Sometimes you come across a concept that changes the way you think about your instrument, how you approach improvisation, and practice music. For me, the triad pairs concept (also known as triadic pairs) was one of them.
I’ve seen and heard many musicians use triad pairs as their main approach to improvisation. You’ll often hear it used by jazz musicians, like Michael Brecker, Herbie Hancock, John Coltrane, and Chick Corea.
Triad pairs lend themselves to fascinating melodies and rhythms when you improvise. And, there’s so many interesting sounds, variations, and approaches to this simple concept. You’ll hear this approach used in a lot of jazz piano and jazz guitar solos.
In this article, I’ll share with you:
- What are triads and the most common types
- The Triad Pair Concept
- The approach that’s worked best for me
- My favorite triad pairs for common chords in jazz, using the popular tune Spain, by Chick Corea
- How to practice triad pairs
Let’s get started.
If you’re short on time, and looking for another approach to soloing over chords, watch my video on this exciting concept that’s often used by modern jazz musicians in their solos and compositions.
What is a Triad?
Triads are a set of three notes (hence the name “triad”), typically stacked in thirds. While these three notes form a basic unit, they are foundational in a lot of chords and melodies in Western music.
Triad shapes also have a familiar sound, which make them highly effective to use in jazz improvisation.
While you’ll find that many intermediate to advanced jazz improvisations consists of playing patterns using triads, beginners can benefit a lot from this concept. If you’re a beginner, using the triad pair will help you learn to hear modern jazz language and help you improvise freely.
Types of Triads
There are four types of basic triads: Major, Minor, Augmented, and Diminished.
Here are the numeric formulas for each of these basic triads in root position:
- Major triad: 1, 3, 5
- Minor triad: 1, ♭3, 5
- Augmented triad: 1, 3, ♯5
- Diminished triad: 1, ♭3, ♭5
Up next, we’ll take a look at how we can pair specific triads to create any sound of chord that you want. This is an exciting concept often used by jazz musicians that can help bring both freedom and harmonic clarity to your lines. It’s also a great way to break free from sounding like you’re just running scales.
What are Triad Pairs? (Learn The Concept)
A Triad Pair consists of two triads that belong to the same chord scale and don’t share a single note.
There are numerous triad pairs that you can come up with, especially when the scale that they are derived from has 7 notes (like a major scale). Typically, triad pairs will be adjacent to each other.
Here’s What’s Worked Best For Me
There aren’t really any hard set rules to go about this. However, here are a couple of things that work best for me:
- Choose adjacent triads that do not share any notes. That way you’ll end up with a set of 6 notes (hexatonic scale) that captures the sound you’re going after.
- For the most part, stick with triad pairs that are of the same quality (ie: Major Triad + Major Triad). You certainly can mix the kinds of triads you want to pair. But, for me, keeping the chord quality the same, like using only minor triad pairs, makes the shapes easy to play and less to think about.
4 Steps For Finding Your Diatonic Triad Pairs
- Start out by deciding the scale you want to use for a chord. So for example, if you’re soloing over a minor 7 chord, you could choose to use a Dorian scale.
- Then, play triads based on each degree of the scale. This is an improvisation technique called chord scale technique.
- Next, you want to find 2 triads from your chord scale that best define the sound of the chord. Use your ears to make your decision. I recommend that the triads you choose don’t share any common notes and are a step apart.
- Once you know the triad pairs that you want to use, generate intervallic lines by connecting inversions of each triad. These also make for excellent practice patterns to play on your instrument. Be sure to also explore all inversions and their fingerings (1st inversion and second inversion).
Best Triad Pairs To Play Over “Spain” by Chick Corea
Here are my favorite triad pairs to play over the tune “Spain”. This is a popular tune played in jazz music. Keep in mind, there are nearly endless combinations to choose from. I just happen to favor these triad pairs for jazz. I like them because they are easy to play, easy to remember, and sound good to my ears.
I encourage you to explore and come up with triad pairs of your own.
“Spain” by Chick Corea Chord Progression
First, let’s take a look at the basic chords for the tune, called “Spain” by jazz pianist Chick Corea. Then, well break it down by chord type and come up with good sounding triad pairs for each chord.
- Bars 1-4: G major 7♯11
- Bars 5-8: F♯ 7♭13
- Bars 9-10: E minor 7
- Bars 11-12: A 7
- Bars 13-14: D major 7
- Bars 15-16: G major 7♯11
- Bars 17-18: C♯ altered 7
- Bars 19-20: F♯ 7♭13
- Bars 21-22: B minor 7
- Bars 23-24: B 7
Triad Pairs for the G Major 7♯11 chord
A G major 7♯11 chord has a Lydian sound which is characterized by the sound of a Major triad with the addition of a ♯11. This sound feels like a sunrise to me.
