Chord inversions can help create that “walking bass” effect.
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In common usage, a chord has a minimum of three notes: the chord root (if one can be identified), plus at least two other notes. For most of the music that you’re likely to encounter in your day-to-day songwriting, a chord will be a triad, a type of chord comprised of a root, a 3rd, and a 5th. A G chord, for example, has a G, a B and a D.
The terms “chord” and “triad” tend to be used interchangeably in musical discussions, though technically a chord could be any simultaneous sounding of 3 or more pitches, even if there is no identifiable root. But when we’re talking about chord inversions, we usually are referring only to triads.
Most of the time a triad gets used in “root position,” – the root as the lowest-sounding note in the chord. So when you see a G chord in your chord progression chart, the root is the note represented by the letter name (G), and that’s the note you’ll play in the left hand of piano music, or the note that will be played by the bassist.
When a chord is inverted, it means that the chord root is not the lowest-sounding note. One of the other notes in the chord is now in the lowest position in the chord. If you invert a G chord, you’ll place either the B in the bass (called first inversion) or the D in the bass (called second inversion).
Whether or not to use an inverted chord poses two questions. 1) Does it really make that much of a difference which note is the lowest? 2) How do you use a chord inversion.
In answer to the first question, you’ll notice that inverted chords sound somewhat similar to the root position version of the triad. That’s because you’re still using the same three pitches, just with a different note as the lowest-sounding one. Inverted chords do sound slightly different, however, and the difference is usually described as a change in the stability of the chord.
A root position chord is very stable, meaning that it serves well as a final chord in a progression. A first inversion chord (with the 3rd in the bass) sounds slightly less stable – less likely to sound like a satisfying end to a progression. And a 2nd inversion chord is the least stable, very unlikely to sound satisfying as a final chord.
It’s important to note that sounding “unstable” by no means indicates any kind of unpleasantness or musical ugliness. A good analogy might be using a pillar in construction that’s thinner on one end. It won’t make sense to use the thin end downward if you’re looking for a strong corner. But as a decoration, an inverted pillar might serve a very useful purpose.
In answer to the second question, an inverted chord is a great way to smooth out a jumpy bass line, helping to create that “walking bass” sound. In Example No. 2 below, the inverted chords allow the bass to move by step, creating a whole tone and semitone motion downward.
Inverted chords are indicated with a slash. The note before the slash is the actual chord name, and the note after the slash is the bass note. Here are some examples you can try:
- G G/B C D Em
- G D/F# Em D C G/B Am D7 G
- G G/B C A/C# D D7 G
- G C G/D D C Eb7 G/D D7 G
- G Em Bb/F F Eb F G
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.
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