The Power of the Triad - Daniel Gilbert Shares the Magic of Tertial Harmony

December 1, 2009

GP1209_Lessons_GIT_DG1IT’S A GOOD TWO HOURS INTO MUSICIANS Institute’s graduation ceremony at LA’s famed Wiltern Theatre, and the time has come to announce whom GIT students have voted as their 2008 Teacher of the Year. When the name Daniel Gilbert is read, the crowd explodes with applause. As Gilbert makes his way to the podium, the assembly is still cheering tirelessly, so all the beloved guitar coach can do is look out over his devotees, visibly moved. Well into his 30th year as a GIT instructor, Gilbert has always taught his way—with great strictness, structure, discipline, and respect, but also with humor, and, when necessary, the right level of irreverence toward convention. So when it comes time for him to make his acceptance speech, even though the room is loaded with parents, grandparents, and other people in front of whom we’re taught to mind our p’s and q’s, Gilbert does this his way as well.

“Sh*t,” he proclaims clearly into the mic. The graduates only seem to scream louder.

Then, Gilbert does something amazing. Like a conductor, he raises both hands in the air and slowly brings his fingertips together. Miraculously, for the first time all day, the packed theater becomes perfectly quiet. If a Fender Medium hit the floor, it would be thunderous.

“You hear that, guitar players?” says Gilbert. “That’s silence. You’ve just spent a lot of time working on a lot of notes. Now, it’s time to work on the silences—the spaces between the notes.”

Gilbert has always been an inspiring teacher, even, it seems, before he became one officially. When he was a GIT student himself in 1978, around the same time that Keith Wyatt, Beth Marlis, Jesse Gress, Jennifer Batten, and others were attending, the great Larry Carlton was visiting the Hollywood guitar school, giving a clinic, and he wanted a student to join him on “All Blues.” Knowing Gilbert would be too humble to volunteer himself, some of Gilbert’s classmates all but forcibly shoved him on stage to trade licks with Carlton. When the song was over, the master session player and future Grammy winner looked at Gilbert and said, “Great playing. How long have you been teaching here?” GIT hired Gilbert as a staffer as soon as he graduated.

“One thing that helped me a lot was that from the day I got my first guitar, I had excellent training,” says Gilbert. From his youth in New York on up through his studies at GIT, Gilbert has been mentored by everyone from Danny Infantino and Howard Morgan to Pat Martino and Howard Alden. “I was given arpeggios, picking studies, etc., and, most important, structure. I soon realized I was lucky, because I found out many students and even many teachers hadn’t been given those things. I think one reason students like me is that every week I give them goals, and I really hold ’em to those goals. ‘Here’s what you have to do, here’s the tempo at which I want you to do it. And you have to come back and do it for me next week.’”

One interesting aspect of Daniel Benjamin Gilbert’s teaching style (and perhaps this ties in to the fact that his initials spell a second-inversion G major chord) is his regular focus on triads. The guitarist is always finding inspiring ways of using these three-note grips to learn the fretboard.

“I could foam at the mouth talking about triads,” says Gilbert. As you’ll discover in this lesson, he uses triads as springboards to improve rhythm playing, melodic playing, and everything in between. Gilbert recommends getting started with triads by learning chord scales such as Ex. 1. This exercise ascends the F major scale diatonically (i.e., using only notes from the F major scale), starting with a first-position, first-inversion F triad with the root on the first string.



To produce each new diatonic triad, simply raise each voice one scale tone as shown, and you’ll get Gm, Am, Bb, etc. When you get to the highest triad—F again, but an octave up—practice the chord scale descending. Later, practice the same approach on other string groups, including every string group from second-third-fourth and third-fourthfifth to “open” groups such as fifth-third-first. And be sure to practice chord scales in other keys, and while using other parent scales.

In a satisfying, R&B-inflected way, Ex. 2 evolves Ex. 1’s triads by simultaneously hammering diatonic neighbor tones onto the lower voices in each grip while letting the first-string note ring in both chords. Each double-stop hammer raises the triad quality a fourth—or, one could say, drops it a fifth—diatonically. (Note: The new triad’s root is on the third string.) As with every approach in this lesson, be sure to practice Ex. 2 descending as well.


Next, try adding extra notes, as in Ex. 3, which takes place on a new string group (second- third-fourth). Here, we play each triad, then raise its lowest note one scale tone, which generates intriguing suspensions and clang-y intervals of major and minor seconds in the lowest two voices of each chord. This is our first example that is played in time. Any tempo is fine, provided the notes are played confidently and correctly.

Of course, no trip through Sergeant Gilbert’s triad boot camp would be complete without melodic studies such as Ex. 4.

To play this right, pick the 9 of each chord (such as the 15th-fret G, in the case of the example’s opening Fadd9 grip) using a downstroke. Then, economy pick (i.e., sweep) the triad with an even upstroke as written. To keep things truly melodic, don’t let the notes ring over each other.

All of these diatonic triad approaches will help you become able to hop around the neck, playing wonderful stabs of harmony and melody at will. For instance, ask yourself, “What is the liveliest way I could comp the simple I-VI-II-V progression in C presented in Ex. 5?



Gilbert might face the challenge with Ex. 6, a triad tour de force he wrote that he calls, simply, “Funky Triads.” It takes that same basic C progression, but lights it up like a Christmas tree via

 bright chord tones and ornamental double-stops, hammers, and slides.

The regular use of syncopation keeps the example rhythmically exciting.

Before we wrap up this lesson, let’s take a look at ways triads can be used in less diatonic settings—and in soloing situations. “Triads are everywhere,” says Gilbert. “Larry Carlton has this thing he calls the Grand Arpeggio, and it is created by simply starting on the root and going up in alternating intervals of major and minor thirds.”

In the key of C, this approach creates a Cmaj7 arpeggio with a 9 (D), a #11 (F#), and a 13 (A). More important, it yields several major and minor triads, as shown in Ex. 7.





“Out of this one shape, you get C, Em, G, Bm, and D,” observes Gilbert, playing the arpeggio using the fingering in Ex. 8.



“It’s great for triadic superimposition. For instance I might use this shape to create a line that superimposes C triads (C-E-G) and D triads (D-F#-A) over the background key, like this [Ex. 9].

This creates a cool C Lydian sound. Or, over A minor, it has an A Dorian sound.”



For years at GIT, Gilbert’s take-no-prisoners teaching style had earned him the nickname Rambo. “But I’ve mellowed out a bit,” he says. “Not to cheapen the experience, but humor is a big part of teaching, especially in classroom settings. Students need to be pushed, of course, but they also have to be entertained a bit. A little comedy is always welcome when they’re learning so much stuff. And students sense that, like them, I am also practicing every day as hard as I can. They respect that, because they know I’m kicking my own ass, too.”

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