Triads and Triad pairs in improvisation Part 1

I decided to write a few articles on how I view and use triads when I am improvising. I’ll try to cover what I think you need to use triads in improvisation, give some examples on how to make lines with triads and I will also post a complete list of triad pairs without common notes which might be useful.

In my experience we sometimes forget how powerful a melodic device the triad, and in using triads the melodies developed are, in my opinion, to systematic and therefore often  predictable and boring. On this new blog, everything I write is of course very colored by my taste in melodies and harmonies so not everybody will agree with everything.

As with any harmonic device it is important to know how to play it in many different ways to be able to create melodies with it when improvising. Here are a few exercises as examples. In the end it is more important to be able to make similar exercises yourself for arpeggios and different triads, roots, positions etc. I probably would not suggest practicing these exercises with the goal being to have them in your fingers and play them at face melting speed. It is probably better to practice open-ended and change fingerings etc so you get familiar and develop an overview.

To keep it simple I have made all exercises on a Bb triad.

Basic Triad exercises.

Playing the triad up and down in several different fingerings, lowest note to highest on the instrument.

triads exercise 1


Playing the triad in some patterns (again here are a few examples, playing up one and down the next might be a good way to expand, four note patterns etc are also good to know)

triads exercise 2


triads exercise 3

This second exercise is the equivalent of playing the triad “in thirds” ie. you skip one and then go back one. Applying patterns like that to any kind of system can be very useful and is on guitar often quite demanding and forces you to come up with new fingerings.

Diatonic triad exercises

Practicing triads in a scale is also useful since you in the end need to improvise with it in that scale, in this case I took Bb major, but F major or Eb major would have been just as good.

triads exercise 4

When playing a scale in triad we often forget to try it with the inversions too, so here’s one of the 1st inversion diationic triads in Bb major.

triads exercise 5

As my colleague Jeen Rabs pointed out recently there are extremely good books with triad exercises, ie George Van Eps Harmonic Mechanisms for guitar. Which is a very extensive and thorough book with tons exercises in all keys and written out fingerings etc. I own vol 1 and use it for inspiration for exercises but I don’t have the discipline to learn the fingerings.

Open Triad voicings.

Another way to play triads is to use open voicing, also sometimes referred to as drop 2 triads. They can be a bit hard to make sense with melodically, but the do sound different and the big range and large intervals are a nice effect. It is also a very good right hand exercise if you’re playing with a pick.

triads exercise 6

Deep Purple guitarist Steve Morse has written some good etudes with them too, and Pat Metheny uses it in his warm up videos. It also appears in John McLaughlins Guardian Angel.


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