Triads are our simplest and most common chords, and a great deal of wonderful
music can be made using them. But we sometimes want to play more complex
chords. The following are some simple but powerful techniques that allow
you to use the familiar triads to create new, exciting sounds.
To review briefly, a triad is a three-note chord with a root, a third,
and a fifth. The root is the note that gives the chord its name, and is
often played in the bass. The third is a major or minor third above the
root, and the fifth is a fifth above the root. For example, in a CMajor
triad, the root is C, the third is E, and the fifth is G.
The only difference between a major triad and a minor triad is that the third in a minor triad
is minor. That is, to make a CMajor triad into a Cminor triad, just lower
the third, E, to E-flat. Everything else stays the same. We'll be
using simple major and minor triads in the exercises below, so that even
a beginning player can take advantage of them.
In my series on chords from earlier this year (see Part 1
of that series),
I described the usual way of expanding triads into more complex chords, which is to
add additional notes above the fifth, such as a seventh, a ninth, an eleventh,
and so on. But we can also use triads to make more complex chords simply
by changing the bass note we play underneath the triads.
For example, let's use the CMajor triad again: C, E, and G. A bass
player would probably play a nice low C underneath it to give it a strong
foundation on the root. But what if the bass player played an A instead
of a C? Better yet, what if you, on your guitar or piano or banjo or mandolin
(or bass, for that matter), played a CMajor triad and put an A down below
it? Try it.
This technique is simplest on the piano. Play the CMajor triad in your
right hand, and a big fat A in the bass with your left hand. On the guitar,
take the traditional, first-position C chord and open up the 5th string
so that the low A sounds below it (don't play anything on the 6th
You've just created an Aminor7 chord. Don't worry about the
name right now (see the Jan-Mar articles for information on chord names,
if you're curious). The real point is that this new chord has all
the notes of the CMajor triad in it, yet it has a completely different
sound because of that A in the bass.
So, now we have a new trick. If you take a major triad and put a new
bass note underneath it that's a minor third below the original root
(A is a minor third below C), you create a minor7 chord whose root is
that new bass note. Try this with other major triads. For example, take
an FMajor triad and put a D in the bass: you get Dminor7. Or take a GMajor
triad and put an E in the bass: Eminor7. Take a DMajor triad and put a
B in the bass: Bminor7. If you use the right bass note, this technique
will work for any major triad in any key.
We can do a similar trick with minor triads, too. Let's use an Aminor
triad this time (A, C, and E). On piano, play the Aminor triad in your
right hand, and put an F in the bass. On guitar, play the usual first-position
Aminor chord, but play an F in the bass (6th string, first fret). You've
just created an FMajor7 chord.
The trick for minor triads, then, is to put the new bass note a major
third below the root of the triad. Take a Gminor triad, and put an E-flat
in the bass: you get E-flatMajor7. Take a Cminor triad and put an A-flat
in the bass: A-flatMajor7. Take a Bminor triad and put a G in the bass:
GMajor7. If you use the right bass note, this method will work for any
minor triad in any key.
And for either kind of triad, major or minor, it doesn't matter what
inversion of the triad you use. You can put them in any order, double
any of the notes, it doesn't matter. As long as you have the original
three notes of the triad and the new bass note down below, this method
A neat illustration of this on the guitar is to play all the inversions
of CMajor that you know, but leave the fifth string open so that the low
A sounds underneath each chord. Because of the A in the bass, each inversion
of the Cmajor triad now creates the sweet, jazzy sound of an Aminor7 chord.
The same trick works on the piano. Play all the different inversions
of CMajor that you know with your right hand, and keep playing an A in
the bass with your left hand.
Now, change the chord in your right hand to a C#minor triad (C#, E, and
G#), but leave the A in the bass. Now you have an equally sweet, jazzy
chord, but with a major sound — it's called AMajor7. This
new chord follows the same "rule" as before, when played an
Aminor triad with F in the bass.
To do this on the guitar, leave the fifth string open to keep the A in
the bass, but change the chord shape on the treble strings to a C#minor
triad instead of CMajor. Play all the different inversions of C#minor
that you can find, leaving the A string open in the bass.
So, we have two new chords, made out of our old familiar triads: the
minor7 chord, which is a major triad with a new root in the bass that's
a minor third below the original root; and the Major7 chord, which is
a minor triad with a new root in the bass that's a major third below
the original root.
There are other triad/bass combinations that create even more complex
chords. An interesting one is created when you play a major triad in the
treble, and a new bass note that's a whole step higher than the original
root. For example, play a CMajor triad in the treble, but put a D in the
bass. Or play a GMajor triad with an A in the bass.
You can use the same
guitar technique we used above, leaving the A string open and playing
a GMajor chord on strings 1 through 4. Other versions of this same chord
are DMajor with an E in the bass (another easy one on the guitar, because
of the low E string), or FMajor with a G in the bass. (For you theory-minded
folks, this new chord is a great alternative for dominant chord with a suspended 4th.)
Another fun way to generate new chords is to play different triads over
the same bass note. For example, on the piano, play a C in the bass, and
try different major triads in your right hand. Start with those in the
key of C, like FMajor and GMajor. Then try major triads from other keys:
DMajor, EMajor, AMajor, B-flatMajor, etc. All kinds of interesting chord
possibilities appear. Let yourself explore and see what sounds you like.
You can do the same with minor triads. Keep playing C in the left hand,
and play minor triads in the right. First, use those in the key of C:
Dminor, Eminor, and Aminor. Then try those in other keys, like Bminor,
Gminor, Fminor, E-flat minor, B-flat minor.
Again, on the guitar, the simplest way to do this exercise is to use
an open bass string like E or A, and then play different triads on strings
1 through 4. Using the A string in the bass, try putting these triads
over it: FMajor, B-flatMajor, EMajor, Eminor, Gminor.
To really understand and benefit from these exercises, you should try
them on an instrument. Give it a whirl and see what new shapes and sounds
you discover. Enjoy!
Copyright 2000 by Richard Middleton.
All rights reserved.
is a songwriter, musician, teacher, and writer based in Seattle. He is the author of