would comment on your lessons , before I lose my thoughts on your writing .
    I will keep reading , but I feel it is repetitive in a lot of ways .LA more streamlined teaching of songwriting is needed .I guess it’s (lessons) geared for people with very little knowledge of music .
    Maybe , that’s why it’s so repetitive .
    Maybe , a better format of the lesson on songwriting would be easier to learn , without trying to teach more than songwriting , a simple list of music fundamentals needed to become a good songwriter .
    I am not an expert , but I feel like I am being pulled in to many directions .

    1. Hi Enrique,

      I’m replying to you a bit late, but hopefully, it’s better than never!

      Music theory is one of the most important songwriting skills, however knowing a lot of theory by itself doesn’t make one a good songwriter.

      The other elements should be in place.

      I believe the fundamentals of music theory (how scales, intervals, chords, chord progressions etc work) should be learned by every songwriter.

      What you should do differently as a songwriter than someone who’s studying music theory for its own sake is that the moment you learn something new you should apply it creatively to make music.

      This should not feel repetitive since the same thing can be applied in an infinite amount of ways.

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