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Jazz Boot Camp: Soloing with Triads

Learn how George Van Eps and Alan Reuss harnessed the power of the triad in their solos.

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.

Click here to download a printable PDF of this lesson's notation.

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.

Major 6 or Major 13Raise the 5 of a major or minor triad a whole-step.
Minor 6 or b13Raise the 5 of a major or minor triad a half-step.
Major 7Lower the root a half-step.
Minor 7Lower the root a whole-step.
Major 9Raise the root a whole-step.
Perfect 4 or 11Raise the 3 of a major triad a half-step.
Raise the 3 of a minor triad a whole-step.
b9Raise the root a half-step.
#9Raise a major triad’s root up a minor third.
#11 or b5Lower 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.

The harmonized version is shown in Fig. 4. Notice that it stays close to the harmony and uses a mixture of block chords and chordal punctuations that support the single-line melody. In measure five, we again use a chord punctuation to imply the D9 sonority before moving on to the melody. The next few measures illustrate the use of triads and double-stops in conjunction with the melodic idea. These two measures showcase one of the many trademarks of Van Eps’ style and can be extremely effective in supporting an eighth-note-based melody. The example finishes with a ragtime-style turnaround that moves seamlessly back to C Major.

Our next example is inspired by Allen Reuss. Reuss was a former student of Van Eps and ended up filling in for Van Eps when he left the Benny Goodman band. During his tenure with Goodman, Reuss became a popular sideman, studio musician, and teacher. Flawless plectrum technique and an adventurous harmonic sense helped propel Reuss into the limelight of the New York City and West coast jazz and studio scenes.

Fig. 5 is a simplified version of a Reuss single-line melody. See how the melodic sequences move chromatically?

Notice the double-stops that occur during the chromatic run in the first two measures of Fig. 6. In measure four, the 1-2-3-5 motif shifts down a half-step from Ab major to G major (implying a G7) before resolving to the C major chord in the next measure. In measures seven and eight, the same motif moves up chromatically from G major to A major before resolving to the D7 chord in measure 9. In measures 15 and 16, a similar Dm7-based motif shifts down by a half-step before finally resolving to C major.

As we can see, the voicings Van Eps and Reuss liked to use are sparse. This is due in part to the tempo of the performances. Fuller sounding chords would clutter up the performance and be impossible to play. Another reason for using these smaller, efficient voicings is that the melodic lines of both guitarists perfectly outline the chord progressions.

If you were leery of triads at the start of this lesson, I hope you’ve had a slight change of heart after working through the examples. For maximum benefit, find a way to incorporate some of the information and ideas found in these solos into your own compositions and improvisations.