Generating Major and Minor Chords from Primary Triads in a Major Key

Using only the three primary triad shapes in a major key it is possible to play six of the major key’s seven diatonic chords. To use this technique in a band situation it is assumed that there is another instrument, bass, keyboard etc, playing the relevant root notes of the different chords. For the purposes of this article, the diminished triad on a major scale’s seventh degree will not be considered.

The three primary triads in a major key are found on the first (tonic), fourth (subdominant) and fifth degrees (dominant) of the scale. In the key of A flat major, therefore, the three primary triads are A flat, D flat and E flat major.

primary triads

These triads are typically played with the following root notes

Primary triads and roots

As we shall see, however, often it is more convenient to play only the basic triad shapes while another instrument supplies the bass note (this may be the root, third or fifth of the triad depending on the position of the chord). Reasons for playing only the triad shapes include:


  • often it is easier and quicker to play triad shapes than it is to play full chords
  • you can create interest through the use of inversions
  • you are able to generate more chords using only the three primary triad shapes


It should be noted that while only the positions of the three triad shapes, shown above, will be used in this article, they may be moved to different string groups and different areas of the neck.

To construct the chords:

The A flat major (tonic) chord uses the A flat triad with a low A flat note.


The B flat minor (supertonic) chord uses the D flat triad with a B flat note. The addition of a B flat note below a D flat major triad creates a B flat minor seventh chord: B flat – D flat – F – A flat.


The C minor (mediant) chord uses the E flat triad with a C note. The addition of a C note below an E flat major triad creates a C minor seventh chord: C – E flat – G – B flat.


The D flat major (subdominant) uses the D flat triad with a low D flat note.

D flat

The E flat major (dominant) uses the E flat triad with a low E flat note.


The F minor (submediant) uses the A flat triad with an F note. The addition of an F note below an A flat major triad creates an F minor seventh chord: F – A flat – C – E flat.


As mentioned previously, this technique requires another instrument to supply the different bass notes over the primary triads. For example, to play the following progression:


I – iii – vi – ii – V – I


using only primary triads, without the bass notes to clarify the chords, the result would sound as follows


I – V – I – IV – V – I

Triad prog without roots

With the relevant bass notes, however,

Triad prog with roots

the desired progression can be played.

As you may have noticed, when using this technique minor seventh chords are produced on the ii, iii and vi degrees of the scale. Using the same technique we can also extend the primary triads.

Using an A flat root note below an E flat triad creates an A flat major ninth chord. (to illustrate this technique these examples will only include the root note and relevant triad, typically however, notes other than those shown in these examples may be included or omitted in these chords).


Using a D flat root note below an A flat triad creates a D flat major ninth chord.


Using an E flat root note below a D flat triad creates an E flat eleventh chord.


This technique may also be used to expand note choices for solos. For example, over a D flat major chord play an A flat major arpeggio to get a major ninth sound

Aflat arp over Dflat

over a B flat minor chord play a D flat major arpeggio to get a minor seventh sound.

Dflat arp over Bflat

The three pentatonic scales built upon the primary degrees of a major scale can also be used as soloing choices over a single chord or longer progressions.

Pentatonic scales

Consider the following:

Using the C major pentatonic scale over a C major chord vamp restates the notes of the C major triad, with an added 6 (A) and 9th (D).

Cpent 6th9th

By using the F and G major pentatonic scales the 7th (B) and 11th (F) are also added.

FandG pent


Further soloing options will be discussed in other articles.





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