Chops: Intermediate
Theory: Intermediate
Lesson Overview:
• Learn how to move triads horizontally and vertically across the fretboard.
• Develop techniques to harmonizing lines with triads.
• Understand how George Van Eps and Alan Reuss approached soloing.

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Triads. The word alone can conjure up feelings of blandness among many jazz guitarists. Triads are perceived as simple, not colorful, and to be quite honest, not as exciting as cluster voicings or polychords. In other words, these three-note chords are ordinary.

I get it—I once felt the same way. It wasn’t until I began playing with Dixieland and swing bands that the simplistic beauty and effectiveness of the triad began to reveal itself. In this lesson we’ll set out to cover triads and develop some basic guidelines for using them to harmonize either a written or improvised melody. We will also see how a few prominent swing-era guitarists incorporated triads into their improvised solos.

Our focus will be on the use and application of triads, so as a prerequisite you should refresh your knowledge of the four main families—major, minor, augmented, and diminished—on each of these four string-sets: 1–2–3, 2–3–4, 3–4–5, and 4–5–6. For this lesson, we’ll leave out any open-voiced or “spread” triads and play these chords exclusively on adjacent strings.

There are times when you will want or need to harmonize a note that is not part of the triad’s root, 3, 5 structure. Below is a table that gives some strategies for adjusting triads to accommodate extensions (6, 7, 9, 11, 13) and alterations (b9, #9, #11). Experiment with these suggestions and remember that some of the adjustments will work fine, while others may prove a bit trickier to hear at first.

Extension/Alteration Modification
Major 6 or Major 13 Raise the 5 of a major or minor triad a whole-step.
Minor 6 or b13 Raise the 5 of a major or minor triad a half-step.
Major 7 Lower the root a half-step.
Minor 7 Lower the root a whole-step.
Major 9 Raise the root a whole-step.
Perfect 4 or 11 Raise the 3 of a major triad a half-step.
Raise the 3 of a minor triad a whole-step.
b9 Raise the root a half-step.
#9 Raise a major triad’s root up a minor third.
#11 or b5 Lower the 5 a half-step.

Fig. 1 shows one way to harmonize a one-octave C major scale (C-D-E-F-G-A-B). We are sticking to the 2–4 string set and moving horizontally along the fretboard. Some of the chord symbols describe the implied harmony, not necessarily a literal representation of the chord.

We change directions in Fig. 2 and move vertically across the fretboard. The possibilities are nearly endless.

Now that we’ve covered the basics, let’s look at a couple of solos and see how a guitarist might use triads in an improvisation.

The first example we’ll explore is in the style of George Van Eps, who started out as a banjo player but quickly moved to the guitar after hearing Eddie Lang. Van Eps played and recorded with many of the big names of the early jazz era and had an identifiable sound and approach. Aside from being a world-class musician, he was also an innovator and inventor. In 1938 Van Eps worked with Epiphone to design a 7-string guitar with a string damper to reduce feedback. He also wrote the three-volume set Harmonic Mechanisms for Guitar (Mel Bay). Many guitarists consider this set to be one of the definitive texts on fretboard harmony.

The single-note solo in Fig. 3 will serve as the foundation for our harmonic explorations. This solo offers a great mix of chord tones, chromaticism, and extensions—all combined with a strong swing feel.