Slash chords are a method of notating inversions. Inversions are chords where a tone other than the root is played in the bass. Whenever you see a slash chord, think inversion.
When a composer wants us to play an inverted chord, they will write the designated chord followed by a slash and the chord tone he wants to be played lowest. While slash chords are most commonly associated with jazz lead sheets, they are also used in many modern music method books.
Why do we need slash chords in the first place, and how do I play them? We will explain the purpose and best methods for getting comfortable with slash chords below.
Slash Chords – What are they for?
Slash chords (inversions) serve an important harmonic function in music. Their primary function is to create a step wise bassline.
A step wise bassline is a bass line where the notes move up or down by step, creating a smooth and connected contour. Typically, the slash chords are used as passing chords, and aren’t meant to serve a significant harmonic purpose other than assisting transition between chords.
Slash chords create a better transition, or flow, between chords.
Lead Sheet Symbols
Lead sheet symbols are a form of musical notation that has become mainstream in modern times. Lead sheets are the primary form of notation along with standard notation in pop, jazz, rock, and other popular music styles. Your typical lead sheet will have the melody written in standard musical notation, and chord symbols above the staff.
The chord symbols tell you what chord to play as a harmonic accompaniment. Guitarists and pianists need to know how to read these symbols. Keep in mind that this is a simple introduction and not an in depth analysis of lead sheet symbols.
- The uppercase letter tells us the root of our chord.
Example:D (D major)
- A lowercase m following means the quality of the chord will be minor. Example: Dm (D minor)
- A number following the uppercase letter means that those notes need to be played as well.
Example: DMaj7 (D major 7)
- A slash in the chord means that the chord must be played in a particular inversion. The note that comes after the slash indicates the bass note.
Example: D/F# (D major in 1st inversion)
Before we go any further, it is important that you understand what an inversion is before you begin to play slash chords. An inversion is a chord where the root note is not played in the bass, or lowest note.
This is why knowing your chord tones is so important: the lowest note of the chord is not always an indicator of the chord. Additionally, the order of the chord tones do not change that chord.
There are 3 possible inversions that a chord can be organized (4 inversions for 7th chords).
You are most likely familiar with the first one. Let’s go over all of the chord inversions.
The root of the chord is played in the bass.
The 3rd of the chord is played in the bass. Also the most common inversion.
The 5th of the chord is played in the bass. Chords in 2nd inversion are more rare and only used for specific purposes that won’t be mentioned in this article.
Third Inversion (7th chords only)
Third inversion is when the 7th of the chord is in the bass. Triads don’t have 7ths, so there is no 3rd inversion for them.
Inversions have a rich history in music, not just for guitar. In the baroque and classical periods, they didn’t use slash chords, instead they used what is called figured bass. Nowadays, unless you are a classical player you really do not need to know figured bass. Lead sheet symbols are important to know for all modern players. Jazz, rock and pop lead sheets all include slash chords at one point or another.
Slash Chords On Guitar
If you want to play slash chords, you must learn your chord inversions. Start with learning chords in first inversion, as those are more common. Here are a few examples of “slash chords” on the guitar in open position.
Examples of Usage
We can see an example of a sequence of slash chords in the jazz tune “It Don’t Mean a Thing”
In the first line and main chorus, the bass plays a descending stepwise line.
We can also see this as a form of prolongation. The composer may have wanted to take their time moving from the G min to Eb. In this way, slash chords are also a way to lessen the weight of a harmonic movement.
The notes in the bass go: G, F#, F, E, Eb, to D.
You can hear the descending bass in this guitar cover.
What are slash chords and inversions?
Inversions are chords with a tone other than the root of the chord played in the lowest voice. On a musical staff, the lowest voice is called the “bass”. On a guitar, the lowest note is considered the bass note. It becomes the note that really stands out over the other tones.
Slash chords are how inversions are notated on lead sheet music. Lead sheet music is a standard form of notation nowadays, and many guitar and piano method books use it to teach music.
What is a slash chord in jazz?
In jazz, slash chords are used as passing chords to create an ascending or descending bass line. We heard this in our example, “It Don’t Mean A Thing”
What are slash chords on piano?
On a piano, slash chords are similar. The only difference is that the bass notes are played by our left hand, instead of being played on the lower notes of the guitar.
Knowing how to play inversions and how to read lead sheet symbols is a prerequisite to understanding slash chords. Slash chords are indicators that a chord will be played in a particular inversion. The letter that follows the slash tells you which note should be in the bass.
In jazz, slash chords are often used to create a stepwise bassline. They can also be used to lessen the weight of chord changes, and to prolong them. There are other uses for inversions, such as creating a pedal tone, but that is mostly in classical music.
When composing your own music, using slash chords instead of the root position chord can really change the sound of your chord. Experimenting with chord voicings is recommended.
Learning your chord inversions is the most important step to feeling confident with playing slash chords. Practice taking a root position chord and putting different chord tones in the bass. Remember that the bass note is not always the root note, and that the bass note does not determine what the name of your chord is!