When you play through chord progressions for songs you know, you’ll occasionally come across ones that involve a slash: F/A, C/G, Dm7/F, etc. These kinds of chords are called inversions, known colloquially as “slash chords” because of that slash.
As you probably know, the letter name before the slash is the actual chord that you should play, and the letter name after the slash is the note that should be played by the bass instrument, or at least should be the lowest-sounding note of the chord.
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So Dm7/F means that the chording instruments should play Dm7, and the bass instruments should play an F. If you’re a bassist and you want to improvise on that chord rather than simply playing F, you should improvise on the Dm7 chord, but you’ll probably want to make sure that the strong beats (the first and probably the 3rd beat of every bar) should have you landing on an F.
In this post, anytime I mention the word inversion, I mean it to be synonymous with slash chord.
Songwriters can get confused with regard to inversions: why do we use them or need them? What do they do to strengthen musical structure? Do I need to use them when I create a chord progression?
Let’s take a look at an example, and hopefully clear up some of the mystery behind the how and why of inversions.
Why Do We Use Chord Inversions?
This is a simple demonstration you can do using your guitar or keyboard instrument. Play an F chord. Now play that same chord, but make sure that the note A is the lowest-sounding note. You can hear that even though the chord is exactly the same (i.e., it uses the same three pitches: F-A-C), the fact that A is the lowest note modifies the sound of the chord in a very small way.
As a songwriter or arranger of music, you can use that fact — the fact that the sound changes slightly — to your advantage. Let’s say, for example, that you’ve written a chord progression in which F is held for 4 beats, then moves on to the next chords:
/ / / / | / / / / F Bb C
Now try this: instead of strumming that F chord for 4 beats, strum it for 2 beats, and then switch to F/A for the next two:
/ / / / | / / / / F F/A Bb C
This small change does a lot to improve that progression. It now makes it that you change chords every 2 beats, and that results in a more predictable and solid harmonic rhythm. That term, harmonic rhythm, refers to how frequently the chords change.
Chord Function Doesn’t Change
That progression, F F/A Bb C, shows us something important: Chord function doesn’t usually change when you use inversions. In fact, most of the progressions you know that use inversions would still work if you ignored everything after the slash. That’s not to say that it would be as good, but it would certainly work.
For that reason, it’s a good idea to work out progressions without worrying too much about using inversions, and then add them later to suit the music.
But what does that mean, “suit the music?” What can an inversion do to improve a chord progression?
Inversions Help to Create Musical Momentum
An inverted chord can help give your music a strong sense of forward motion, or momentum. Even that small example above, F F/A Bb C, shows this. If you play the first progression (without the inversion) and compare it to the one with the inversion, you should notice how the inversion seems to propel the music forward, and give it a strong sense of direction.
In that sense, it often doesn’t work well to simply throw in an inversion haphazardly, any more than it makes sense to throw a random spice into a sauce. Here are some good tips for using inversions:
- Always have a reason for using an inversion. The two most common reasons are:
- To provide a bit of chord variety. (That’s the reason F/A in the example progression above works).
- To smooth out a jumpy bass line. Let’s say your progression is: F C F Bb F. That’s a rather jumpy bass line, and that’s not a problem. If if its jumpiness bothers you, you can solve that by using inversions: F C/G F/A Bb F. Now you’ve got a bass line that moves mainly by step.
- Don’t overuse inversions. Using them here and there, and resorting mainly to root-position chords (i.e., chords where the letter name is the chord and bass note) keeps progressions sounding strong.
- If you leap to an inverted chord, try to have the next bass note move by step. Leaping around from one inverted chord to another is difficult for a listener to follow. So this isn’t so good: C F/A C/E G/B… This is better: C F C/E G. Just that one inversion makes a nice improvement over a progression with none, or a progression where all chords are inverted.
- When in doubt, don’t use them. Listeners don’t tend to miss what’s not there. In other words, they won’t be pining for an inversion if you simply resort to root position chords. Think of inversions as being like a spice added to food. A soup with a bit of thyme will taste wonderful, but if you opt to leave it out, no one will say, “Hey, where’s the thyme??”
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