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How to Understand Guitar Chords: What Are Slash Chords?

You’ll encounter many chords in your adventures on the guitar, and some of those chords will look like this: G/B, D/F#, C/G, etc.

What are those slashes? What do the letters mean? How do you play those?

Check out this video and the text below for a simple explanation that will let you never feel confusion in the face of those slashes again:

The good news is: this is a simple musical way of noting that the usual chord you’re used to playing by the name of the first letter is, in this instance, being played with a different note in the bass—that’s the second letter. The slash just separates the two to let you see them clearly.

So, G/B means you should play a G major chord with a B in the bass (instead of the G you’re used to playing).

D/F#? Play a D chord with an F# in the bass.

It really is that simple.

But why would you want to change the bass note of a chord?

Well, lots of reasons, really. Often, slash chords are used to create a specific movement in the bass line that wouldn’t otherwise occur. Take this oft-used chord progression:

C G/B Am

In this progression, the bass line descends from C through the B to A minor. If you play a normal G there instead of G/B, then you don’t get that distinctive bass movement since the low G bass note punctuates the move from C to A.

In classical music, chords that use a note in the bass other than the root note that gives the chord its name are called “Inversions.” Depending on which note you use in the bass, you’ll be in “First Inversion,” “Second Inversion” or possibly even “Third Inversion.”

If you’ve gone through my lesson on triads, then you remember that basic major and minor guitar chords are made up of three notes—the 1st, or root, note, the 3rd and the 5th from the scale that gave birth to the chord.

So if you use the 3rd of the chord in the bass, that’s First Inversion.

When you employ the 5th of the chord in the bass, that’s called Second Inversion.

And, in the rare instances when you pull out the 7th note of the chord and use it in the bass instead of the root, we call that Third Inversion.

So, for example, what inversion is G/B?

Look at the triad: G B D. The B is the 3rd, so G/B is also called G major, 1st Inversion.

How about C/G? Same deal: C E G is the triad, so G is the 5th. C/G is C major, 2nd Inversion.

Now, the other side of the difficult presented by slash chords comes when you try to actually play them. Depending on the chord and your understanding of your guitar’s fretboard, you may not know how to play “C/G.” How would you figure that out?

Well, first off, remember the traveler’s most important rule: Don’t Panic.

First, make your normal C chord. Then, hunt around and see how you might get a G note to serve as the lowest note of that chord.

In the case of C/G, you can look down to the 6th string and notice that there is a G note at the third fret of the string. Refinger your C chord to enable you to grab that low G note, and there you have it: C/G.

Slash chords are very useful and actually very common as you dig into all kinds and styles of music. Whether they go by the name of slash chords, or whether they’re inversions, just keep in mind that they help us move the bass around more flexibly than if we were confined only, always and ever just to the root note of the Chord in question.

Matt Coffman, String Love Guitar
Matt Coffman
Guitarist • Guitar Teacher
Author • Change Agent

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