Three Notes and the Truth: Classic Rock Triads

The classic-rock catalog is a virtual treasure trove of highly musical triadic applications.
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Let's face it - the topic of triads can rapidly devolve into a big yawn fest, especially when presented using only boring, textbook-ish exercises with no commonplace applications. This is a sad situation, as many students of the guitar and music theory never fully grasp the powerful potential of these three-note wonders. Well, cheer up, class! The revered classic-rock catalog is a virtual treasure trove of highly musical triadic applications. So grab your Les Paul, Strat, Tele, or SG and let’s get going!

Strings 1-3

We’ll start with triad voicings on the top three strings. Ex. 1 shows the four basic triad types - major, augmented, minor and diminished, all built from a D root note: D major (D-F#-A; root-3-5); D augmented (D-F#-A#; root-3-#5); D minor (D-F-A; root-3-5) and D diminished (D-F-Ab; root b3-b5). The first triad in each group is in root position (root-3-5), followed by first inversion (3-5-root) and second inversion (5-root-3). (Note: the scope of this lesson deals only with close-voiced triads, wherein all three notes deals only with close-voiced triads, wherein all three notes are played as close together as possible.)

Our first music example (Ex. 2) is in the style of the Who’s Pete Townshend. Widely respected as one of rock’s most influential rhythm guitarists and songwriters, Pete has gotten quite creative with triads, especially when casting them against John Entwistle’s pedaled bass lines, in such Who classics as “I Can See for Miles,” “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” “Sparks” and “Substitute.” The riff shown here is based on a I-V-IV-I (D-A-G-D) progression in the key of D, played over an open-D string pedal. The C#dim triad in the second ending implies a V7 (A7) harmony.

Next up is a pair of examples inspired by the 12-string stylings of Led Zeppelin’s riff master, Jimmy Page. The first one (Ex. 3) brings to mind the revved-up intro to “The Song Remains the Same,” with a series of major triads (D, F, G and A) that move up the fretboard, propelled by a galloping, open D-string figure. The second example (Ex. 4) is reminiscent of the melancholy interludes heard between the verses in “Stairway to Heaven.” Here, root-position triads (Em, D and C) are pitted in offset rhythms against a sustained open D note.


Ex. 5 is a testament to the subtle brilliance of John Fogerty, guitarist and vocalist of Creedence Clearwater Revival. Exemplifying his penchant for using arpeggios in song riffs (“Who’ll Stop the Rain,” “Born on the Bayou” and “Centerfield”), it’s inspired by the call-to-arms intro to “Up Around the Bend.” First-inversion major triads are arpeggiated and supported by root notes on the open D, A and low E strings. Pure and simple, yet urgent and captivating, it’s a reminder that a “million-dollar riff” doesn’t necessarily need to be overly complex.


Ex. 6 is a tribute to Don Felder and Joe Walsh’s sweet harmony leads featured during the outro section of the Eagles’ “Hotel California” and is based on the top harmony line. As in Ex. 2, the diminished triads here may be thought of as the top three notes of related dominant seven chords. [A#dim (A#-C#-E) and G#dim (G#-B-D) share common tones with F#7 (F#-A#-C#-E) and E7 (E-G#-B-D), respectively.]


Let us not forget the augmented triad! More often than not finding its place in an altered V7 dominant chord in a blues-based song, such as “Oh! Darling” by the Beatles, it occasionally sneaks its way into featured riffs, such as the main hook of classic rock crooner Eddie Money’s breakout hit, “Baby Hold On,” which informs Ex. 7. An amalgamation of that song’s rhythm guitar and synthesizer parts, the example juggles D major and D augmented triad voicings with selected string attacks. The rather unorthodox D-chord fingering is employed here to free up the ring finger for the Daug chord without having to move the other digits.


Strings 2-4

Let’s now move over to the next trio of adjacent strings, the D, G and B. Ex. 8 shows the voicings in the same order as Ex. 1, except now with A as our root note.


Our next two examples exhibit the eternal power of the mighty I-IV-V progression. Both are in the key of A major and exploit a palm-muted open A string to fortify the triads. Ex. 9 is a tip-of-the-hat to classic rock hitman Steve Miller (“Swingtown”), while Ex. 10 is a nod to the late, great Randy Rhoads.


