May 17th, 2010

Using Triads in Your Solos

By Eric

After playing a tune for a while, it can seem like you are playing the same ideas or licks over the changes every time. For example, you see a D minor chord and think “okay D minor, I can play a D dorian scale or a D harmonic minor scale or arpeggiate from the third..”and after awhile, it can see like there is nothing new to play or that you are going down the same path on this chord every time.

One thing you can do in this situation is to find a completely new way to approach those familiar changes, forcing yourself to try a new technique so you avoid playing those same old licks. One option is to approach those common chords, on which you would normally play scales, with triads or groups of triads to create a new harmonic sonority.

There are endless ways of combining triads harmonically, rhythmically and melodically to create new ideas for improvisation. Check out this live clip of Chris Potter playing with Dave Holland to get an idea of the possibilities of using triads (and fourths) in a solo.

Okay…thank you Chris, now that we all want to quit our instruments. But seriously, that video was an example of what can happen when you explore new approaches to chords and really master the technique behind them. Here are some ideas on how to start incorporating some triads into your playing…

Diatonic Triads

The first way to utilize these triads is to use ones that you are already familiar playing; triads that occur naturally in the modes of the major scale. Start with a simple group of two diatonic major triads and alternate between the two in every inversion. Say you are trying to solo over a D-7 chord, instead of approaching this chord as you usually would, try improvising with just an F major triad and a G major triad as shown in the example below:

Because these triads are constructed diatonically, they will work over chords (or modes) that naturally occur in the C major scale. As shown in the example, you could play the alternating F and G major triads over a C Major, G7 or F Major 7 #11 chord. Each of these combinations creates a different harmonic result, some more effective than others.

For example, over the G7 and F Major 7#11 chords, all the notes of those two triads are fairly stable, one triad emphasizing strong chord tones while the other emphasizes upper structures. Over the C chord it does not work as well because the third of the chord is not played, but it can be effective if you emphasize the G triad and use the F triad in passing, not landing on the harmonically weaker notes (root, 4th) on strong beats.

Just as you practice all your exercises, practice this triad concept in all four directions ascending and descending to explore every possibility available. Since the above example shows the Up Up direction, below are the remaining three directions shown ascending:

Up Down

Down Down

Down Up

Once you get this sound in your ears, find a practical way to apply these triads based on the type of harmony you want to imply. If you are on a major chord and want to create a lydian sound you can play the root triad and the triad a whole step above the root, for example on a C Major chord, use a D major triad over a C triad. The same is true for a lydian dominant sound; if you are on a G7 chord you can play a G triad and the triad a whole step up, an A Major triad that includes the C# or #11.

Non-Diatonic Triads

When you are playing over specific chords, certain groups of triads have different levels of dissonance that vary from one to another. Triads that are non-diatonic, especially ones related chromatically, produce the most dissonance or tension. The triad a tritone away from the root is especially dissonant, creating momentum that leads to resolution. A common line shown below, on a C7 chord, utilizes the root C major triad and the tritone F# major triad all in root position, creating a dominant sound that includes the #11, b7 and b9:

Triad combinations that are especially dissonant are pairs that are a half step apart, for example using the root triad and a major triad either a half step above or below it. Say you are soloing over an F Major 7 chord and want to explore a new harmonic area besides diatonic material in F, try alternating between an F triad and an E Major triad, shown below:

The harmonic result of these two triads is an F Major 7 #11 #9 chord (the B and G#) or it can also be analyzed as an E/F chord. Rather than playing diatonic scalar material, these triads allow us to create new harmonic and intervallic possibilities over standard chords with material we already have down; the major triad.

Just like the pair of diatonic major triads could be used over a number of different chords, triads that are non-diatonic can be applied to various chords as well. The above example of the F and E Major triads, triads that a half-step apart, could also be used over a dominant chord like E7, emphasizing the strong chord tones with dissonant tones like the b9 and b13:

Connecting Triads

As we play these groups of triads in our solos, we will want to connect each one by the closest possible distance, a half-step, in order to sound fluid in our playing. Some of the triads and their inversions naturally move from one to the other by half-step and others do not, so we must incorporate some chromaticism to achieve this. In other cases, we might want to land on a certain note on a strong beat and must insert a chromatic passing tone between the triads to do this. The example below demonstrates this chromatic tone between the inversions of the F and G Major triads:

Rhythmic Variation

As this concept of triadic playing becomes more comfortable, try adding some of these rhythmic variations into the mix. Since triads are naturally groups of three, use triplet groupings to create different results:

In the same sense, because the triad is a group of three notes, playing eighth notes with triads will constantly off set the placement of the triad in the measure:

Also, breaking up the rhythm within the triad itself can lead to some new possibilities:

Finally, try combining these rhythmic elements together in the context of your line, not only creating harmonic tension, but rhythmic as well:

Creating Patterns on a Triadic Concept

As this idea of using groups of triads in your solos becomes easier, you can start to incorporate some chromaticism or create patterns based on the concept of two triads. One way is to create a line using just the first two notes of each triad, below is an example of this:

Here, just the first two notes of each inversion of the F and G Major triads are used over a D-7 chord in ascending and descending fashion. The result is almost pentatonic-like, consisting of intervals of major and minor thirds and perfect fourths.

Another way is to create a pattern or include diatonic material into the basic skeleton of the triad. In the example below, scale fragments are included into each inversion of the triads as a sort of passing tone, creating a linear effect.

There are many more possibilities with the concept of triadic improvising, the above examples are just a few to get started with. In your practice don’t feel limited to just major triads, experiment with minor, augmented, diminished triads or combinations of all of these. Ultimately you want to be able to use these triads as new creative material and a fresh approach for your solos, so you avoid getting stuck in that old routine of playing those same licks over those same changes every time you see them.