Slash Chords

Do you know the steady rock tunes, where the bass player keeps hammering eigth on the same note, while the guitar chords change? A progression like

Initial example

is rather straight forward to play on a guitar. And a bass hammering eigth notes on „C“ is also pretty straight forward. But if we try to write this arrangement as chord symbols for the band, it would become something like

Initial example without slash chords

This notation stems from the fact, that we always have to use the bass note of a chord as the root. Looks rather complicated for the simple rock band scenario mentioned above, doesn’t it? Slash chords to the rescue!

General Slash Chords

A slash chord consists of the following elements:
- a chord symbol
- a slash
- a bass note

Here are some example of slash chords:

Slash Chord examples

The meaning of a slash chord is almost the same as that of just the regular chord symbol that is noted before the slash. The only difference is, that the bass note (lowest note) is not the root of the chord symbol, but rather the note mentioned after the slash. So in our examples above instead of having A, Eb or F as the bass notes of the chords, you should play a „G“ as the lowest note in all three cases. The bass note does not have to be part of the chord tones, so A7/F# would be totally valid, too.

Changing the bass note fundamentallychanges the sound of the chord, since our ear hears all the other notes in relation to the lowest note. That is why chord symbol notation allows for such a special notation to state a different bass note for a chord symbol. There is no likewise notation for other, higher notes of a chord symbol.

Alternative Symbols

Most slash chords would lead to a more complicated chord symbol, if we would write them out with the intended bass note as the root. For example

A over G

would become some kind of G chord with the 6, 9 and #11 in it, but the 3 and 5 omitted. A chord symbol like the following could be used to describe the same chord:

Complicated A over G

You can see yourself that the initial slash chord version is much easier to understand and play.

However, there are several slash chords whose alternative symbols are also quite easy to read and play.

Alternatives

What symbol is used depends on what is easier to understand or what best expresses the intention of the composer. E.g. G/A hints more at a triad structured voicing, while A7sus4 might rather hint at a clustered voicing.

Why Do They Exist?

So why do slash chords exist? Couldn’t we just use the alternative notations from above and get rid of slash chords? Let me show you some of the advantages of slash chords.

For one they can make a progression easier to understand. Look at the following progression:

Stepwise bass

Using slash chords saves us from writing long and complicated chord symbols.

Slash chords also emphasize a characteristic bass line (like the the stepwise motion in the example above). A pedal point (or drone) happens, when the bass stays on the same note, while the harmonies in the other instruments change over it. This creates a certain sound and mood and it is easy to recognize with slash chords:

Drone

Making chords easier to play is another reason for slash chords. For example

Same voicing

clearly shows you, that you need not change your voicing (although you are free to do so) through the whole progression. Only the bass note needs to move. This also shows another advantage of slash chords: highlighting common tones in a progression. This can dramatically aid you when improvising over a song and searching for natural points of rest in the scale.

We briefly talked about the possibility for a composer to hint at certain voicings for a chord symbol. G/A might make you approach the chord differently and play a different voicing than A7sus4 would. It’s like using synonym words with slightly different connotations in speech (like „morning star“, „evening star“ and „Venus“).

Last but not least slash chords can give hints as to what scales to use for improvisation over these chords.

Summary

With slash chords we can write simple ideas in a just as simple way. The rock tune from the beginning of this article simply becomes

Initial example with slash chords

Slash chords also expand our possibilities of expression when writing chord symbols. And slash chords give you as the player all kinds of hints and make the music easier to read and play. Go ahead and try to find some sheets with slash chords in them!

Matthias Orgler

I play music on stages and in studios :). My passion is to help other musicians wherever I can. With www.gixtra.com I want to make gigging easier and with my "Real World Music Theory" series I want to make music theory fun to learn.

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