Part one - Understanding triads
As a guitar teacher I meet lot of self-taught guitarist who feel a discrepancy between what they are actually able to play on the guitar, and their understanding of what they are playing. In other words they are not beginners on guitar anymore, but they still feel like beginners because they have only been practicing guitar with their fingers and not with their minds. Because this is common among self-taught guitarist I have developed a theory crash course designed to get your mind up to speed with your hands. Its important to note, that knowing music theory and being able to apply it is two very different things, but you do need to understand the theory in order to apply it. You should be reading the different parts of this guide in succession as one builds open the other. By doing so you are going to get a fundamental understanding of music theory and how it it all relates and is applicable to the guitar.
In the first part, we will be concentrating on understanding the triads as this is essential and its where most self-taught guitarists starts out. You might already know this stuff, but chances are that you haven’t had it explained to you in this way before. Later on in this guide we will be tackling the subject of extended chords and the modes. If you feel challenged by these topics, understanding the triads in the way they are explained below will enable you to learn the more complicated stuff a lot easier.
A Patriarchal Family
Disclaimer: The following description of a “normal” family, does not reflect the author's own view, but is merely described in this way to enhance the reader's musical understanding for educational purposes.
A "normal" family consists of one father, one mother and one child. And in the following examples, we are going to look at at family’s with a patriarchal family structure.
This basically means that the father is the dominant member of the family. He is the one in control, making the important decisions and he is dictating how the family works(exaggerating here, but there’s a point). In this type of family structure, the mother complies father and pretty much stays as neutral as she can.
The child of the family can either be a boy or a girl. For the sake of the argument, we’ll say that girls tend to behave well and therefor the family’s with girls will be “happy”, while the boys misbehave and therefore the family’s with boys will be “sad”.
Thus far we have two main types of family’s. The "happy" family consisting of a father, mother and a girl and an "sad" family consisting of a father, mother and a boy.
Chords - A Family of notes
Now, how will all this rambling about family’s make it easier to understand chords and the triads in particular?
Let’s think of a chord as a family of notes and see how this all makes sense.
All basic chords consists of three different notes. The root note, the third and the fifth.
This is not obvious on guitar as most of the chords we learn uses 4, 5 or even all 6 strings. But even though we might be playing 6 strings and extension 6 notes, we are only playing 3 DIFFERENT notes. This means that some of the notes in the chords are repeating themselves.
The Root: The root note of a chord is the note after which the chord is named. So the root note of an A-major triad is the a-note, the root note of a C-major triad is a c-note and so on. This applies to all chords whether the chords are named major, minor, 7th, add9 or something even more daunting. The root note is also the most important note of the chord.(more on this later)
The Fifth: The 5th of the triad is the most neutral note of the chord. The interval(musical distance between two tones) between the root and the 5th is considered a neutral interval.
The Third: The third in the chord is the ONE note that determines whether the chord is a major(often considered happy) or minor (often considered sad). Changing the minor third to a major third will change the chord from a minor to a major.
So even though all family’s consists of a mom, a dad and a child, we will not be able to determine what kind of family it will be (happy or sad) until the sex of their child is known. This is the same with chords. Power-chords for example(chords often used in rock or metal) does not contain a third, and therefore doesn't feel happy or sad until the guy playing the solo plays either the minor or major third over it.
The difference between the c-major and the c-minor chord is illustrated in the following example.
Even though you think you might understand it now, there is no such this as knowing something if you don’t use it. So if you are new to the guitar and you have read this far, chances are that you don’t know this stuff well enough. So to REALLY get this I want you to do the following assignment. Make your own diagram as the one above and fill it out with all the chords you know. You should do this using the method described in the video below.
If you are not that familiar with the notes on the low E-string, your can find them below.
Now that you have done this assignment, you have the fundamental and practical understanding of the triads that will necessary to understand part two on extended chords.
About the Author: Janus Buch is a professional guitarteacher in Copenhagen.