Inverting Chords to Smooth Out the Bass Line

Chord inversions (“slash chord”) add forward motion and musical energy to a song. Here’s more.



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George HarrisonIn The Beatle’s “Something” (George Harrison), Paul McCartney creates a stepwise bass line at the end of the intro, as well as the end of each verse:

Something - George Harrison


It’s the G/D chord that creates the smoothed-out bass line. G/D simply means a G chord with the note D in the bass. It’s a type of chord called an inversion, something you may know of as a “slash chord” due to the common way it’s notated: with a slash between the chord name and the bass note.

In pop music genres, the most common reason for using an inversion is exactly for that reason: to smooth out the bass. Without an inversion (i.e., playing all chords in “root position“), the bass in “Something” would have given us the following notes: F-Eb-G-C. With the inverted G chord, the bass creates a stepwise line: F-Eb-D-C.

It’s not necessary to smooth out bass lines; it’s purely a matter of taste. Sometimes it’s a matter of genre. Supergroup Genesis made great use of bass pedal point, a technique of keeping the bass on one note while the chords change above it: the ultimate in smoothing out the bass. “Cinema Show” is a great example. (LISTEN)

To use inversions as a way of smoothing out the bass line, here are some tips:

  1. Make sure that the root-position version of your chord progressions work. Don’t necessarily think of this as a rule, but getting your root position chords sounding good almost always means that you’ve got a better chance of making inversions work.
  2. Don’t use too many inversions in a row. A progression made up of many inversions one after another has the effect of making a progression sound unstable.
  3. When deciding to use inversions, always make sure the bass line makes sense. For example, the following progression will sound disorganized and unstable, mainly due to the bass line that happens: C/E  F/A  G/D  C/G. (LISTEN) That’s certainly not to say you won’t at some point find a use for it, but it will compromise your musical intentions in most pop genres.
  4. Any inversions that create a stepwise bass line should work. And this is often something you can work out on paper before trying it on your bass, if you know a bit of chord theory. Write out your progression, then write the notes you’ll find in each chord. Circle bass notes that move (as much as possible) in a stepwise way. Make sure that at least half or more of your chords are root position (i.e., not inverted) and you should be fine.
  5. Inversions often sound better when used on weak beats. A weak beat simply means a beat that’s not the first one of a bar. Audiences often expect a stable root position chord on beat 1 of a bar. Having said that, you can get an interesting effect by inverting the first chord of a bar, as The Beatles did in “Dear Prudence”, at the start of verse 2. That bass line, by the way, is interesting for the fact that it operates as a double line: an upper line that moves downward in a stepwise way, and a lower line that acts as a bass pedal point.

Here are some standard progressions, all of which feature some smoothing out of the bass line by using inversions:

  1. C  Dm  C/E  F  C/G  G  C
  2. C  G/B  Am  Am7/G  F  C/E  Dm  C
  3. C  G/D  C/E  F  C/G  Am  G/B  C
  4. C  C7/Bb  Am  C/G  F  C/E  Dm  G  C 


Gary Ewer

Written by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.

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