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How To Use Guitar Triads To Unlock The Fretboard

If you don’t know the theory behind guitar triads yet, I suggest that you go through this lesson first.

And through this lesson if you don’t yet know the name of the notes on the guitar fretboard.

In today’s lesson we’re going to explore all the guitar triads in the major scale, and progress from one to another all over the fretboard in a series of exercises.

When we harmonize the major scale in triads – that is apply a triad to every note degree of the scale – we end up with three different kinds of triads:

  1. The major triad.
  2. The minor triad.
  3. The diminished triad.

Another kind of triad exists, the augmented triad. We won’t be using it in this lesson because it’s dissonant nature makes it pretty uncommon, and because we’ll be sticking to the triads of the major scale.

The formula

The formula for the major scale harmonized in triads goes like this:

Major – minor – minor – major – major – minor – diminished.
Thus, if we harmonize the scale of C major in triads, we’ll end up with the following:

C major – D minor – E minor – F major – G major – A minor – B diminished.

Note: You may have noticed that the above triad names are also the names of chords. Triads are actually chords that are made of the root note, the third, and the fifth.

Thus, while not all chords are triads (ex: 7th chords, or suspended chords), major, minor, diminished and augmented chords, and triads are basically the same thing.

Guitar triads on the fretboard

The next step is to place the triads of the major scale on the guitar fretboard.

There are different triad patterns all over the fretboard, depending which string you start the triad from.

The first example shows you every triad in the key of C major, starting from the 3th string (G).

Memorize this pattern and make sure you also spend some time listening to the sound of each triad, to train your ear.

Careful listening to everything you learn on the guitar, whether a chord, a scale, an arpeggio or even a rhythm, will take you a long way in developing a good ear.

Guitar triad exercises

Now that you know where to find guitar triads on the 3th string, we’ll be  playing around with them creatively, which will help you unlock the fretboard as well as give you ideas for guitar riffs, licks, and solos.

In the first exercise we’ll play the triad down and up in the form of a broken chord, and then slide the root note of the triad to that of the next triad.

The second exercise is a variation of the first where instead of sliding the root note of the triad to the next, we slide from the fifth interval of the triad to the fifth interval of the next triad.

Guitar triads starting on different strings

The next thing I’m going to show you is the shape of the triads with the root note on different strings of the guitar.

After you learn them, apply the exercises in the section above to these triad progressions.

All of these examples are in the key of C, thus the first triad will be built on the first C note on the respective string.

If the C on a particular string is higher up on the fretboard, and harmonizing the whole scale would take more than the whole guitar neck, we’ll go back an entire octave and continue harmonizing the scale from there.

Triads starting on the 4rd String (D)

Triads starting on the 5nd String (A)

Triads starting on the 6st String (E)

After applying the two exercises in the previous section of this lesson to all triad sets, we’re ready for the final step.

Playing triads in different keys.
All the guitar triads given above are in the key of C but to learn the fretboard thoroughly you will also need to learn to play them in different keys.

This should not be hard since the formula for the harmonized major scale remains the same when changing key.

As an example, I’m giving you the guitar triads in the key of D major, starting on the 3th string.

It’s important to note that now we’re using the notes that form the D major scale, thus we have the notes F# and C# instead of F and C.

Conclusion: Applying music theory

The lesson you’ve just been through is an exercise in applying music theory for the guitar.

It is important to adopt this approach every time you learn a new music theory concept (such as consonance and dissonance, motif and variation) or item (such as a scale or an arpeggio).

This way, music theory is not just more fun, but also more practical and useful.


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