The bread-and-butter chords that we play every day
Chord construction - triads
Chord Construction 1: Triads
Triads, as the name implies, are chords made up of three notes. The basic chords that most guitarists learn from day one–C chords, G chords, etc.–are, for the most part, triads. Minor chords are also triads. In short, any time you see a chord name that does NOT have numbers following its letter name, that chord is most likely a triad. When you see 7′s, 9′s, etc. in your chord names, you are most likely dealing with chords that contain more than three notes, which will be covered in subsequent lessons.
“But there are 6 strings on the guitar, and 6 notes in this E chord (or G chord, or whatever chord). How is that a triad?”
To put it simply, in an E chord, there are 3 “E” notes, 2 “B” notes, and one “G#” note. So even though the chord contains 6 notes, there are actually only 3 different notes.
We’ll use a C major scale for our first examples, and we will number each step, or “degree” of the scale. Then, to build our triads, we simply take the 1st, 3rd, and 5th steps from the major scale of the same key. So in the case of C major, we will use the C, E, and G notes.
Major Triads: 1, 3, 5
Put the C, E, and G notes together just as they are, and you have a “C Major triad.” Or, in other words, “a C chord”. You don’t have to call it a “C major triad”–you can just call it a C chord.
Hear the sound of a C major triad:
If, for example, you wanted to make a Bb chord, you would simply refer to the Bb major scale, and take the 1st, 3rd, and 5th steps. It’s the same concept for every key.
Minor Triads: 1, b3, 5
To create a minor triad, we take the same three notes, but in this case, we lower the 3rd degree by 1/2 step…in other words we “flat” the third degree. In the case of C, the 3rd degree is an E, so to make a minor triad, we lower that E to an Eb. The other notes stay the same. So a Cm (“C minor“) triad is made up of C, Eb, and G.
Hear the sound of a C minor triad:
Note that this flatted third degree is the defining characteristic of minor chords–it’s what makes minor minor. Any chord that has a flatted 3rd degree, and a natural (not flatted or sharped) 5th degree is a minor chord. And likewise, anything that is referred to as “minor” (a scale, a chord, a key) has a flatted 3rd and a natural 5th. There can be all kinds of variations within the other notes of the chord or scale (resulting in many different kinds of minor chords and scales), but a flatted 3rd and a natural 5th together will always be “minor.”
Less common triads: Diminished and Augmented
You may have occasionally run into diminished and/or augmented chords, but overall they are relatively rare outside of the worlds of jazz and classical music. Interestingly enough, it seems to me that the Beatles and the Grateful Dead used these chords more than most popular artists. They are odd-sounding chords, especially when heard on their own and out of context. But they are very useful chords and can sound quite beautiful when used appropriately. They can be described as “tension” chords, meaning that they have a dissonant sound that has a sort of gravitational pull toward another chord (known as “resolution”).
Diminished: 1 – b3 – b5. A diminished triad (abbreviated as “dim” in chord symbols, also sometimes with a tiny circle, like the symbol for degrees (as in temperature)). It is created by flatting BOTH the 3rd and the 5th. So a “C diminished triad” would be made of C, Eb, and Gb.
Hear the sound of a C diminished triad:
Diminished chords sound strange, but they are very important chords, and will be covered at length in future lessons on HCG. They rarely if ever stand alone…they are almost always followed by a more “normal” sounding chord.
Hear the sound of C diminished, followed by a Db chord:
Augmented: 1 – 3 – #5. An augmented triad is created by leaving the 3rd alone, and raising the 5th by 1/2 step (“sharping” it). It is abbreviated as “aug” in chord symbols, and is sometimes symbolized with a “+”.
Check out what a “C augmented triad“–spelled C, E, G#–sounds like:
And yes, that’s another weird-sounding one when it’s by itself. But check out what a C augmented chord sounds like when it’s followed by an F chord: