Improvising with Triads (Arpeggios)

When we think about improvising in jazz we most often think about more notes, bigger arpeggios and more complicated scales as the road to playing more intricate and exciting solos. It’s true that 9ths, 13ths and all manner of complicated extensions do add beautiful colours to our solos. In this post, I’d like to point you to an easier route to achieve this goal. We will explore how simple 3 note triads can be used to create beautiful lush textures in our improvised solos.

So how does this work? Let’s start with some simple examples. First off, we will examine a couple of 4 note 7th chords and look at them in a different way. What if we visualize them as slash chords. What is a Cmaj7 chord? Cmaj7 has 4 notes; root, major 3rd, 5th and major 7th. Some will also say that a Cmaj7 is a C major triad with a major 7th. All true.

What if we look at Cmaj7 the other way. What if we say that a Cmaj7 chord is an Em triad with a C in the bass?

We can do the same for a Dm7 chord.

Visualizing our chords in this way gives us a new tool to improvise with. Instead of thinking of a Dm7 arpeggio or a D Dorian mode, we can think of playing a simple F triad over a Dm7 chord. This is perfect as we avoid playing the root. The bass player has the root covered so that leaves us to everything else.

Next let’s look at some 9th chords. What if we take the top 3 notes of a 9th chord and see what kind of triads we end up with. Let’s look at Dm9.

If we use an Am triad to improvise over a Dm9 chord, the triad will give us the 5th, 7th and 9th of the Dm9 chord.

For the Dm7 chord, I’ve used only an Am triad.

Now we will go one step further. Lets look at G7(sus4). In this chord we have  the root, 4th, 5th, flatted 7th and 9th. Remember that we are using the 4th to replace the 3rd and not adding the 11th on top with the 3rd still present. We will however visualize our chord as having an 11 (no 3rd) for the purpose of creating our triad. In other words, we will use the 7th, 9th and 11th. We end up with an F major triad.

A nice way to incorporate the F triad into a nice improvised line is to combine it with a G triad. In the example below I am using F and G triads to create a line.

Bars 1 and 2 are G triad to F triad, 2 beats each while bars 3 and 4 do the opposite: G triad for 2 beats followed by F triad for 2 beats.

The same 2 triads also work very well over an F Lydian mode. Our chord is Fmaj7(#11).

Triads often make up the upper extensions of more complax chords as in the example below.

If we take the 3rd, b9 and the 13th, respell enharmonically the Ab as a G# we end up with an E triad. In the example below, I’ve used an E triad over the G7 chord.

Here we have only looked at a few possible ideas for improvising with Triads. There are many other possible triads to explore. Your next step would be to look at the chords to one of the songs you are working on and experiment with some of the possible triads contained within the chords. Look especially at chords with lots of extensions and try to see what kinds of Triads each contains.

As always, have fun and be creative with your practice!


Author: Michael Berard

Michael Berard was a part-time music professor for over 25 years at Concordia University in Montreal Canada. There he taught jazz guitar, jazz arranging, jazz composition as well as other jazz related courses. He has worked over the years as a jazz musician playing jazz clubs, concerts and studio sessions. Michael has played on numerous recordings including 3 of his own: "It's Autumn," "Little Voices" and "Good News." Michael is also the author of "Jazz Guitar Elements," a comprehensive jazz guitar method and "Jazz Reading Elements," a new jazz sight reading book geared towards jazz guitarists.