guitarist - songwriter

The Use of Chord Inversions in Pop Songwriting

An inverted chord is one in which the lowest-sounding note of the chord at any given moment is not the root of the chord. Inversions have a subtle way of manipulating the mood that a particular chord conveys, and can be a really great tool for songwriters looking to make their chord choices sound more sophisticated.

Most chords in the pop genres are 3-note triads. For example if you play a C chord, you’re playing or strumming the notes C-E-G in any arrangement up and down the octaves of an instrument. As long as the lowest note is a C, you’ve just played C.

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But try playing that C chord with an E or a G as its lowest-sounding note. The basic quality (by which we mean whether it’s major, minor, diminished or augmented) of the chord stays the same, but that different note in the bass makes a slight difference in the sound of the chord.

You can show an inversion in your chord progression by using a slash between the chord and the bass note. For example, if you play a C chord with an E in the bass, you’d write: C/E. The slash separates the chord name from the bass note, and it’s why they’re also called “slash chords.”

But how do you use chord inversions in a progression? In the pop music genres there are two likely reasons why you might choose to use an inversion:

  1. An inversion offers a variety of sound if your progression requires you to strum one particular chord for a long time.
  2. An inversion gives you the opportunity to create interesting bass lines.

Let’s say that you’ve got this as a progression:

/  /  /  /  |/  /  /  /  |/  /  /  /  |/  /  /  /  |... 
C                         Dm           G            ...

As you can see, you’re required to play the C chord for two bars. You can alleviate the potential boredom that comes from holding on to that C chord for so long by putting C/E as your chord for the second bar; a C chord with an E in the bass.

/  /  /  /  |/  /  /  /  |/  /  /  /  |/  /  /  /  |... 
C            C/E          Dm           G            ...

Notice now in the second bar that the bass note has moved up to E. You still the C chord being played, but the bass note has changed. Along with that change comes a subtle change in the mood and effect of that chord. And because the bass moves upward, you add a bit of interest to the bass line.

Play the two sound samples above a few times to try to catch the subtle difference.

Putting the E in the bass means that you’ve put the third of the chord as the lowest-sounding note. (C is the root, E is the third, and G is the fifth.) If you’re a keyboardist or a guitarist, try playing that second chord with G as your lowest note, and you’ll hear another subtle change in the sound.

Chord inversions, or “slash chords” are a great way to add a bit of variety to your chord choices. You can go back to older progressions you’ve used in previous songs and then change your choices and see what it does for the mood of your music.

I wrote a blog article recently about Derek & the Dominos “Layla”, and that song’s final section — when it changes to the piano accompaniment — is a great example of a progression that makes use of a chord inversion:

/  /  /  /  |/  /  /  /  |/  /  /  /  |...
Db           Db/F         Gbadd9...

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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