Inverted chords, often called “slash chords” because of the way they’re notated (C/G: “C slash G”) can add a very useful sense of creativity to an otherwise ordinary chord progression. In fact, if you’re looking to make your progressions sound a bit more inventive, exploring ways to use inversions should be your first step.
Here’s how slash chords work. If you’re playing a C chord (called a triad because naturally-occuring chords use three notes), you’re playing the notes C, E and G. Musicians often refer to numbers when describing the notes of a triad, so they’ll call the C note 1, the E note 3 and the G note 5.
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Most of the time, the note represented by the name of the chord — called the root — will be the lowest sounding note. A triad with the root as the lowest-sounding note is said to be in root position. So the root of a C chord is C.
But you can add subtle flavours to the sound a chord makes by putting a note other than the root at the bottom. If you were to play the C chord in your band, but ask your bass player to play an E, you’ve now got this: C/E: “C-slash-E”, which means a C chord with E as its lowest sounding note.
With triads, you’ve got one more option: putting the fifth on the bottom. When you do this to a C chord, you get: C/G. So any time you play a triad, you’re either playing it in root position, or you’re playing it in one of two possible inversions: C/E (called first inversion), or C/G (called second inversion).
It’s often easier to hear the difference between the various inversions by playing them on a keyboard, because you can easily beef up the bass note with a low double octave in the left hand.
So why should you explore the use of inversions in your chord progressions? The main reason is that you subtly change the mood and aura of a chord when you put a note other than the root at the bottom. You can also create interesting bass lines.
Here are some example progressions, all of which use a standard I-vi-ii-V-I progression as a starting point. Remember, the note after the slash should be the lowest-sounding note in the chord:
C Am/C Dm G/B C
C/E Am/C Dm G C
C/G Am Dm/F G7/F C/C
If you ever experiment with pedal point (see this article if you’re not sure what that is), in a way you’re using inverted chords. That C-Am-Dm-G-C progression using a C pedal point could be written as: C Am/C Dm/C G/C C.
I really like inversions as a first step toward creating more inventive progressions. If you invert chords within a progression, the fundamental strength of the progression is still there, but the inverted chords add a nice sense of creativity to an otherwise often-used progression.
I mentioned the bass line before — it’s a good idea to think about the bass line that gets created when you use inversions. If you’re trying to figure out if you like the sound of the inverted chords you’ve put in a progression, take a look at the resulting bass line. Here’s an example of a good bass line that has inverted chords to thank:
C G C F D7 G C
C G/D C/E F D7/F# G C (Bass line: C-D-E-F-F#-G-C)
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