A Complete Guide to Slash Chords

Updated August 15th, 2023 . 

Published Categorized as Chords

So, you are just about sick and tired of regular old chords and want to add some spice to chord structures, whether they be yours or not? Or, perhaps you are simply looking to learn a little more about the way chords work, how they are formed, what they are comprised of, and what they intend to do with their might?

Well, you have arrived in the right place, for today we will be briefly elucidating for you the in’s and out’s of slash chords – the space they occupy on their own and in relation to their more usual chordal brethren.

What Are Chords?

Before we go on to identify just what exactly slash chords are, we must first begin to understand what a chord is in itself.

In any kind of music, we can think of a chord as more than one note being played simultaneously. If you hear two or more notes played at any one time, then you are hearing a chord, pure and simple. If a chord has only two notes, then it is referred to in the western classical tradition as a dyad, whereas a chord formed of three-note is called a triad.

Similarly, we can refer to a chord with four notes as a tetrad, going on and on for as many notes as one can fit into a chord, which is even a lot with both hands operating the notes on a keyboard, for example.

Chords are founded on the root note on a chord chart, the main letter that defines the chord and thus governs what it is and what it is trying to do within the parameters of western classical harmony.

Both minor and major chords can be founded on the same root note, and yet they can also be approaching tonality and harmony from diametrically opposite viewpoints, one traditionally seen as sadder and more melancholy, and the other more happy and joyous (respectively).

The other notes in a tried are referred to as the third and the fifth, for the simple reason that these are the respective scale degrees that are used to form a triad, be it major or minor: 1st, 3rd, and 5th. Thus, if we are thinking of a C major chord, the root note will be C, the 3rd scale degree will be E, and the 5th scale degree will be G, all coming together to form the C major triad.

What are Slash Chords?

So, now that we know what chords are, we can begin to understand slash chords, which are at their simplest a modification of the root note, and not such a night and day difference as that between ukulele chords vs guitar.

Where in traditional triads the root note is the first scale degree of the key of the chord, in slash chords the root note is different and placed elsewhere on the fretboard, providing interesting tensions or allowing for moving basslines to accompany the slash chord without clashing too much with various other notes.

Continuing with the example of C major, the root note is of course C. If, however, we decided to change this root note and use another, we would describe the chords as slash chords, often depicted as C/G – wherein the first letter accounts for the overall chords and the second letter accounts for the new modified root note.

So, slash chords are the main chords (slash) of the newly chosen alternate bass note, hence the expression.

Slash chords can of course feature any other random note as the different bass note and, in fact, often do, which is especially the case if a guitarist is performing the bass accompaniment alongside the chordal movement within a song (a la Tommy Emmanuel).

Very often, however, slash chords will be used more traditionally, using bass notes within the key of the song or from the slash chord in question, moving through a set series of chords tonally and sensically.

Seeing as they are essentially the same thing, many musical theorists are fond of describing slash chords as simplified versions of chord inversions, which in western theoretical notation would be depicted with more or less complicated figures of bass notes, etc.

Slash chords expand the repertoire of chord structures and inversions for those who are playing in a way that attempts to be more than one musician at any one time.

Why Use Slash Chords?

Slash chords have just about as many uses as normal chords, and can have enormous benefits:

  • Step bass lines
  • Pedal chord tone
  • Contrast & spice

Step Bass Lines

The very same slash chords that we have been discussing today can be of enormous use to composers who have the bass line and the chord of a song in mind, moving note by note to other chords and linking them together instead of jumping around all over the place, making one guitar sound more like two or three, all with very little extra effort required.

Pedal Chord Tone

Inverse to stepwise bass lines, slash chords can also provide an opportunity for composers to use a series of moving chords while still keeping them all glued together with a root note tonal center, pushing the pedal down on a certain root note and keeping it there for however long (so to speak).

This can create a specific musical effect that might be desirable for a composer, the chords ascending or descending amidst the constant tolling of the root note acting like a literal ascension or descension and exacting an almost onomatopoeic effect on the overall sound of a piece and the way it communicates.

Contrast & Spice

Aside from all these more specific effects that owe an incredible debt to western music theory, slash chords can quite simply provide some necessary spice to an otherwise repetitive and unstimulating chord progression. They can even allow you to reinvent slash chord structures altogether, whether they be originally composed by you or by a famous composer.

Even if a piece of music theory is powered by two or three chords only, the same chord inversions and common slash chords can allow a composer or musicians to reinvent these chords and make them seem more interesting despite being relatively unchanged.

Final Tones

So, there you have it! Hopefully, you are somewhat the wiser about slash chords and how they work and, most importantly, how they can be of use to you in your musical chord progression, whether this be in the ways you think about and enact your compositional ideas, or whether it is in the way you improvise through chords in general, or rather how you reinvent chordal structures altogether, be they your own or those of others.

FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions)

What does a slash between chords mean?

Put simply, a slash between chords is a way to divide usual chords from a slash chord, the latter being one of these more traditional chords with an alternate root note to the one that the chord itself implies. If we take the example of D/F#, the D behind the slash is the chord itself, and the F# after the slash is the new root note. This is a more simple way to notate chordal inversions which has the simultaneous effect of being quicker to read for someone unaccustomed to a piece of composed music during a performance.

How do you use slash chords?

Slash chords have just about as many uses and benefits (and disadvantages for that matter) as any usual chord. They can be of use to a composer looking to link a series of chords, either through a pedal note or through ascending or descending stepwise basslines. Likewise, they can allow a performer to spice up a set of chords that they feel to be unstimulating or undesirable, an imbibing character within and arguably improving the relationship between the chords in the sequence.

Are slash chords just inversions?

In a manner of speaking, yes, and some musical theorists are even partial to eschewing the use of either term in favor of one holistic term, one or the other. Where a chordal inversion might be painstakingly rendered in musical slash notation with bass notes and the like, slash chords sidestep this part of the process and simply write a chord down as it would be described with words. Slash chords are essentially a more simple way to notate chordal inversions which have the simultaneous effect of being quicker to read for someone unaccustomed to a piece of music during a performance.

By Nate Pallesen

Nate is just your average (above average) guitar player. He's no Joe Satriani, Jimi Hendrix or Jimmy Page - wait this site is about acoustic guitars (sorry) He's no Django Reinhardt, Chet Atkins, or Michael Hedges, wait? who!? He's no Robert Johnson, Eric Clapton or Ben Harper - more familiar? Anyway you get the point :-)

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