How to Use Chord Inversions to Greatest Effect

A chord inversion (“slash chord”) can add a great sense of variety to a standard chord progression.

Chord Progression Formulas eBook - Gary Ewer

GuitaristAn inverted chord (some know them as “slash chords”) are ones in which the lowest-sounding note is not the letter-name of the chord. If you play a C major chord on a guitar while the bass plays a low E, you’re playing a chord inversion. That chord would be notated like this: C/E Inverted chords are really great ways to give an otherwise boring progression a shot of energy. Here’s a quick look at the various “positions” of chords, and their overall effect: Chord Inversions Most of the chords you use are typically root position chords. They provide the most stable sound. A chord in first inversion, where the 3rd of the chord is the lowest-sounding note, is slightly less stable. What that means is that it’s not typically the kind of chord you might end a song section on; it’s often better to end on strong versions of chords. The 2nd inversion chords are least stable of all. Bands rarely just sit on a second inversion chord; it usually needs to move on to something more stable. In pop music notation, the note that comes before a slash is the chord name. The note that comes after a slash is the lowest-sounding note (usually whatever the bass is playing). It’s important to keep in mind that a chord being “less stable” is in no way meant to convey that it is somehow undesirable. “Less stable” is a tonal term, simply meant to say that it often “likes” to be followed up by something stronger, usually in root position. So how do we use inversions? Let’s say that you’ve got a song with this progression:

/   /   /   /   |/   /   /   /   |/   /   /   /  |/   /   /   /
C       F        Am     Em        F      C   G    C

Here are some tips to turn that progression into something a bit more creative, using inversions.

1. Use an inversion to add interest.

In other words, you might play this as the first bar of music in the example above:

/   /   /   /   |
C  C/E   F

An inversion used like that makes the progression more interesting by making that first C chord sound a little different before it moves on to F. It’s a nice way to add a variety of sound.

2. Use an inversion to smooth out a bass line.

You might add a first inversion to the Am chord in bar 2 as a way to change that leap to E to something smaller:

/   /   /   /   |
Am Am/C Em

3. Use an inversion to make ends of song sections more intense.

You’ll notice that the progression ends with three chords: C  G  C. By placing a G underneath the first C, you are creating a second inversion C chord (a C chord with G as its lowest note). That builds up considerable musical energy because it’s very unstable, and listeners want to hear that chord move on to something more stable, which it does when it moves to the G chord. You’ll hear that it’s a very common device used in many genres of music, from Classical to rock. With all three inversions, here’s what the progression would look like. (CLICK to listen. Opens in a new browser window/tab)

/   /   /   /   |/   /   /   /   |/   /   /   /  |/   /   /   /
C       F        Am     Em        F      C/G G    C

Using inversions haphazardly, by just tossing them in anywhere, can lead to problems. But using them mainly to add interest when a single chord is used over a longish period of time, or for smoothing out a bass line, are the two most common and gratifying ways they can be used.

______________Gary Ewer

Written by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.

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  1. Pingback: Interesting Links For Musicians and Songwritiers – July 17, 2015 | Creative Music | Inspiring Musical Creativity

  2. Use An Inversion to Amplify the Emotion

    Just something I would like to add to another Great Blog by
    Professor Gary Ewer

    Sometimes When We Touch musicn by Barry Mann is an example where
    a succesion of inversions are used as what is known as Pedal Point
    Using this method the bass note stays the same , whilst the Chords above
    the Bass note changes
    Listen to the song and studu what happens

  3. Gary, Nancy Dow here, I was in a choir once with you directing, we performed Dvorak’s Mass in D Major, is that right? I really enjoy your blog, enjoyed particularly in winter when I was jamming (piano) with my bro who plays guitar. I tune in still though on a semi-regular basis as I love the music theory stuff, I don’t know why, I just do. Your themes are very well chosen, and written. Keep up the good work! And thank you. It has been a dream of mine for some time to write a hit song. This will help. ND

    • Great to hear from you Nancy, and hope all is well with you! Great to hear you are still involved with music, and here’s to that first big hit song!

      All the best!

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