This bass lesson covers slash chords and inversions. These are important chords for bass players to recognise and understand since they are a direct influence on the bassline.

Slash Chords And Inversions

The slash chord is often associated with inversions and is represented by two notes separated with a slash. The notes are either side by side or on top of each other. The note at the top or to the left is the chord being used and the note to the bottom or to the right is the bass note to be played underneath it. In a band situation the bass would play the bottom note, G, while the guitar or keys play the rest of the chord. On a single instrument such as a guitar, the whole chord would be played with the G as the lowest note.

What Is An Inversion?

Let’s take a C major triad:

1  3 5

This is known as a root position triad, but if we move the root up an octave then we get the first inversion of C major.

3 5  1

If we do this again and take the 3rd, (E), up an octave then we get the second inversion of C major.

5  1  3

This principle can be applied on a broader scale across multiple instruments. As long as the bass note is the 3rd or 5th then we have an inversion – it doesn’t matter about the order of the notes above this.

Don’t worry about the rules of traditional baroque and classical writing such as avoiding certain intervals or not doubling the 3rd as this isn’t important in modern western musicJust think of slash chords as certain chords being played over a certain bass line.

Slash chords are particularly important to us as bass players as they give us a certain amount of power in the band. If the chord being played is a C major and we play the 3rd (E) or the 5th (G), then we are inverting the chord to create a unique sound.

Try playing each inversion of C major one after the other to compare the sound of each one. 

Root position – C E G – C Major
First inversion – E G C – C/E
Second inversion – G C E – C/G

Inversions are usually used to create a more interesting root movement. Let’s take the following chord sequence for example:

C | C | F | G 

We can make this progression more interesting by using the first inversion of C major in the second bar.

C | C/E | F | G 

This gives the bass line a smoother transition from the C to the F and breaks the two bars of C major up a bit.

Let’s take a slightly more complex chord sequence and use inversions to spice up the bass line.

Cmaj7 | Em7 Am7 | Dm7 | G7

Firstly, we can invert the Dm7 so we have a 3rd in the bass. This gives us Dm7/F. We can then use the second inversion of Am7 to give us Am7/E. This allows us to stay on E for two chords and thus make the transition smoother. For the last chord, we can also use the 2nd inversion to let us stay on D for two chords. So the new sequence should look like this:

Cmaj7 | Em7 Am7/E | Dm7/F | G7/D

Try not to overuse inversions as they can throw other musicians off if you do them without warning. Changing the root notes can enhance a song but overuse can kill it. 

Chord progressions often use quite jagged root movement as the chords are not always close together. The bass can sometimes fix this by moving the roots around to create a smooth line linking the chords together. A good example is Procol Harlem’s ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale‘ (which is pretty similar to Bach’s ‘Air On A G String‘). In C, the progression is:

C  C/B | Am  C/G | F  F/E | Dm  F/C
G  G7/F | Em  Dm7  G | C  F | G  F/A  G/B

This sequence would sound very choppy played as basic triads, but changing the bass notes around creates a linear line that flows more smoothly.

We don’t have to limit ourselves to inversions as pretty much any note can be placed under a chord and indicated using a slash chord. You can have 6ths and 4ths in the bass when they work to weave a smooth line through the chords.

Pedal Notes

When we hold a bass note through several chord changes, it is called a pedal note (sometimes pedal tone). Doing this creates a variety of unusual sounds caused by the chords moving and creating tension and release on top of the static bass line. An example of this is the end of ‘Evergreen‘ by Barbra Streisand:

A | Bb/A | B/A | C/A | B/A | A 

Notice how not all of the chords naturally contain an A, but changing the chords around this pedal note creates some interesting tones.

Using Slashes To Simplify Chords

Another use for slash chords is to simplify certain chord symbols. This can be a little bit misleading but it can be a good way of describing a chord to someone who might not have it under their fingers. For example, a Cm7b5 can also be written as Ebm/C. This simply gives guitarists an alternative name for the chord so they can find it quicker.

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