The important notes for a G major 7♯11, are: G (root), B (3rd), C♯ (raised 4th), D (5th), and F♯ (major 7th).
Let’s choose two triads that contain these notes and also don’t share any notes.
I like to use:
- B minor triad (satisfies the 3rd, 5th, and major 7th)
- A major triad (satisfies the 9, ♯11, and 13)
I could have also went with a G major triad, instead of a B minor triad. But, I chose to use a B minor triad instead, because the F♯ (which is the major 7) is a sweet note.
Triad Pairs for the F♯ 7♭13 chord
A F♯ 7♭13 chord has an exotic sound to it. Typically, this sound is characterized by the 5th mode of a Harmonic Minor Scale.
The important notes of F♯ 7♭13, are: F♯ (root), G (♭9), A♯ (3rd), D (♭13), E (♭7).
Here’s a triad pair that works for this kind of chord:
- G diminished triad (satisfies the ♭9, 3rd, and 5th)
- B minor (satisfies the 11, root, and ♭13)
I like the way the G diminished triad gives you the ♭9 of the F♯ 7♭13 chord. The b9 has a nice exotic sound to give your improvisation.
Triad Pairs for the E Minor 7 chord
For the E minor 7 chord, I like to use the following pairs of triads:
- G major triad (satisfies the ♭3, 5th, and the ♭7)
- A major triad (satisfies the 11th, 13th, and the root)
These two arpeggios involve some really strong note choices for your ii chord. The presence of the 13th gives it a Dorian sound.
Triad Pairs for the A Dominant 7 chord
For the plain A7 chord I like to use:
- E minor triad (satisfies the 5th, ♭7, and the 9th)
- F♯ minor triad (satisfies the 13th, root, and the 3rd)
There are other options with this chord if your want to give your improvisation more tensions and altered chord tones. When you’re working with triad pairs, there are no hard rules, as long as the melodic patterns that you’re arpeggiating help define the sound you’re after.
Triad Pairs for the D Major 7 chord
For the plain D major 7 chord, here’s the triad pairs I favor using:
- A major triad (satisfies the 5th, major 7th, and the 9th)
- B minor triad (satisfies the 6th, root, and the 3rd)
Triad Pairs for the C♯ Altered Dominant 7 chord
Finally, for the C♯ altered 7 chord, this triad pair will hit some sweet notes!
Keep in mind that when you’re playing alterations of a chord, the presence of the 3rd and 7th are super-important. This shell voicing (3rd and 7th) is what will bring context to these extensions.
- A major triad (satisfies the ♭13, root, and the ♯9)
- B diminished triad ( satisfies the ♭7, ♭9, and the 3rd)
By using these triads, you’re able to focus on all the alterations of the chord, while using the same chord shape.
Triad Pairs for the B minor 7 chord
For the B minor 7 chord I enjoy the sound of B Melodic Minor for this chord.
To create this sound, I use these triads:
- F♯ major triad (satisfies the 5th, major 7th, and the 9th)
- G♯ diminished triad (satisfies the 6th, root, and ♭3rd)
I like using the melodic minor sound for this chord, because the pairs and patterns you get feels like home base (a resolution). So, while the chord is technically a minor 7 chord, the major 7 in a melodic minor scale still sounds good to me.
Triad Pairs for the B7 chord
Finally, for the B 7 chord, I use the same approach I outlined above for altered dominant 7 chords. So adjust your triad pairs in relation to the chord.
Here are a few tips for practicing the Triad Pair concept, that’ll make your lines sound cohesive:
- Voice Leading: Practice using the closest triad for each chord change. This will unite your melodic phrases.
- 4 note pattern: Practice making your triads into 4-note groupings. You can do this by simply repeating the first note of the triad. You can repeat this note in the same range or up/down an octave.
- Inversions: Know all of your inversions for each type of triad. The more familiar you are with your inversions, the easier it will be to navigate these shapes along your fretboard.
- Transpose: Once you learn the movement between between different triad pairs (in order to create the sound of a particular chord) transpose and learn to use them in different keys. A good practice is to focus on a single chord quality, and apply triad pairs any time that chord quality appears in a tune.
Now It’s Your Turn
As with any concept, when you’re first starting out, it’ll be a challenge to get your lines sounding musical. It’s totally normal and fine if your lines sound contrived while you’re familiarizing yourself with the concept.
The more you practice this concept, the more your ears will unfold. And, you’ll start to hear different contexts where you can apply it.
Trust the process. Eventually, you’ll discover your own combinations and melodic shapes and adapt them into your solos.
Hop over to my Basslines section to learn more music theory like this!