How to Use Triads
These three-note chords are the most underrated tools in your guitar-playing kit. Here’s why.
• Develop a deeper understanding of inversions across the fretboard.
• Learn how to create rhythm parts in any key.
• Understand how to craft riffs in the style of Keith Richards, Eddie Van Halen, and Randy Rhoads. Click here to download a printable PDF of this lesson's notation.
Like many guitar players, I first learned to play from the classic Mel Bay Modern Guitar Method books. And, like many guitar players, I ended up awfully confused about how the notes are laid out across the fretboard. Not to throw Mel under the bus, but his book, and a lot of other method books just like it, didn’t lay out the notes sequentially. That would often leave students confused about where the notes are, what comes next, and why. Things get even more confusing once you start laying out chord voicings across the neck. Notes seem to get stacked on top of other notes without explanation and this quickly leaves students in the dust.
I’ve been teaching my students how to find chords horizontally—across the fretboard—with the idea that when you understand why the notes are there, you can use them better. Sure enough, it really works, and I’ve found my students are really stepping up their chord game.
For this lesson, we’re going to look at how to use three-string major chord voicings on the 4th, 3rd, and 2nd strings to open up a whole range of ideas across the neck. We’ll look at how riff masters like Keith Richards, Randy Rhoads, and Eddie Van Halen used this approach to great effect. In fact, I’ll even suggest that these three chord shapes are just as important for writing rocking riffs as the good ol’ power chord.
Shapes of Things
Let’s start with a G major triad (G–B–D). If the root (G) is the lowest note, then we refer to that voicing as root position. If the 3 (B) is the lowest note, then it’s in 1st inversion, and finally, if the 5 (D) is the lowest note, the chord is in 2nd inversion. In Ex. 1, I’ve written out all three versions of the C, G, and D major triads on the 4–3–2 string set.
In Ex. 2, we see these voicings applied to a I–IV–I–V–I progressions in G. These three progressions use the same chords while sliding up the neck, each starting with a different voicing. Ex. 3 is an etude to practice these voicings as arpeggios. Working through these progressions should help you get familiar with how the three chord shapes interact with each other. Once you’re comfortable with these moves, try them in other keys.
What Would Keith Do?
Keith Richards famously likes to play a 5-string guitar tuned to open G. By simply removing the 6th string on a regular guitar, he’s left with a G–D–G–B–D tuning (as read from strings 5 to 1). When he uses this tuning, he is essentially doing most of his chording on the middle three strings with the 5th and 1st strings being used to play octaves of the 3rd and 4th strings, respectively. On classic songs like “Brown Sugar,” “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking,” and “Start Me Up,” Richards predominately uses 1st and 2nd inversions of chord shapes to great effect. While we’re not going to re-tune our guitar, we can still go over how he uses his chord voicings on just three strings.
Ex. 4 is a Keith-inspired riff that plays off the relationship of the 1st and 2nd inversion shapes. It starts with a C triad in 1st inversion way up the neck at the 12th fret, and then bounces off the barred G major triad in 2nd inversion before heading back down the neck to the D triad in the same voicing. For the second half, we introduce an F triad and the riff jumps back and forth between C–F and D–G.
Pedal to the Metal
Just because we’re playing all our chords on three strings doesn’t mean there’s no use for the other strings. In the next two examples, we’ll see how to use the open 5th and 6th strings to create pedal tones while playing chords on top.
In the verse riff to Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train,” Randy Rhoads played a chord progression much like the ones we’ve been looking at, accompanied by a galloping open 5th string. Ex. 5 uses this idea starting with the root position A triad and working its way back to the 2nd inversion (you’ll recognize this as our “open-position A chord”), passing through the G triad in root position and D triad in 1st inversion. Pick the open 5th-string notes and then give full strums where the chords occur at the same time.
Eddie Van Halen regularly relies on these chord shapes for his riffs, and a great example of this is “Panama.” It features syncopated chord stabs over a plodding open 6th string. You can play Ex. 6 by strumming the chords and muting the 5th string or by using a fingerstyle approach. For the latter, pick the open E notes with your thumb and pluck the chords with your index, middle, and ring fingers.
Now that we’ve played these chord voicings all over the neck, we can explore using scale tones to connect them and create melodies. This can suggest ideas for arranging songs, as well as improvising over chord progressions. In Ex. 7 we’re back in G with a 12-bar progression. The chords have been linked melodically using notes from the G major scale along the 2nd string. Get the hang of this melody, then try improvising or crafting your own melody.
At this point, we’ve created a framework for shifting major triads all over the neck, and you should be in a good position to explore these ideas on your own. While these chords may be the most useful place to start, it’s only the beginning. There are lots of possibilities to discover by working out the same voicings on all groups of three consecutive strings and then working your way into other triads.