by Dennis Winge
A slash chord means a chord placed over a certain bass note that is not the root of the chord. The symbol F/G, for example, means an F chord with a g note in the bass. As you will see, this is really a type of G chord, whereas let’s say F/C, which is an F chord with c in the bass, is really a 2nd inversion F chord.
The distinction lies in whether or not the note after the slash is in the chord or not. You must know how to construct major and minor scales in all 12 keys in order to be able to understand this. Let’s take the key of E:
An E chord is said to be in “root position” because the e note, the root of the chord is the lowest note, or “in the bass.” If the chord is E/G#, that’s considered “first inversion” and E/B is “second inversion.” For triads (3-note chords) there are only 3 inversions – root position plus first and second inversions.
In 7th chords, such as:
…you could see E/D# which is “third inversion.” The note d# is the major 7th of the key is in the bass, so the overall effect is turning the chord into an Emaj7 chord with the 7th in the bass.
There are slash chords whose roots are not in the chord. If you saw E/A, that is really an Amaj9 chord. Why? Because the notes of an E triad are e, g# and b as we saw earlier. But now that the note a is the root, these notes become the 5th, 7th, and 9th (respectively) in the key of A. So you really have to know your music theory. It would make no sense to call E/A an E chord with the 4th in the bass. It doesn’t sound like an E chord anymore anyway.
To summarize: when the note in the bass of the slash chord is in the chord (or changes it to a different chord with the same root as we saw in the case of Emaj7), it is in an inversion. When it is outside of that, the bass note becomes the root from which the other notes are to be analyzed.
Going back to our example of E/A, why might a chart use this symbol instead of “Amaj9.” Well, if you noticed, the intervals we came up with did not include the 3rd of the A chord, namely c#. So really the exact name of the chord would be “Amaj9 (no 3rd)” or “Amaj7sus2.” To me, “E/A” is a lot simpler and more user friendly.
Sometimes certain symbols are used because the composer doesn’t want certain notes to be used. If the chord was “G9sus,” whose intervals are 1, 4, 5, b7, 9, or the notes g, c, d, f, a, an instrumentalist can choose, especially on guitar where we tend to leave certain notes out for convenience, to play the d note or not. Unlike the other notes in the chord, the d note doesn’t do much to ‘define’ the chord. You’ll hear what I mean if you play the following:
The symbol for this chord is F/G. The notes are g, f, a, and c, and there is no d. However if the composer wanted to make sure you played the d he or she might write Dm7/G. Let’s take a look at some possibilities for this voicing:
The first voicing is not very common, but the other two are. The middle one is very common but the note a is left out. This is because the 5th is commonly left out of more advanced guitar voicings. If it were just Dm7 on its own, the a note would hardly be missed, and in this case not playing it is not a big deal, but if you wanted to hear the 9th of the chord, you would have to play it like this:
To add to the potential confusion, this chord could also be called F6/G, or as we saw, G9sus. The point is to really study your music theory and know what the underlying function of a slash chord is so you can make decisions on what voicings you can comfortably grab in a realistic playing situation, even if it means leaving certain notes out.
Here is a very important point about what voicings to choose when it comes to slash chords: if you are playing with a good, strong bass player, you can leave out the note after the slash chord. In the example above, if the bassist is playing a g note solidly, then you can just play Dm7 and the overall tonality is achieved easily. It even sounds better most of the time when the guitarist is not clogging up the sound with low bass notes in slash chords. Experiment with this by playing a low g note into your looper and playing a Dm7 on the upper or middle strings, or even above the 12th fret. The separation between the two registers adds a nice bit of space.
In another article we will explore common slash chords and how they function harmonically. For now, simply determine whether the note in the bass is in the chord before the slash. If it is, treat it as an inversion (or ignore it completely if it’s too inconvenient to play on the fly). If it isn’t, and there is a good bass player, leave the bass note out and just play the chord before the slash. If there isn’t a bassist, try to determine the intervals implied and decide on a convenient voicing that might leave certain intervals out.
About the Author: Dennis Winge is a pro guitarist and educator living in the Finger Lakes Region of New York State. For guitar lessons in Newfield, NY be sure to check out his school.