Slash Chords: How to Play Them And When To Use Them
by: B. Morgan
Have you ever been scanning through a chord chart, only to come across two chords separated by the forward slash (/) symbol?
Whether you’re a self-taught beginner or a classically trained performer, you’re bound to run into these funny looking chords from time to time. And depending on your experience with them, a few questions might spring to mind …Do I play both chords? Do I pick one or the other? Do I play a completely different chord?
The good news is that a musician at any level can learn “slash chords”, play them fairly easily, and even learn how and when to write them into a new arrangement or composition.
How Do You Play a Slash Chord?
While a chord like Ab/Eb might look a little daunting to a beginner, a slash chord is not as difficult to play as it may appear on paper.
When you play an Ab major chord, the root, third, and fifth notes in your chord are Ab, C, and Eb, respectively. Under normal circumstances, your bass note is typically the same as your root note. A slash chord, on the other hand, requires you to change the bass note to something other than the root note.
In the case of Ab/Eb (or “Ab over Eb”), your bass note happens to also be the fifth. But the bass note in a slash chord can also consist of any note that is different from the root note. Ab/A, for example, might not always have the most pleasant sound; but it is a viable chord nonetheless!
When Do You Play a Slash Chord?
The instrument you’re playing should largely determine whether you play a full slash chord or the part of the slash chord you play. Generally, the alternate bass note in a slash chord is most important to those who play around the lower octaves, as the bass note in a slash chord is meant to change the foundation of the piece.
If you’re playing the bass guitar, you will most likely want to include the alternate bass note in your playing. In fact, when a slash chord appears, a bassist might choose to only play the second half of that chord (i.e. the G# in E/G#).
A rhythm player, such as a pianist, might play the main triad with his or her right hand and leave the alternate bass note to the left hand. Similarly, an acoustic guitarist might play the main triad on the higher strings, while adding the alternate bass note on one of the lower strings.
Lead instruments, on the other hand, are not usually required to give the alternate bass note in a slash chord as much attention or emphasis. Particularly if they are playing around a higher octave, the bass note doesn’t have nearly the same impact on the direction of the piece.
When Should You Use a Slash Chord?
From a writing or arranging perspective, when should you incorporate slash chords and what do they achieve?
Well, just as inversions and complex chords widen the palette of “colors” we can use in our playing, slash chords have the potential to add a splash of character to any chord progression or song. Depending on the music, the lyric, and the parts involved, a slash chord can give your piece an entirely new feel.
Let’s use a chord progression of F – G – Am – C, for example – a progression that is prevalent throughout popular music today. While, in and of itself, the progression might sound fairly “vanilla”, there’s plenty of untapped potential for an interesting sequence of sounds.
In its natural form, this ascending progression may sound uplifting and triumphant; but tweaking the progression to F/A – G/B – Am/C – C/E injects an added sense of tension that may make your composition or arrangement sound more intense or dark. It can also make the resolution that much more triumphant and satisfying.
Similarly, slash chords can be used to transition from one chord to another. Think about the transition from a C major chord to an F major chord, for instance. F is the fourth in the C major scale, so there’s a significant jump from the first chord to the second.
Using C/E as a passing chord, however, allows you to bridge your C major and F major chords with a seamless transition. Furthermore, also including a C/D builds a C – C/D – C/E – F chord progression with a complete bass line from the root to the fourth.
Now that you know a little more about slash chords and how they are played, are you ready to tackle a few of them on your own? The next time you see a slash chord on a chord chart, don’t be intimidated! Remember what we’ve learned here today, and you’ll be able to play any slash chord that comes your way!