Building Strong Melodies with Triads (Part 1)

What do Toto’s Rosanna, Kool & The Gang’s Celebration, and Van Halen’s Jump have in common? Right, a strong hookline – a strong melody that makes you recognize the song immediately.

Hooklines are catchy melodies, linear successions of single tones. Acoustically, you can perceive one tone after the other. However, there are many examples where guitarists harmonize each tone of their melodies. Instead of playing just single tones, they replace them with chords.

What are triads?

Before we are going to play above named songs, you need to learn a few basics about triads. A triad is a set of three notes, typically related to a scale, that are played simultaneously. For simplicity reasons we will build triads from the C major scale. The C major scale consists of the tones c d e f g a b c. A common triad consists of a root note (1), a third (3) and a fifth (5). So let us build a triad, a chord with three different notes, on each of the seven scale degrees.

The triad built on the first scale degree (I) of C major consists of the notes c e g:

C major triad

The triad built on the second scale degree (II) of C major consists of the notes d f a:

D minor triad

Every major scale contains only one semitone between scale degrees III and IV and between VII and VIII. Other scale degrees are separated by two semitones, a whole tone. As a result, a third can be a major third, whose notes are separated by four semitones, or a minor third, whose notes are separated by three semitones. This can be seen in the following fretboard diagrams and is very important for the specific structure of the resulting triads.

Major triads

When we take a closer look at the thirds in the following, you will see that every major scale contains three different kinds of triads. By looking at the triad at the first scale degree of C major c e g we will see that the interval c e is a major third and the interval e g is a minor third:

C major triad guitar fretboard

Hence, this triad is called a major triad. Besides the triad built on the first scale degree (I), also the ones built on the fourth (IV) and the fifth (V) scale degree of every major scale are major triads. They consist of a major third, located four semitones above the root, and a perfect fifth, located seven semitones above their root.

C Major Triad (Scale Degree I)

 

F Major Triad (Scale Degree IV)

 

G Major Triad (Scale Degree V)

 

You can use the following two shapes to play major triads on your guitar. In this case, the diagrams display two options to play a C major triad in root position. To play any other major triad, just shift these patterns horizontally on the fretboard.

C major triad based on the A major guitar chord shape

C major triad based on E major guitar chord shape

Minor triads

The triad built at the second scale degree of C major d f a is different. If we take a closer look at its intervals, we will see that there are three semitones between the first third d f and four semitones between the second third f a:

Hence, this triad is called a minor triad. Besides the triad built on the second scale degree (II), also the ones built on the third (III) and the sixth (VI) scale degree of every major scale are minor triads. They consist of a minor third, located three semitones above the root, and a perfect fifth, located seven semitones above the root.

D Minor Triad (Scale Degree II)

 

E Minor Triad (Scale Degree III)

 

A Minor Triad (Scale Degree VI)

 

You can use the following two shapes to play minor triads on your guitar. The diagrams show two options to play a D minor triad in root position. To play any other minor triad, just shift these patterns horizontally on the fretboard.

D minor triad based on A minor guitar chord shape

D minor triad based on E minor guitar chord shape

Diminished Triads

If you counted correctly, we identified three major triads and three minor triads. But every major scale contains seven different scale degrees. So what about the remaining scale degree? Did we forget about it?

No, we did not. But the seventh scale degree (VII) of the major scale is special. Taking a closer look at it, you will see that its fifth differs from all the other triads. There are three semitones between the first third b d and another three semitones between the second third d f. So, the fifth is only six semitones above the root note. As a result, it is called a diminished fifth:

Instead of a major third stacked on top of a minor third or a minor third stacked on top of a major third, two minor thirds are stacked on top of each other. This triad is called a diminished triad. If you try to play this triad, you will find out that it sounds quite awkward compared to the others.

B Diminished Triad (Scale Degree VII)

 

You can use the following two shapes to play diminished triads on your guitar. The diagram shows how to play a Bdim chord. You can play any diminished chord by horizontally shifting the pattern.

B diminished triad based on A guitar chord shape

B diminished triad based on E guitar chord shape

The triads of the C major scale

Congratulations, you have just built your first triads. Now let’s have a look at all triads built on every scale degree of the C major scale.

  Degree    Root     Third     Fifth  
I c e g
II d f a
III e g b
IV f a c
V g b d
VI a c e
VII b d f

 

  Degree     Interval     Chord    
I 1 3 5 C
II 1 b3 5 Dm
III 1 b3 5 Em
IV 1 3 5 F
V 1 3 5 G
VI 1 b3 5 Am
VII 1 b3 b5 Bmb5

A simple exercise

Try to play the following chord progressions in C major and A minor using only the chord shapes we showed you in this post. Each line of the following image represents a separate exercise.

The first and third exercise are chord progressions of the scale degrees I IV V I, which is known as classical cadence, in C major and in A minor. The second and fourth exercise is a progression of the scale degrees I II V I, which is known as jazz cadence. We will reveal the solution in the second part of this tutorial next week.

Music cadencies in C major

Note: If you are not aware of this, the A minor scale contains the same notes as the C major scale. As described in this previous post, the minor scale just starts on the sixth scale degree of the major scale, which in the case of C major is the a.

Have you noticed that the Bmb5 chord in the fourth exercise does not sound as awkward as before, when you play it as isolated chord? The reason therefore is that the tension the chord produces by its diminished fifth is properly resolved by dropping the f (diminished fifth of Bmb5) by one semitone to an e (root of Em) playing the successive chord.

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What next?

When you want to harmonize your hooklines like Van Halen instead of building melodies with single tones, basic knowledge about triads gives you already some options to do so. Identify the scale degrees of the melody you want to play, find triads from the scale of the song containing the notes and you will get a cool 80’s rock feeling a la Van Halen or Queen.

Do not worry if you struggle putting your fingers at the right positions of the chord shapes in the beginning. Your fingers are probably not used to them and your brain needs to build muscle memory for the positions first. If you are a beginner, it is also easier to start learning guitar with single note shapes instead of chords, like you do in our app Fretello.

In our next post we will talk about triad inversions. With the trick we will show you, you will know everything you need to shred like good old Eddie Van Halen. All you have to remember is the few chord shapes we teach you.

Florian Lettner
CEO & Co-Founder