Over the last few decades Pop guitar styles have leaned more toward the ubiquitous power chord and overdriven amps and less toward the intricacies of solo guitar and harmony, melody and voice leading . For the player that wants to discover the inner workings of the instrument there is only one path and that path leads directly to triads and inversions. A working understanding of chord movement begins with a working knowledge of how triads are constructed and inverted in all positions of the fretboard.

Most players may know what a triad is and may in fact even use them but the best approach is to have a compehensive, integrated and immediate relationship with them. A chord is not just a few visually memorized positions but instead is every position of the chord in every inversion on the fretboard. This type of command of the instrument can take even the most mundane of progressions and make them challenging and musically interesting.

Triads Are Three Note Chords

A triad as you probably already know is simply a 3 note chord. Any chord that has just a simple letter name such as A or G will be a triad as will any chord with a simple minor designation such as Am or Dm. In many common chord forms notes are duplicated, take a C major for example in open position, this chord is normally voiced on 5 strings with the notes: C – E – G – C – E. As you can see, it is a triad with two notes duplicated. When we study triads and inversons we do not duplicate notes, the chord uses only the notes required to construct the chord without duplications. So a C chord would simply be:

C – E – G root position
E – G – C 1st inversion
G – C – E 2nd inversion.

The listener hears the top note of a chord as the predominant one and because of this inversions possess a strong melodic quality. The top note of every chord stands out and therefore takes on melodic direction. This builds in the opportunity for either the harmonization of a given melody or for the creation of a melodic line.

Let’s take a simple chord progression as an example of this, C – F – Fm – C . When you invert these chords you have a surprising number of possibilities for the direction of the top note, here are only a few examples:

Now see if you can keep the following notes on top using the same progression, C – F – Fm – C:

1. C – F – F – E
2. E – C – C – E
3. E – A – Ab – G

The given fretboard chart provides an example of the above chord progression on string set one. Each of these chords may also be moved to change the top note and melodic direction. Try to extrapolate this idea to string sets 234, 345, 456 as well and keep in mind that two of the notes will stay in common with the 1st string set so think of the triads as dovetailing into each other.

triads and inversions for guitar players

Remember that any chord voicing that does not have open strings is moveable. With that in mind move all the F chords up two frets or one tone and now repeat the first exercise in the key of C with this progression: C – F – Fm – G.

These above studies will give you a great start in understanding voice leading and the mechanics of triads. The next step will be to harmonize simple tunes but that comes later.

The Guitar is:

My Little Orchestra – Andres Segovia
My Lap Piano – George Van Epps

My first teacher could harmonize any melody immediately and that is really what the guitar does so beautifully, it harmonizes melody lines, it is a polyphonic instrument that speaks with harmony.

Listen to George Van Epps, Mark Knoffler, George Harrison , Chet Atkins, Les Paul, Joe Pass, Carl Perkins for only a few examples of players who approach chords in this way.