Triads are cool. Without them, Bach probably would have been a hay baler or something to that effect. Without triads, I would probably be writing about air guitar or something mundane like the proper way to stuff your spandex before playing that 80’s high school reunion you got tapped to do.
A triad, as you all hopefully know, is a series of three notes of a scale, stacked one on top of another. If you need more of a refresher please read my posts on chord structures and chord inversions.
Today I’d like to talk about upper structure triads and how you can use them to spice up your already smokin’ solos. Just a small dose of triads in your daily guitar diet will give you enough musical protein to extend your playing life for decades to come.
So What the Hell is an Upper Structure Triad?
Yeah, that’s probably a good place to start. Let’s take a look at what I call a master chord structure. This is basically a scale organized as one chord by stacking each note in intervals of a third. In the key of C Major this becomes a CMaj13:
To form an upper structure triad we basically just deal with the chord tones starting from the 5th and higher. So in the case of a CMaj13 chord we have three upper structure triads – G Major, B Diminished, and D minor.
You can use all four triad types: Major, minor, augmented, and diminished.
There are many books and websites that will go on to say that a “true” upper structure triad is one in which there is at least one allowable tension that is not an avoid note. For example, triads containing the note ‘F’ from a CMaj7/13 chord are typically considered not good upper structure triads because ‘F’ (the 11th) doesn’t sound well against the 3rd of a C triad (C, E, G). The question here becomes what someone’s definition of an allowable tension is. Frankly I don’t really care. As long as it sounds cool, play it!
Okay, so back to the upper structure triads. If you play a G Major triad over a C Major chord, you are basically highlighting the 5th, 7th, and 9th notes of the scale. This is a very cool sound because you are putting emphasis on notes that don’t strongly imply the chord. If you play a B diminished triad you get the 7th, 9th, and 11th. (Again, some people don’t like this because of the ‘F’ against the ‘E’, but I think so long as you don’t hang on the ‘F’ then it sounds fine.) Playing a D minor triad gives you the 9th, 11th, and 13th.
It is a little tricky at first because, especially for those of us that grew up playing rock, we’re not used to hearing these sounds. Playing an ‘A’ over a C Major chord can be very foreign to rock players and will take some time to get used to. I suggest that you spend some time working with the diatonic possibilities. Spell out each chord to the 13th and then figure out what each triad is. Play each triad over a chord backing track so you can hear the changes.
But you don’t have to stick with diatonic triads, either. There are a ton of possibilities for playing different triads from borrowed key signatures in order to get very hip sounds. Here are some suggestions for upper structure triads borrowed from other keys:
- CMaj7 chord: DMaj, Bmin to get a Lydian sound.
- C7 chord: DMaj, BbAug to get a Lydian (b7) sound.
- C7 chord: GbMaj, AbMaj, Dbmin, Ebmin to get an “alt” sound.
- C7 chord: DAug to get a whole tone sound.
- Cm7: AbMaj to get a Phrygian sound.
- Cm7b5: AbMaj, BbMaj to get a Locrian nat. 9 sound.
How about a few that you can quiz yourself on?
- What does playing an EMaj triad over CMaj7 give you?
- What does playing an F#Maj triad over CMaj7 give you?
- What does playing a Dmin triad over Cm7 give you?
I hope you are playing these while figuring out the answers, rather than just using your theory brain (hint, hint).
Once you have gotten a few of these under your belt you should obviously try injecting them into your solos. I don’t suggest you only play triads for a solo, however – that would get very lame. But, you can stack a few triads into polychords for a phrase or two and get some awesome sounding runs. For example, over a C7 chord you can see from the above list that you have a lot of choices to create different sounds. So how about playing a few of them one right after another? For example:
Triads are cool, triads are fun. Triads will get you chicks you never thought you could get. Seriously, try it!