Harmonizing Triads

Let’s take another look at triads, this time in the context of harmony. Let’s start by looking at our good friend the major scale. Just to mix things up a bit, we’ll focus on the major scale in the key of G. To review, here are the notes and intervals of that scale:

The G Major Scale

The G Major Scale

If you take the first, third and fifth notes of that scale (G, B and D), you should recognize this as a G Major Triad. Now if we start with the second note and select the second, fourth and sixth notes (A, C and E) we get an A Minor Triad. If we keep doing this all the way through the scale, we get a different kind of triad at each note in the scale:

  1. G major
  2. A minor
  3. B minor
  4. C major
  5. D major
  6. E minor
  7. F♯ diminished
  8. G major

When we do this, it’s called harmonizing the major scale. That is, we’re creating harmonies exclusively from notes of that scale. Learning this order of triad types and the distance between them is a really crucial concept to master.

The diatonic major scale is the basis of Western music and learning how to harmonize it will help you understand how songs are constructed. These triads can be expanded into full-blown chords which are the basis of modern Western music (rock, jazz, blues, metal, etc.)

Just because a song is in a particular key, doesn’t mean that all the chords in that song must come from the harmonized major scale. In fact, mixing in chords outside of this scale is a fantastic way of adding tension and resolution to a piece of music. The trick, as always, is knowing when to break the rules. Keep this in mind, because we’ll return to that idea several times in our journey.

Because each of these triads is from the same scale, they sound like they belong together. If you play each of the harmonized triads up the neck, your ear should recognize the familiar pattern of the major scale:

The G major scale harmonized up the neck as triads

This is just one way you can harmonize notes from the major scale. In this case, each triad is starting with the root note. If you just play the first note of each three-note group you get a G major scale up the neck. But we know that we can play triads in different inversions, so that even if we aren’t starting on a root note, we can get the same basic sound. Here are the same triads using the next set of strings, which happens to be in second-inversion form:

G major triads harmonized as second inversions

Go back and play the first example, then re-play the second. Do you hear how they sound very similar? Even though they start on different notes, they sound similar because that’s the way our brains make sense of the triads. We expect the notes to resolve in a particular way no matter what order we play them in.

A Word on Chops

While we’re here, let’s take a look at the picking details for the two examples. In the first example, I’ve shown each triad played entirely with downstrokes. If you were to play each group of three using a single sweeping motion, we would call this sweep picking.

If you’re new to sweep picking, it can be a very strange motion to master at first. Part of the trick is getting your picking hand to glide through all the downstrokes, then quickly reset for the next set of downstrokes. It’s nearly impossible to master if you’re thinking in terms of separately picked notes. I think it helps to think in terms of bigger, composite motions: one motion to sweep through a group of three notes, then a quick reset for the next three notes.

Sometimes that reset motion can be difficult to master. Another approach is to sweep the first two notes, then reverse motion on the top note of the triad. To do this, you have to skip your pick past the last string after the second note and hit the third note with an upstroke. Some players prefer the feel of this motion to straight sweep-picking. It also has a slightly different sound and some players (Paul Gilbert, for example) prefer it because it doesn’t sound so “sweep-pick-y”.

I encourage you to try both styles and see which you like better. If you wanted to be a real guitar-ninja you would even consider mastering both styles. Crazy, right?

Moving on, let’s continue harmonizing the G major scale in triads on the next set of strings. This time we’ll focus on the fourth, third and second strings:

The G major scale harmonized on the fourth, third and second strings

Again, the basic tonality and the relationships of the triads sound similar to the other two examples. Let’s finish off with the final set of strings, the third, second and first:

The G major scale harmonized on the third, second and first strings

The triads on the highest set of strings presents a couple of interesting shapes. All of the minor triads (Am, Bm and Em) are played on the same fret. I find it too difficult to assign a separate fretting finger to each note, so let a single finger (usually your index finger) handle the entire triad.

