How To Use Triads To Improvise

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by | May 21, 2023

For any aspiring Gypsy Jazz guitarist, effectively utilizing triads in your improvisation is a non-negotiable skill.

Triads—the simplest form of chords, consisting of three notes—are the bedrock of any form of improvisational music, representing the harmonic and melodic backbone of Gypsy Jazz.

The subtle shifts in tension and resolution, the vibrant color of chord changes, and the dynamic dialogues between musicians all spring from these fundamental musical structures.

This article aims to guide you on your journey to mastering triads, offering insights and practical exercises to help you infuse your improvisations with the authentic spirit of Gypsy Jazz.

Why do Triads matter?

Imagine a musical structure so robust that it can create an unbreakable bond between harmony and melody yet so simple that it only consists of three notes. That’s the power of triads.

Here’s why triads are indispensable: they’re made solely of chord tones.

This means that when you play a triad, you’re not just playing any three notes—you’re playing the notes that define the chord itself. So, when you’re improvising with triads, your melodies will always “sound like the chord.”

In essence, you’re speaking the language of the chord, and this creates a deep and compelling connection between the harmonic structure and your improvised melody.

And here’s the most exciting part: you can craft an entire solo using only notes drawn from triads.

By building, shifting, and weaving triads creatively, you can sculpt a solo that resonates with the chord progression and reveals the unique character of Gipsy Jazz.

Think of each triad as a beautiful brick. Alone, it’s simple. But when you start stacking and arranging these bricks imaginatively, you can build a melodic mansion that truly sings.

So, triads aren’t just another musical concept. They’re your secret weapon to improvise with authenticity, creativity, and conviction.

So now, how do we play triads to improvise?

Basic Am Triads

Now, let’s delve into the heart of the matter—the actual application of triads.

We will unpack how to construct an Am arpeggio using three separate triads layered atop each other. This technique is the key to unlocking the rich, intricate sound that defines Gipsy Jazz.

The result will be a three-octave Am arpeggio ranging from the 6th to the 1st string. This style of arpeggio is called vertical. It’s like building a musical skyscraper, one triadic story at a time.

Let’s make it even more exciting.

Instead of only playing triads vertically, let’s explore the world of horizontal triads. This technique will unlock a new dimension of freedom and creativity in your improvisation.

Here’s the secret: the six strings of your guitar can be thought of as four string groups. Let’s explore:

  1. Group 1: 1st, 2nd, and 3rd strings
  2. Group 2: 2nd, 3rd, and 4th strings
  3. Group 3: 3rd, 4th, and 5th strings
  4. Group 4: 4th, 5th, and 6th strings

Now, the fun part. Each of these string groups can host several shapes for the same arpeggio. 

How? The answer lies in the concept of triad inversions.

Just as a deck of cards can be shuffled in different ways, the three notes of a triad can also be rearranged in any order. This means that the same triad can be played in various positions on the fretboard, offering unique tonalities and leading to new creative options.

To master horizontal triad play, you must learn and practice these inversion shapes across all four string groups. It might seem challenging at first, but remember: with each practice session, you’re becoming more fluent in the language of Gipsy Jazz.

Stick with it, and soon the fretboard will feel less like a grid of notes and more like a canvas of endless melodic possibilities.

Group 1

Group 2

Group 3

Group 4

 

Learn 16 Gypsy Jazz songs here

Adding Extensions

Now that we have a good grasp on triads and their inversions let’s take our musical exploration a step further.

We will add some spice to our triads with extensions (additional notes that bring a richer, more nuanced sound to the basic triad).

Why are extensions so crucial? Think of a triad as a black-and-white sketch. It’s beautiful in its simplicity, but adding color will bring it to life, adding depth, intensity, and emotion.

Extensions do precisely that for triads—they add color and intensity, enriching the triad’s original sound and giving your improvisations a more sophisticated texture.

In the realm of Gipsy Jazz, two extensions are particularly significant—the 9th and the 6th.

Both of these extensions are deeply woven into the fabric of this music tradition, adding that unmistakable Gipsy Jazz flavor to the music.

The 9th (B, in the key of Am) brings a dash of brightness and tension to the triad, while the 6th (F#) adds a touch of warmth and character. When incorporated thoughtfully, these extensions can make your triads and overall improvisation sound richer and more resonant.

Am triads with added 9th

Am triads with added 6th

Em Triads

Once you’ve grasped the concepts of vertical and horizontal playing and adding extensions to your triads, you’ve equipped yourself with a powerful toolkit. A toolkit that you can apply to Am and any other triad you want. Let’s start by exploring these techniques with the Em triad.

