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"A Triad by Any Other Name: New Uses for Triads"
by Richard Middleton

First published in Victory Review, December 2000.

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 string).

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 will work.

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.

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Richard Middleton is a songwriter, musician, teacher, and writer based in Seattle. He is the author of "Reading Rhythm" (Countersine 2018).