The first few chords that most acoustic guitar players learn are triads—the usual open-position chords like C major and A minor, G major and E minor, etc. Barre chords offer moveable forms of these chords, shapes that don’t use any open strings and can be easily transposed all over the fretboard. As your guitar skills and ears develop, you might absorb some seventh chords, both in open position and moveable shapes.
In this Weekly Workout, you’ll learn to use some three-note, three-string triads in ways that complement their related seventh chords. These easy-to-use chord forms can be very useful for adding parts as a second guitarist or with a bass player or pianist who is also providing a chord part. If you’re a performing singer-songwriter, you can weave in and out of the triad forms to add interesting instrumental guitar breaks between verses. These little chords are also an excellent gateway to improvising solos that make sense of the underlying chords of a song. The good news is that you probably already know a lot of the chords, and in this lesson, you’ll find ways to repurpose them.
The D major triad on the first three strings, shown in bar 1 of Example 1, is a common example of a moveable chord form. This voicing is spelled A (fifth) D (root) F# (third). Since the fifth is the lowest note, it’s a second-inversion triad. If you move that chord form up a whole step, or two frets, the note names change, but their relationships stay the same. As shown in bar 2, we have the notes B, E, and G#—respectively, the fifth, root, and third of an E major triad. To find a G chord with this shape, first identify the third (B), and then move the chord shape to the seventh fret, where the note B will be on top. Instant G chord!
Staying with the three highest strings, you can find two more useful major triads—small versions of common barre chords. Start with a C barre chord in third position, as shown in the first measure of Example 2. This chord shape contains a root-position (1 3 5) C triad, spelled C E G, depicted in the second bar. Move the grip up two frets to play a D triad and two additional frets for an E triad.
Example 3 shows a third chord form on the top three strings—as indicated in bar 2, a first-inversion (third as the lowest note) F major triad, derived from the F barre chord at the first fret. The three notes of this compact shape are A (third), C (fifth), and F (root). Knowing that the root of the chord is the highest note will be helpful as you move this form around. For instance, to play a Bb triad, visualize the Bb on string 1 and move the shape up to the sixth fret.
To get some extra mileage out of these triad forms, try mixing them up in a couple of common chord progressions. Example 4 is a I–IV–V–I (Bb–Eb–F–Bb) in the key of Bb major. You’ll find that these three-string forms are just as easy in this key as they are in any other and will be a perfect fit for harmonizing with another guitarist, pianist, or bassist. You can be creative with the rhythms, but take care to only play the three highest strings.
To access the minor counterparts to these major triads, simply lower the third of each chord by one fret. Example 5 shows Dm, Bbm, and Fm triads. Compare these to their major relatives, and make sure you’re comfortable with all of this week’s chord shapes before moving on.
Beginners’ Tip #1
Play the familiar open D chord without the root on the open D string. Practice this—as well as the small F and C chords—with and without a pick to get used to the control needed to play three strings only.
Let’s bring some other chord types into the mix. Example 6a depicts the evolution of a D major triad into Dmaj7, D7, Dm7, Dm7b5, and Ddim7 chords. Notice that the root (D) is missing from the seventh chords, but that works, as the third and seventh are the defining notes of these chords. Also, check out how the sevenths can be viewed as triads: For instance, Dmaj7
(D F# A C#) = F#m (F# A C#); Dm7 (D F A C) = F (F A C); Dm7b5 (D F Ab C) = Fm (F Ab C); and Ddim7 (D F Ab Cb) = Fdim (F Ab Cb). And that D triad (D F# A) can be used to negotiate a Bm7 (B D F# A) chord. These concepts are reinforced in Examples 6b–c, which move Ex. 6a’s progression to other positions.
Now try out some of these small chord forms in a progression with a mix of major and minor seventh chords. Example 7a is a I–vi–ii–v (Dmaj7–Bm7–Em7–Am7) progression in D major, played with common barre chords, while Examples 7b–d illustrate different positions for playing the same progression. When you work through each example, you might like to play a bass note for yourself first, so that you can best hear how the chords sound in context, or create a simple backing track of the full chords to use as you play the smaller forms.
Beginners’ Tip #2
Try the D–Dm moves in half-step increments for extra practice playing the changes in time. Do this at frets 2/3, 5/7, and 10/11, or all three inversions of D on the top three strings. Move up or down the fretboard as high and low as you can reach, and name the chords as you go.
As you saw in last week’s exercises, a dominant seventh chord played on the first three strings, omitting the root, is the same as a diminished triad. For instance, take a G7 chord (G B D F), remove the root (G), and you’re left with Bdim (B D F). Example 8 showsthree ways to playG7, each of which can each also be seen as an inversion of a B diminished triad. To best hear these voicings as belonging to a G7 chord, play the third-fret G on string 6 before each chord.
The ever-popular I–vi–ii–V chord progression, the backbone of standards like “I’ve Got Rhythm” and “Blue Moon,” is a good set of chords to use for hearing the dominant seventh chord (V) resolve to a major triad or major seventh chord (I). Examples 9a–c show three ways of playing this progression on repeat, which is important so that you can hear the V–I resolution.
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Dominant seventh chords don’t always resolve to the I chord in any given key. They sometimes move to other dominant sevenths in a cycle of fourths, as in the bridge of “I’ve Got Rhythm.” In Example 10a, notice how the triads are placed as closely as possible to each other, using a technique known as voice leading. This is an efficient way to connect chords and is helpful for seeing how to connect a melodic thread through a progression. Example 10b is one way to create a melody using those triads.
Beginners’ Tip #3
Break the I–vi–ii–V progression into smaller parts and practice two chords at a time until you feel ready to string them together. Remember to include the V–I chord change, which happens on the repeats.
It’s time to combine the various chord qualities into a song form. Again, it is good practice to create a backing track for yourself to practice the upper structures of the chords in time and harmonic context. My etude “Minor Details” (Example 11) can be played in three parts: larger chord forms in open position or barre chords, the three-string triads that you now know as part of the larger chords, and a melody derived from the triad forms. Study and practice this melody to get a sense of how the triad shapes can provide a template for improvising solos that follow the chord progression. After memorizing triad shapes with respect to related seventh chords, you’ll not only be comping with taste and brevity but will have a reliable map for single-note solos, whether composed or improvised.
Beginners’ Tip #4
Slow down! Practicing at a more relaxed tempo will help you form the chord changes in time, right on the beats. Gradually increase your speed using a metronome, and you’ll be able to measure your progress.
Jane Miller, a guitar professor at Berklee College of Music, has performed and presented master classes around the world. Miller is the author of Introduction to Jazz Guitar and Triads for the Improvising Guitarist (both published by Berklee Press/Hal Leonard). Her latest album of original music, Boats, is available at janemillergroup.com.
This article originally appeared in the March/April 2020 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.