Other than your power chords, the triads are the most basic chords that you can play on the guitar. You probably know many major and minor chords, but have you ever thought about how they are made? In this article, you will learn how to build any triad chord, which will open up new doors in your knowledge of music theory and harmony and your guitar playing.
Table of Contents
What Is A Triad?
A triad is a chord that is made from three very specific notes – the root, the third, and the fifth.
These are all intervals in relation to a note in a particular key; therefore, it’s a good idea to have a basic understanding of the major and minor keys and intervals on the guitar.
Also to follow along easier, if you don’t know how to read guitar chords, whether it’s from a tab, a chart, or on the staff, I recommend that you read my guide to reading chords over here.
With that said, and to begin with this lesson, in total, there are four possible types of triad chords that you can make:
- The major triad
- The minor triad
- The diminished triad
- The augmented triad
To make a triad on staff, you can do something known as “stacking thirds.”
For example, if we’re in the key of C major, and you decide to use C as your root, the “third” from C is E, and another third from the E is G. It will look like this on a musical staff:
However, G is also known as the perfect fifth interval to C. The stacking thirds method can be useful, but simply being able to identify a 5th right away can save some time. If you play a root note and 5th together, this is how all of your basic power chords are made, so there’s a good chance you have a grasp of these already.
You can also find the 5ths pretty easily if you just list out the notes of the key that you are working with.
If we’re in C major, you will be using only natural (no sharp or flat) notes, which will be:
Now, if you look closely, you’ll notice that the root, third, and fifth will always be every other note, respectively. To make a C-major triad, you would always use the pitches C, E, and G. You can also count up to 5, starting from the root being “1”.
Moving on to the next note, D, the root, third, and 5th will be D, F, and A, respectively. This is a D-minor triad.
Next, for E, you will be making an E-minor triad, which is E, G, and B.
I hope you’re getting the idea here!
One thing you might have noticed is the different chord qualities I’ve been mentioning along the way and wondering how you figure them out. Personally, I have them memorized, but I will show you an effortless way to learn which triads you need to be using later on in this article. But first, we need to cover one of the most crucial parts of making triads – the intervals.
However, before we move on, I also want to make it clear that you’re not limited to just playing three notes at a time with a triad. Triads only refer to the note choices being used, not the quantity of them. You can have “duplicates” of notes, and it will still be a triad chord. For example, you can have an E minor chord where you have multiple E, G, and B notes playing at the same time, as with your basic Eminor chord, which uses 6-notes at a time.
Triads & Intervals
Sure, we know that all triads are formed by using the root, third, and 5th, but it’s the specific intervals that define the quality of the triad.
While the root note will always be just that – the root; the third, and to a lesser extent – the fifth can change, and this will be what gives every triad its flavor.
Let’s turn our focus to the “third” first.
Major & Minor Thirds
“Third” intervals can come in two different forms – a major third and minor third. Depending on which one you use will determine if you’ll have a major triad or a minor triad.
- A major triad chord is made from a root, major third, and a perfect fifth
- The minor triad chord is created from a root, minor third, and a perfect fifth.
But how do you know which one to use? It depends on the key you are using and the notes within it, and this is where a basic understanding of intervals comes into play. It’s helpful to know the distance between a given note.
In the key of C major, which once again is C-D-E-F-G-A-B, the distance between C to E is a major third; however, the distance between D to F, is a minor third, as well as E to G. These are just a few examples, and depending on the note you are looking at, it will vary.
But, with the chord formulas provided to you in the last section, you’ll be able to quickly figure out if you need to be making a major or a minor triad based on any key that you are using!
Regarding fifths, you will almost always be using a perfect fifth interval. C to G, D to A, E to B are all examples of them. When a root and perfect fifth are played together only, they are very neutral “5” chords, but when you add in a third, depending on if it’s a major or minor third interval, you will get a triad with their respective characteristics.
On the other hand, there are a couple of situations where fifths aren’t always “perfect,” and this is what will help define two additional types of triads: the diminished and augmented ones.
Altering the 5th – Diminished and Augmented
In music, to diminish something means to flatten it. In diminished triads, the fifth is what will be diminished, but you will also include a minor third interval in there as well. So, to make one, you need the root, minor third, and a diminished fifth.
However, this distance between that initial minor third and that diminished fifth is also a minor third as well. Therefore, technically, you can think of diminished triads as stacking minor thirds.
In the key of C, Bdim is what will be used, and the notes are B, D, and F. The interval between B and F is known as a diminished 5th rather than a perfect fifth, but the minor third interval between B and D is what turns it into a triad.
There is only one diminished triad in any given key, making not nearly as common as your major and minor chords, but there is one final triad that is a bit rarer – the augmented triad.
The augmented triad is the opposite of the diminished in every way. To construct one, you need a root, a major third, and an augmented fifth. This means that you will sharpen it rather than flattening it. Additionally, an augmented triad is made up of stacked major thirds. Many augmented chords are labeled simply as “Aug”, but you can also identify them if they have a “+” symbol sometimes, too; for example, E+.
