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Using Major and Minor Triads

by Dan Palladino

If you've had any experience playing in R&B or funk bands, you probably know how limited the standard major and minor "barre chords" can be. James Brown would fine you $100 and make you carry his luggage for using those clunky, six string voicings on "Super Bad".

Making use of leaner, three note voicings creates more space for the other instruments in the mix, while giving you more flexibility to use smooth voice leading. A discussion of voice leading will be included later in this article.

For now, I'd like to limit our use of major and minor triads to the middle three strings: 2nd string, B; 3rd string, G; 4th string, D. I'd like to concentrate on these three strings, because the voicings fall in such a way that we can use hammer-ons and pull-offs to create some slick rhythm playing, perfect for R&B, funk, blues and reggae.

Let's start by learning the major triad voicings in the key of F.

Notice that we have three voicings for this chord. The first is in "root position" - the root, F, is on the bottom. Next, is the "first inversion" - the 3rd of the chord, A, is on the bottom. Finally, we have "second inversion" - the 5th of the chord, C, is on the bottom. Get the feel for each fingering.

Now, let's play the three inversions, in order, up and down the neck. To really give your brain a workout, use a metronome and move the speed up gradually. Of course, once you get the voicings under your fingers, you should practice going up and down the neck in all twelve keys.

Once you're familiar with the voicings, take a stab at Fig. 1.2.

See how easy it is to go from the F triad to the Bb? All you need to do is bar your third finger across the third fret. Try going from the F to the Bb by hammering-on the Bb chord. Imagine the possibilities if you get a nice sixteenth note funk rhythm going with your right hand.

Here's the same progression, starting with the first inversion F chord:

Fig. 1.4 shows the same progression, starting with the second inversion F chord:

Let's talk a little about the I IV V IV I progression. Not only is this a very common progression in a variety of idioms, but this series of chords is a perfect example of voice leading. Voice leading is the concept of having the least amount of movement between each voice of a chord. In this case, the chord is a major triad (or three note chord).

Here are the desired movements in good voice leading:

1)Common tones: First, try to achieve common tone movement between chords. Look at Fig. 1.2. Do you see how the bottom note, "F" in the F chord is common with the bottom note, "F" in the Bb chord? This is the most desirable movement. Always try to achieve common tones first.

2)Half-step movement: If no common tones are available, try to move in half-steps. In Fig. 1.2, the middle voice of the F chord, "A" moves up a half-step to "Bb" in the Bb chord.

3)Whole-step movement: If no common tones or half-steps are available, try to move in whole-steps. In Fig. 1.2, the top voice of the F chord, "C" moves up a whole-step to "D" in the Bb chord.

4)Minor third movement: If common tones, half-steps or whole steps are unavailable, you are forced to use minor third movement. This is the least desirable movement in voice leading, because it is less smooth than the others. In Fig. 1.2, the middle voice moves from a "Bb" in the Bb chord to a "G" in the C chord.

The next time you are figuring out which voicings to play on a certain progression, keep the rules of voice leading in mind. When we use this concept, each voice has it's own smooth line happening as the chords change. After getting used to this idea, you will begin to hear little melodies in your chord playing. You may even start to play these melodies as part of your comping.

Figs. 2.1 through 2.4 illustrate the fingerings for minor triads. Follow the above procedure for getting these minor voicings under your fingers. The minor progressions also use voice leading. Can you identify the common tone, half-step and whole step movements?

The following progressions are in Bb minor:

Here are some random observations concerning major and minor triads:

a) What would happen if you played the voicings as arpeggios and used them in your improvised solos?

b) You can do these exercises for the three remaining sets of strings.

c) You can create seventh chords by having a friend play random bass notes underneath the triads. Make a note of any cool sounds you come up with.

d)Try using these fingerings to voice lead other progressions. Mix major and minor together.

  • Rip up a piece of paper into 12 little pieces.
  • Write one of the 12 keys on each piece.
  • Rip 12 additional little pieces.
  • Write the words "major" and "minor" on six pieces each.
  • Mix up the pieces with the keys, place them, face down on one side of your    desk.
  • Place the pieces with the chord types, face down on the other side.
  • Turn over one piece from each pile.
  • Play that chord, through each inversion, up and down the neck. Start at the lowest point on the neck, work up as high as you can, then come back down again.
  • Do it until it's second nature.

    Hopefully, you've got a lot to think about now. Don't try to tackle everything here at once. Do a little, put it down, let it sink in, and come back for some more. The next time you're playing a tune, try to incorporate some of these ideas into your playing. I think you'll find that using these little voicings lets everything breathe more.

    Have fun!

    © 2003 Dan Palladino
    Reproduction is prohibited without prior written permission.
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