The Beginner Guitarists Guide to Music Theory 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.

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The Beginner Guitarists Guide to Music Theory Part One - Understanding Triads

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.

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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.

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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.


27 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Nice article, I've been playing 10 years and there's still plenty I don't understand. I can play well, but don't always understand everything I play, due to being self taught I think like this guy says. Used to be in denial about not being clued up on theory when i was a teenager, grown out of that now though and can openly admit that 18yr old me did not know guitar as well as thought he did, despite playing well. I like learning stuff on guitar now though, so many evening sessions ahead learning this stuff now I have my own place.
    I'm glad you like it. I know exactly how you feel. If only one could go back to drop some knowledge on your former self. Know its all about learning in the best and easiest way to catch up.
    Fyi, I'm sorry you feel the need to disclaim your example of a normal family.... People love to get offended these days...
    I'm not sure it was needed, but just i case. I didn't want the discussion of the article to be about that.
    Already new this, but it's very well explained, really nice! How often will you be publishing lessons? Once a week? I knew this but I'm sure you'll point something out nicely like this time which is fundamental but I had no idea about it...
    Thanks. This is my first lesson here. I plan on posting 3 more in this series and maybe one on why guitarists often struggle with aural skills. The next one is about done and will uploaded within the next couple of days. I don't plan on necessarily doing once a week, but I will upload lessons, when I feel I have something to contribute. If you have any ideas for lessons that would benefit people, please let me know. 
    Great explanation, thanks.  One question, though.  If E is part of the root-C triad, why don't we play the top E string when playing a C chord?  Does including too many thirds in the chord make it sound wrong or something?
    Thats a good question. The main factor is that most of the time we want the root note to be the lowest sounding note in the chord. At least as long as we are not playing with a bass or some other lowpitched instrument that would play the root not. If we did play the low E string the chord would be C/E (C chord with E as the bass note). There's nothing wrong with playing that, but the chord does not sound as "stable" or as much "at home" as when we play the root note as the lowest pitch. So if we were to finish a song in the key of c-major, that song would almost always end on the C chord, and when the chord is not "moving" anywhere, we would almost always want it to sound as much as home as possible" Also you would have 3xE note in the chord. As the E note is the third we would play the third three times, and that might not sound that well unless the guitar is tuned extremely well for this specific position. I hope this answers your question.  
    This was a really good article and an important lesson but there do exist ways to convey lessons which don't rely on analogies like the ones here. You can (and in fact did, in certain parts) explain this concept in its entirety without padding your article setting up and referring back to your analogy.
    Thanks for the comment. I totally agree, but I find that with total beginners, an analogy is the easiest way to make them understand right away. When people don't have a musical referencepoint (I.E don't know what a third is for example) I find that an analogy to something they know very well, will help them understand it instantly.
    Hello, Janus Buch I am visiting your website for the first time and find it quite interesting as I am an amateur player with a basic knowledge of music theory and would certainly like to learn more.  I have noticed, however, that the English grammar used in your website seems to 'go astray' from time to time and I am curious to know if English is your second language. I mention this to you in a constructive manner or, in the vernacular, a "Heads-Up" alert for you to correct an otherwise professional presentation of music theory.  As a retired businessman & historian in Myrtle Beach, SC, USA,  I recommend that you entertain the offerings of a skilled English grammar editor to assist in your website presentations. English speakers will take you more seriously, as a result. Here's to your continued success! Rodger Puckett, Ret. Myrtle Beach, SC, USA    
    Hi Rodger.  Thanks for the comment. As you have probably guessed English is not my first language. I'm trying to do it the best I can and though I totally agree with you, hiring someone to proofread my articles is not an option at this point. But thank you very much for pointing it out and for doing so in a constructive way. I will try to do better in the future. 
    There might also be some guitarists with some spare time around, willing to take a look.
    Simon Candy
    Great article Janus! I like the family analogy as you explain triads. Looking forward to the next part in the series
    It always confuses me that in a standard barchord you play the first, then fifth, them first then third, then fifth, then first... That's a lot of firsts..... And not many thirds.... What's gives? Or a g major open, you play first, third, fifth, first, third, first. Again, it seems unbalanced. Is that just coincidence????? Is there a version of chords that sound more rounded if there's a better ballance between the notes???
    Its a great question. Its a pretty long explanation but here goes. Before Bach the harpsichords(the instrument that later become the piano) could not play equally well in all keys. The reason for this is that the intervals on the harpsichord, were pure intervals. This means that from a scientific perspective the frequency of the intervals resonance perfectly in ONE specific key. When we move to another key on the same instrument, the intervals are not perfect anymore and the longer away from the original key we get, the worse the instrument is gonna sound. Bach then came up with the concept of the Well Tempered piano, where he adjusted all the intervals a little bit, making the instrument capable of playing equally well in all keys, but not with the perfect intervals of the "original key". The guitar is the same way. This means that if we try to double the third, which is the note with the most impact of the chord, we might get one third that is adjusted to be a little higher that the actual perfect third and one that is adjusted to be a little lower. This creates the potential for a clash between the two different versions of the third in one chord, making it sound bad. This is not always the case, but will be in a lot of instances. With the first and the fifth you don't hear the clash that much as these notes are not as determining for the character of the chord as the third are. This is the reason I love choir music so much. They are not bound by the restraints of the frets and can adjust all the intervals to be perfect(is the choir is good enough).  This can really make everything come together and a way, that can not be achieved on guitar. Hope this helps. 
    Well, I never.... That is historical. Thanks. I'll buy your point, but with the open G example, it's more thirds than fifths. Similarly, an open C is first, third, fifth, first, fifth and an open E is first, fifth, first, third, fifth, first. I was just trying to bend my head around of a chord should sound "fuller" with more character notes (thirds) or with more complimenting notes (fifths). If you wanted to mute a string, for example. Is there something clear from frequency theory which would explain that?
    There is nothing in theory that forbids you to put more thirds in a chord. And in the end its all a matter of what musical preferences. But I encourage your to try it out and see if you like the sound. Take the c-chord for example. It contains two thirds. If you fret the fifth fret of the b string you will be able to play 3 thirds in that chord. Try to start out only with a root note. Then add a third to the chord, then a fifth. then experiment with adding thirds, fifths and root-notes and see, what you like best. Often if you wanna make a chord sound fuller, you will ad root notes or fifths to the chord. Or you will extend the chord by adding other notes. More on this in part 2 of this lesson. 
    Its not done yet, but will be soon. I hope to upload it in the middle of next week.
    Ah cool, thanks... That's the way I'm looking... You have this lesson up yet or is that to come?