Also, unlike the diminished triad, augmented triads don’t typically come up in ordinary chord progressions; in fact, they’re normally used as a substitute, and this will be elaborated on shortly.
Every key has a set of basic chords, and in the next section, we’ll go over them, and this is what I was referring to earlier when I mentioned memorizing what types of triads you need to use for a given note in a key.
Scale Degrees & Chord Progressions
Each note in the major and minor scale follows a chord progression formula and is assigned a specific triad to them, usually indicated by Roman numerals. If they are capitalized, these are major chords, and if they are lower-case, they are minor chords.
Let’s take a look at the chord progression for major keys. This one, in particular, is in C major again, but it applies to any key:
To memorize each of these qualities, you would just simply need to refer to this formula for major keys:
Major (I), minor (ii), minor (iii), major (IV), major (V), minor (vi), diminished, and back to the octave, which is the major chord from the start (I).
The one that is unusual that you might not have come across too much in your playing is the diminished triad, which is found on scale degree #7. On sheet music and tablature, it is often indicated with “dim,” but sometimes you might also come across the “o” icon as well. However, when you work with a minor key, this diminished chord won’t always be on the 7th scale degree.
Every major key has a relative minor key that has identical notes, but if you’re looking at a piece of music that explicitly says it’s in a minor key, and it gives you a chord progression, things are going to be slightly different, because there will be a different starting point.
The relative minor key can be always be found on the 6th degree of the major scale. This is a handy piece of information that you’ll be able to apply anywhere.
Therefore, when working with a minor key specifically, what was initially a “vi” in the major key is now an “i.” The notes and chords are still the same, but these icons are just switched up. Take a look at the example below, which happens to be in the key of Amin (the direct relative to Cmaj):
Like the previous example, in addition to these Roman numerals, there is a chord formula for the minor keys as well:
Minor (i), diminished, major (III), minor (iv), minor (v), major, (VI) major (VII), and back to the octave, which is a minor chord (i).
As mentioned before, the augmented triad is nowhere to be found here, trying to make one will put you out of key most of the time, because it doesn’t naturally occur in them. However, you can make it work in some spots, and it can serve a harmonic function, despite potentially being out of key.
For example, in a major key, you can use an augmented triad in place of the iii chord, or as a substitute for the v chord in a minor key. At the end of the day, it’s the same chord being used.
Even though they are unnatural chords, augmented triads can be an excellent way to add tension, but it’s highly dependent on where you plan on going with it. So while it has its uses, it can also make your music sound awful at the same time.
Because of this, right now, it’s best to stick with the basics and use the chords you know work, and by memorizing the formulas, you’ll know exactly which one you need to be using, provided that you know the notes of the key that you’re working with!
All Triad Chords
While I highly recommend that you study and memorize the triads, there’s no harm done in having a nice reference to work with to help you along the way or if you get stuck. Below I’ve compiled a chart for every single triad:
You may have noticed the symbols that resemble an “x” and the “♭♭.” These are known as double-sharp and double-flats, respectively. Don’t get too caught up and worried about these, especially since a regular note is provided next to it.
Right now, simply use this chart as a tool to help you study and keep your focus on how the triads are being made.
Additionally, although we primarily work with the key of C in this article and you know the exact chord formulas you need, you might benefit from another resource that lists all of the basic chords in every key for you.
This awesome wall poster has that, nearly all of the information that we went over in this article, and much more! Instead of providing you with the individual notes for every triad I like I did, this one can supplement it by giving you the chord shapes, alternate voicings, and common chord progressions to work with. You can also gain from having a guitar chord book with diagrams that you can use to reference hundreds of chords on the fly so you can conceptualize them on the fretboard if you prefer that method.
Regarding alternate voicings, you don’t need to always use the notes linearly to make a triad, such as C, E, G for Cmaj, or D, F, A for Dmin, etc. As long as the notes are somewhere in the chord, you are still building the triad.
For instance, if you have the E as the lowest note, then you have G next, and then a C, you still have a C major triad, even if they are “out of order.” This is how inversions are made, and they are an easy way to make ordinary chords sound a little more interesting!
This chart even shows 7th, suspended, and extended chords, which expand on your basic triads, and you can visit them when you feel ready to. The circle of fifths is also a nice touch, too, and becoming familiar with it can certainly assist you in many ways.
Triads are a fundamental part of music theory; without an understanding of them, it’ll be tedious to enter more advanced harmony concepts. You can do a lot of work and make great music with these basic chords, but perhaps one day, you’ll want to dive deeper into it. Hopefully, this article has given you a much greater understanding of it, or if you are brand new, maybe this has unlocked a door and will be the beginning of something much greater.
Even though all of this talk about scales, keys, and triad chords are essential and can carry you a long way, we’ve barely scratched the surface. In addition to the music lessons I already have on this site, I will continue to add more of them over time.
However, if you are hungry and eager to learn more right away, I highly suggest you check out my article on the best music theory books for guitarists. Here, you will find more resources from amazing educators who can also help guide you through everything.
Nonetheless, stay tuned for new music theory articles like this one! Outside of practicing your technique on the guitar, learning more music theory is always a good thing and will keep you growing as a musician.