Like the process we followed with Am, start by identifying the Em triad shapes vertically and horizontally across the different string groups. Remember, this exercise will help you familiarize yourself with the fretboard and the different tonalities of the Em chord across its expanse.

Next, add the magic of extensions. Try introducing the 9th and the 6th to your Em triad shapes. Listen to the nuances these extensions add—the 9th bringing a tinge of brightness and tension, the 6th offering a hint of warmth and resolution. Notice how these extensions enrich the Em triad, making it sound more vibrant and dynamic.

As you explore these techniques with the Em triad, you’ll also start to see patterns and connections that apply to other triads. The beauty of this approach is that it’s scalable. The principles remain the same whether you’re working with a C triad, a G triad, or any other.

B Major Triads

Expanding on our journey with triads, let’s now turn our attention to major chords, starting with B Major. The concept remains the same as we applied to Am and Em, but we’ll observe how it comes to life differently in a major context.

First, chart out the B Major triad shapes on your fretboard. Remember, we’re playing both vertically and horizontally.

Then, we introduce the sparkle of extensions. Add the 9th and 6th to your B Major triad shapes as you did with the minor triads. Feel the richness these extensions bring to the major chord.

The 9th will bring a degree of brightness and tension, and the 6th, a sense of warmth and resolution. Notice how they embellish the B Major triad, adding layers of color and intensity to its sound.

You might be wondering where you can apply these triads. A great place to start is the A section of the tune “For Sephora.” The triads we’ve worked on – Am, Em, and now B Major – will all fit beautifully within the chord changes of this tune.

C Diminished Triads

Continuing our exploration of triads, let’s step into the intriguing territory of diminished triads, with C Diminished as our example.

First, map out the C Diminished triad shapes vertically and horizontally across your fretboard. Remember the string groups, and focus on visualizing and feeling the unique tonality of a diminished triad as you navigate the fretboard.

With its flattened fifth, the C Diminished triad has a peculiar and fascinating quality. It brings an element of surprise and tension to your improvisations, and when used in the proper context, it can add a stunning contrast to your solos.

Now, let’s connect theory to practice. The tune “For Sephora” provides a perfect context for our C Diminished triad. Try improvising with the C Diminished triad when the B7 chord comes around in the song.

You might wonder why we use a C Diminished triad over a B7 chord. This combination creates a rich, altered dominant seventh sound, a common technique in Gipsy Jazz that adds a twist of tension and release to your solos. The C Diminished triad includes the b9 (C) and major 3rd (D# or Eb) of the B7 chord, critical tones to convey the altered dominant sound.

Diminished triads vs. Diminished 7th arpeggios

While diminished 7th arpeggios are undoubtedly useful and are often a go-to in many styles of music, there’s something to be said for their less-common relatives: the diminished triads.

For the Gipsy Jazz guitarist looking to delve deeper and expand their sonic palette, spending quality time practicing diminished triads can open a new world of versatile and unique sounds.

Why diminished triads, you may ask? Two words: versatility and originality.

On the versatility front, diminished triads offer more flexibility in your improvisations. Unlike a diminished 7th arpeggio, typically used over a diminished 7th chord, a diminished triad can work beautifully over a diminished 7th chord and a m7b5 (half-diminished) chord.

With a single triad, you’re ready to solo over two different chord types, widening your improvisational possibilities.

Also, the sound of a diminished triad is somewhat less common and less predictable than the familiar diminished 7th arpeggio. This lends an air of originality to your solos, helping you to avoid sounding cliché and allowing your unique voice to shine through in your improvisations.

Conclusion

Exploring the world of triads offers a path to new levels of creativity and expressiveness in your Gipsy Jazz guitar playing.

From mastering vertical and horizontal playing to adding vibrant extensions and navigating the nuanced terrains of diminished triads, the journey with triads is rich and rewarding.

Triads are essential building blocks of harmony and melody in their various forms and inversions. They are the three-note keys to unlocking the treasure trove of Gipsy Jazz.

They provide a strong link between harmony and melody, enhance the richness and color of your solos, and offer versatile improvisational options.

By studying and practicing the techniques we’ve discussed, you’re not just memorizing chord shapes and patterns—you’re immersing yourself in the beautiful language of Gipsy Jazz.

You’re equipping yourself with the tools to speak this language in a way that is uniquely your own, contributing to the vibrant and evolving legacy of this music tradition.

So, keep practicing, keep experimenting, and remember to enjoy the journey.

Learn 16 Gypsy Jazz songs here

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