Triads In The Wild

I’ve blathered on and on about intervals and triads you’ve been very patient. You’ve read every lesson and diligently tried to burn those shapes into your brain. But now you’re starting to wonder if any of this stuff actually matters. Does anyone actually use this stuff?

Let’s look at couple of real-world examples. Maybe these are tunes you already know, but with your new-found knowledge you should have a new insight into how these guitar parts are played and what’s going on underneath your fingers.


When I opened the series on triads, I gave you this opening from Roxanne by The Police:

Roxanne - Andy Summers

The first two triads are simple minor and major triads. Things start getting a little more interesting in the third measure. Here we see a shape that looks like an A minor triad, but the bass note below that shape is an F, which makes the full harmony sound like a F major 7 chord. Similarly, in the fourth measure we see a triad that looks like G major triad, but the bass note below is E, which results in an E minor 7 chord. In the fifth bar, the same chord is moved down two notes giving us a Dm7 chord.

If these fancy-schmancy chord names don’t mean much to you—don’t sweat it. We’ll get into all of that later. For now, just understand that you can take a shape like minor triad, but when you play it over different bass notes, you get a totally different sound.

Crazy Train

If you think that triads are just for fancy jazz guys, let’s take a look at some triads in a decidedly hard-rocking context. Randy Rhoads uses triads in the verse parts of the song for a really meaty sound:

Crazy Train - Randy Rhoads

Crazy Train - Randy Rhoads

This part in Crazy Train is less harmonically complex that Roxanne, but still a good study of triads—especially in a hard-rock context with a blasting Marshall stack. What makes this sound so meaty is the particular voicings Randy uses. If Randy stuck with regular bar-chords, he might have played it like this:

Crazy Train played with less interesting inversions

Crazy Train played with less interesting inversions

Maybe it's just me, but I think the second version is less interesting. The first version has a lot more texture—you can almost chew on those chords! Note that the chords are still the same (A, E, D, A), but the choice of inversions is what makes the first version stand out from the second version.

Randy is doing something that jazz players often called voice-leading. The idea is to pick chord and triad voicings whose notes are as close to each other as possible. The idea is that it’s less jarring for the listener if you avoid big intervallic jumps.

Dance The Night Away

Let’s look at one more example, this time Van Halen’s Dance The Night Away. This rollicking riff uses a variety of triad shapes to move between E, B and A:

Dance The Night Away - Eddie Van Halen

Like Crazy Train, Eddie uses voice-leading to move from chord to chord. Look at the difference in triad shapes between the E and B triads. The intervallic distance between E and B is a fifth, but using inversions, Eddie gracefully moves from E to B by just moving two notes down within two frets. That's the power of triads and inversions. You can imply a tonality like an E-to-B shift without having to move your hand big distances up and down the neck.

Both Crazy Train and Dance The Night Away feature two very common triad shifts in rock and roll. Crazy Train uses these shapes:

Shape Pair 1.png

Dance The Night Away features these two shapes:

Shape Pair 2.png

Keep these pairs in mind as you continue to learn more guitar parts. You may be surprised at how often these combinations come up.