More Simple Stuff: 1st-Inversion Triads

November 16, 2017

Last month, my advice to you was to focus on simple things, even when learning complex music. Great bass players anchor their playing with small musical building blocks, practiced to perfection. Virtuosic bass playing flows from a large wellspring of simple techniques that the master player combines and transforms at will. Whether you’re laying down the bottom in your weekend wedding band or striving to be the next Wooten, Pastorius, or McBride, a mastery of simple fundamentals will provide the skills you need to confidently approach any musical situation. You can solidify your technique by learning triads all over the bass.

This month, let’s revisit triads, and learn an étude based on 1st-inversion major triads. Example 1 shows a C major triad in root position. I didn’t write the notes as a chord (all notes sounding at once), but rather, as an arpeggio (the notes played separately). Play the notes one after the other—you know this sound and fingering! For a good fingerboard review, find all of the places on the neck where you can play a C major triad in root position in any octave.

Example 2 shows the C major triad in 1st inversion. The term 1st inversion means that the bottom note of a chord or arpeggio is moved up to the top. In the 1st inversion of a C major triad, the note C is on the top of the arpeggio, leaving the E (the 3rd of the chord) on the bottom. The 1st inversion sounds melodic because of the placement and prominence of the 3rd. Here you see the 1st inversion starting from the E on the D string, and also (notated in parenthesis) starting on the open E string. Find all of the spots on the neck where you can play a 1st inversion C triad.

The 2nd inversion of a C major triad has the note G, the 5th of the chord, on the bottom (Ex. 3). Playing the 5th on the downbeat might be harmonically ambiguous in a bass line, but you should understand the construction of this inversion.

Let’s play an exercise around the cycle of 4ths—but first, we’ll analyze the two patterns used in the étude. The pattern in Ex. 4 starts on the 3rd of a C triad (the note E) and moves up the arpeggio to the 5th and root (the notes G and C). This is a 1st-inversion major triad. On beat four, the note Bb is the flatted 7th of the C7 chord, which leads into the 3rd of the F chord in the next bar (the note A).

If you started in C and kept moving up through the cycle of 4ths using 1st-inversion arpeggios, you would fly off the top end of your bass about the time you reached the B7 chord. We want to avoid that, so I’ve added a 2nd pattern to bring the line back down and keep the étude in the low register. Example 5 starts on the 3rd of the Eb7 chord (the note G) and moves down scale-wise to the 3rd of the Ab7 in the next bar (the note C).

Using the patterns in Examples 4 and 5, you can romp through the cycle of 4ths, while clearly outlining the sound of each chord. Example 6 shows the complete line. Note that every bar of the étude begins with the 3rd of the chord on beat one. Each bar uses one of the patterns from Example 4 or 5.

Example 6 begins on the low E, the 3rd of the C7 chord. The line moves up the 1st-inversion triad arpeggio. The Bb, which is the 7th of the C7 chord, leads into the A on the F7 chord in the next bar. The arpeggios are all in 1st inversion, except where the line descends the scale. (In bars 4, 6, 9, and 11, the line moves down scale-wise, like the pattern in Ex. 5.)

Regardless what style of music you play, your knowledge of triads will help you play better bass lines and solos. Next month, we’ll travel the endless universe of 7 chords and their inversions.



John is a simple man—he loves triads in all inversions. Check out his video lesson series, The Upright Bass Handbook, at and

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