When we first learn guitar, we usually focus on learning basic open-position chords. These are sometimes called “cowboy chords”.
But on music containing chord names and symbols, we may see chord names containing a slash. We may see chords such as G/B, or D/F#. What does this mean?
And when we’re figuring out the chords in a piece we’re playing, we may find chords that are similar to chords we know, but are different in some way. What should we call them, and how should we write them?
This brings us to….. Slash Chords.
Note: This article is slightly advanced. If you’re just getting started with chords, click here to get started.
What is a Slash Chord and What Does the Slash Mean?
A “slash chord” is a chord written with two letters separated by a forward slash. (They have nothing to do with the guitarist, Slash.) Examples include C/G, Am/C, or D7/C.
The first letter is the actual chord name. in the above examples, these would be C, Am, and D7.
The second letter, after the slash, is the note to be played in the bass. In the above examples, G, C, and C.
If we were a full band or orchestra, different players would play the chord and the bass. But as solo guitarists, we have to cover all the bases. So we alter our usual chord shapes to allow for the bass note.
How to Say the Slash Chord Names
When we see a slash chord, we first say the chord name, then “with __ in the bass”. Or, “ _ over _”
For example, G/F would be pronounced either:
“G with F in the bass”
“G over F”
When in Doubt, Play the First Chord
When in doubt, we can almost always play the first chord and be safe. It won’t sound as “right” as the full slash chord, but will be the right notes.
Jargon Alert: Inversions
“Inversions” is the classical musical term for a chord with a non-root note in the lowest position.
Specific uses of inversions also have their own names and titles. And in classical musical analysis, inversions are written not as slash chords, but by the chord name followed by a couple of numbers (which is beyond the scope of this article).
But unless we’re studying formal classical musical analysis, it suffices to call them “slash chords” and recognize what they are: chords with a different bass note.
Why Use Slash Chords
Slash chords are used for a variety of reasons. The most common reasons are…
Stepwise Bass Lines
Slash chords allow us (or composers) to form bass lines that move note by note, instead of jumping around.
This can make the music sound more like two individual instruments playing a duet, instead of a melody with a bass line. The musical term for this is “polyphony”.
These bass-lines can create forward movement and propel the music forward. They can “lead” the ear toward an upcoming arrival point.
Keeping the Same Bass Note (aka “Pedal Tone”)
We can also use slash chords to keep the bass note the same while the rest of the chord changes above it.
This is called a “pedal tone”, and creates a specific musical effect.
Variation and Contrast
Slash chords can also spice up simple or repetitive chord progressions. (A chord progression is a string of chords, or sequence of chords).
Many pieces move between just two or three chords for the entire piece. Slash chords allow the composer or accompanist to keep the music interesting and novel.
What are the Most Common Slash Chords?
In theory, we can put any bass note under any chord. However, by far the most common are simple chords with a different chord tone as the bass.
Most slash chords are “inversions”. This means that the notes of the chord are the same. The difference is that a non-root note is in the lowest-sounding position.
For example, a “C” chord contains the notes C, E and G. The note “C” is the root. A slash chord (or inversion) would put either the E or G as the lowest note.
Most slash chords are “cowboy chords” with a different bass note.
So the most common slash chords will be “cowboy chords” (open-position chords) with a different bass note.
How to Practice Slash Chords
We can get along with no formal practice of slash chords. However, it may be helpful to memorize the most common slash chords so it’s easier to recognize them in music.
Scenario #1: Mainly Composed Music
If our main focus is on playing composed classical guitar pieces or arrangements, we can just keep and eye out for slash chords. Then, when we encounter them, we can identify them.
We can either figure out why the composer chose that version of the chord, or simply notice how it’s used. When we come to it, we can think of those notes as the original chord shape, altered. This will aid memory and speed up learning.
Scenario #2: Mainly Accompanimental Playing
Many guitarists play primarily to accompany singing (their own or someone else’s), or to accompany other instruments, such as in a group or circle.
If our main focus is on accompanimental improvisation (playing un-scripted chords along with others), slash chords can add interest and novelty.
Perhaps the most useful form of practice in this situation would be to identify common chord changes, and find slash-chord alternatives. In other words, we can focus on practical application.
For instance, a common chord combination is
C, G, D, G
To add variation, we can replace any or all of these with slash chords:
C, G/B, D/A, G
In time, our vocabulary will grow, and many slash chords will be come as familiar as the basic chords.
What to Do First
To get started in slash chords,
- Download and print the free slash chords sheet, and play through each of the chords.
- Look for slash chords in music you already play (if you don’t find any, or are just starting, that’s fine).
- Once in awhile, return to the slash chords sheet in your technique practice and review the common shapes.
Other than that, you can store this information away for when it’s needed, or you can create a plan to practice slash chords more intentionally. The choice is yours!