This can be tricky if you’re trying to sweep-pick this cleanly. You can’t deliberately move the same fretting finger from note to note fast enough (or very cleanly). If you just let it sit there like a big dumb slug, all the notes will mush together. Yuck. No good.

The trick is to “roll” your finger across the neck to fret each note as you need it. This feels weird at first because you’re going to have to fret notes with more parts of your finger pad than you may be used to. The note on the third string will have to be fretted closer to the tip, while the note on the first string will be fretted closer to your first knuckle. This feels pretty weird at first. But with enough deliberate, clean, slow practice you can master this trick and make it part of your repertoire. Just focus on the idea of “rolling”.

More Bang For The Buck

I like to maximize my guitar practice time and if I can kill two (or more) birds with one stone, I’m all for it. Getting these triads and the spatial relationships between them under your fingers will help you with several things:

  • Grooving the sound in your ears of the harmonized major scale (which covers an awful lot of music)
  • Getting comfortable moving up and down the neck (a big barrier for a lot of players)
  • Working on your sweep-picking chops

So don’t just run these up and down the neck endlessly with your brain on auto-pilot. Play these with mindfulness and intent. To focus on triads and how they relate to each other, try singing the notes as you play them. This will really help groove the sound of the harmonized scale into your brain and fingers. It will help you start closing the gap between the note you hear in your mind that you want to play and the actual note you fret and pick on your guitar.

As you play these triads, focus on playing the notes cleanly. Three-string triads are notoriously tricky to play cleanly with no overlap. Now, in some cases you may want to let each note ring, but let’s assume that if you master playing each note cleanly and separately, you can mush them together when you want to.

As you play these triads, be aware of which type you are playing. Don’t just memorize the shapes, but know what they are called. One way you could do this is name the triad as you sing and play each note. For example: “Gee may-jor Ay my-nor Bee my-nor” and so forth.

I think this idea of tackling several concepts at once is immensely powerful. It’s a handy time-saver but, more importantly, I think it helps fuse together related ideas in your brain. If you studied each of these aspects separately you would still have to go through some kind of process of synthesizing these things back together in your mind before you could really use them in your own playing and improvisation. By tackling these different aspects at once, I think it helps you see the different dimensions simultaneously.

Of course, this approach can be mentally overwhelming. Sometimes you need to just tackle a single aspect and master it. This is a great approach and one I often use. But you should always be aware of “putting it all together” at some point.

What Goes Up, Must Come Down

So far, all of the examples I’ve shown all go in the same direction. The triads are played in ascending order up the neck and each note in the triad is played in ascending order. But, obviously, you can play triads and notes in any order you choose. So don’t get stuck playing these just one way. Start thinking of the different dimensions you can vary and mix it up.

For example, here’s a another way to play these triads up the neck, but the note order of each triad alternates between ascending and descending order:

G major triads going back and forth up the neck

If you wanted to explore sweep-picking further, this is a great way to do it. One way to do this would be to sweep each three-note group with a single sweep. Because you’re picking hand is going back and forth across the strings, this motion is easier than the sweep-and-reset motion we looked at earlier.

Playing triads this way introduces a new bit of picking- and fretting-hand synchronization. At the transition between each triad, you move your fretting hand up the neck to fret the next shape, which is played on the same string. Notice that the last note of one triad is played on the same string as the first note of the next triad. Also notice how your picking motion reverses at this transition. To play this cleanly you have to fret two notes with the same finger on your fretting hand (as you make the position shift) while you are effectively alternate picking that little two-note combination.

There aren’t many times you see this, but it’s a handy motion to have down in your arsenal and this is a fantastic way to groove it while you learn some theory and solidify your feel for the sound of the scale.

You should also experiment with descending down the neck, like this:

G major scale triads descending

Start thinking about other combinations or patterns you can try with this material. A really great way to groove some material is figure out a way to make it harder in some way. By making it more technically challenging or harder to memorize on the fretboard you really force yourself to use everything at your disposal. Think of it like weightlifting for music study.


In the next lesson, we’ll look at some other ways we can harmonize these triads up and down the neck using two-string combinations.

Until then, keep rocking!