Although he is best known as the chief songwriter and lead vocalist of the pioneering “progressive pop” band the Moody Blues, guitarist Justin Hayward’s six-string prowess is too often overlooked. Ex. 11 is inspired by his rollicking riff action in “Story in Your Eyes” and features triads harmonized from the A Dorian mode (A-B-C-D-E-F#-G) and played between the gaps of a driving bass line.


Ex. 12 is a virtual mini lesson in the signature rhythm guitar style of the great Keith Richards. Kind of a mashup of the Rolling Stones classics “Brown Sugar” and “Start Me Up,” our example offers a way to emulate Richards’ unique 5-string open G tuning (G-D-G-B-D low to high) in standard tuning. Most of the activity occurs on the D, G and B strings, which are the same pitches in both tunings. Here, second-inversion triads, played with a partial index-finger barre, alternate with first-inversion triads (maintain the barre and add the second and third fingers on the B and D strings). 

The challenge here is fretting the bass notes on the low E string with your pinky, which requires a three-fret reach. The only missing ingredient from these Keith-style voicings is the notes on the first string, which you wouldn’t be able to finger without tuning your high E string down to D (so that you could include it in the barre), so just avoid strumming that string.


Long before he became a full-fledged Eagle, Joe Walsh was churning out triad-fueled riffs in the James Gang (“Funk #49” and “Midnight Man”), Barnstorm (“Turn to Stone”) and on his solo albums (“Rocky Mountain Way,” “Meadows” and “Life’s Been Good”). Ex. 13 is inspired by the guitarist’s modal excursions in “Welcome to the Club,” form 1974’s So What. Harmonized from the A Mixolydian mode (A-B-C#-D-E-F#-G), the passage snaps various triads into place along the fretboard, all the while keeping a rolling, shuffle rhythm going on the open A string.


Ex. 14 is modeled after the arpeggiated figures George Harrison played in the John Lennon-penned Beatles classic, “I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” from Abbey Road. The first half of the progression is more akin to George’s own compositions “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and “Something,” but the picking pattern corresponds to what he played on John’s song. Although not always triad-based, the Beatles catalog includes an abundance of arpeggiated figures. “Ticket to Ride,” “Help,” “Till There Was You,” “Hard Day’s Night,” “Sun King,” “Here Comes the Sun,” “Octopus’s Garden,” “Oh! Darling” and “I’ve Got a Feeling” are but a few of the many examples.


Before we move on, here’s a funky little Jimi Hendrix/Doobie Brothers/Edgar Winter mashup of triad riffage (Ex. 15). Notice that all three sections employ the same kind of Keith Richards-style triad-connecting moves we looked at in Ex. 12.


Strings 3-5 and 4-6

We’ll stick to the more common major and minor triads for the lower string trios. Check out Ex. 16 for the voicings, this time with E as our root note.


Ex. 17 switches to acoustic for a Jimmy Page-style display of major and minor triads spread out along the A-D-G string group. The key element here is the droning effect produced by the surrounding open strings. Listen to Led Zeppelin’s “Ramble On” for a prime example of this technique. Heart’s Nancy Wilson also displays a penchant for this kind of chord work. Check out her acoustic buildup during the interlude section of “Crazy on You,” just before the song’s outro.


Ex. 18 is inspired by Peter Green’s haunting main theme in Fleetwood Mac’s “Albatross.” The liberal distribution of G#m triads, played in conjunction with the pedaled E note in the bass, implies a sort of jazzy Emaj7 sound. Peter voiced his chords further down the fretboard on higher string sets, but this register provides a rich timbre suited for self-accompanied solo guitar work.


Next up is an edgy prog-rock example inspired by the rather unorthodox approach to triads characteristic of the playing and songwriting style of King Crimson’s Robert Fripp. This heavy passage (Ex. 19) is based on the chromatic themes brought forth in songs such as “Vrooom” (also featuring guitarist Adrian Belew). At first glance, the triads may appear like random insertions, but upon closer inspection the chord sequences target a firm, E minor home-base tonality.


The low-string arpeggiated lines in Ex. 20 bring to mind some of the catchy passages that sprinkled ’80s pop-metal hits by acts such as Def Leppard, Whitesnake, and Bon Jovi. Use a chorus pedal for this example, and let all those open D and G notes ring clearly.