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Chord Nerd Tip #6: Understanding Slash Chords

Posted by Banjolio on Monday, February 3, 2014

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Have you ever looked at a lead sheet or chord chart and found chords written like these?

C/E  C/G  Dm/C#

They may look confusing at first, but once you understand the concept, they’re easy—and useful.

Chords like these are called slash chords. To the left of the slash is the actual chord, and to the right of the slash is the bass note, or lowest note (since we don’t really have bass notes on the banjo).

In other words, this is a way to indicate what inversion of the chord to play.

Inversions

If inversions are new to you, here’s a quick explanation. Chords have certain notes in them—a C major chord has the notes C, E and G. If you play a C, E and G together, it’s a C major chord, no matter what order they’re played in.

Note: We're in open G tuning (gDGBD), and I give the frets for strings 4 ,3, 2, and 1. So, an open G chord is: 0 0 0 0.]

For instance, if you play the open C chord: 2 0 1 2, you're playing the notes EGCE—all notes of the C major chord.

You can also play 5 5 5 5, which is GCEG, also all notes in the C major chord.

And you can play 10 9 8 10, which is CEGC, again all notes in the C major chord.

These three ways to play C (and there are more) all sound like C major chords, but they also all sound a little different, because the notes are in a different order—different inversions.

Slash Chords to Indicate Inversions

So, the slash chords C/E and C/G are just ways to tell you which inversion of the C major chord to play. (Or which inversion the author or arranger thinks will work best for this song.)

If you don’t know that inversion or don’t have time to figure it out, then you can just play the chord any way you want and ignore the letter to the right of the slash. If you’re playing with others, then the bass and/or guitar will hit that note lower than you can, so you don’t have to worry about it.

FYI, C/E can be played 2 0 1 2, and C/G can be played 5 5 5 5.

Slash Chords with Extra Notes

Sometimes, the note to the right of the slash isn't in the chord on the left. For instance, G/F, which can be played 3 0 0 0. That F is the flatted 7th of the G scale, so this becomes a G7 chord. Why not just say G7? Because the arranger thought it sounded better with that F note in the bass. (You may prefer to play it another way.)

Sometimes using a slash chord like this actually simplifies things. For instance, someone gave you a chord chart with a D minor major seventh chord (DmM7), you may have to stop and think about it, but if it said Dm/C# you could just play a Dm chord, or if you're feeling fancy, throw in a C# (ideally as the lowest note, but that doesn't always work on a banjo, so throw in any C# and it'll sound OK).

Slash Chords on the Banjo

Because we don’t have bass notes like guitar, bass and piano, we can just ignore that note to the right of the slash.

I repeat: we can ignore it. But sometimes that note adds a lot and is worth exploring.

For instance, let’s take a look at the first 4 bars of Blue Skies by one of my favorite songwriters, Irving Berlin—it’s also the first 4 bars of Russian Lullaby, also by Irving Berlin.

Here it is in standard chord notation:

Dm    |DmM7  |Dm7   |Dm6  |

Here’s the same thing in slash chord notation:

Dm/D |Dm/C# |Dm/C | Dm/B|

The top version may seem complicated with the minor 7th and minor 6th—the kind of thing only chord nerds love.

The second version, may be easier to visualize once you mentally separate what's on the left side of the slash from what's on the right side. One approach is to just play Dm for the whole 4 bars. But look at the notes to the right of the slash: D, C#, C, and B. This is a chromatic run, starting with D and going down one fret each measure.

Now, if we play the first Dm/D chord 0 2 3 3, we have a nice low D on the bottom, but there's no way to lower that note (without messing with the tuning peg).

So, when playing slash chords on a banjo, to take advantage of these notes, we have many options, including these two:

  1. Move up the neck to allow room for all the slash notes at the bottom of the chord, as shown in this tab, with the slash notes doing a walk-down on the 4th string:

I had a request for fingering for the first tab. Here's one way to do it (the numbers are fingers ... 1=index, 2=middle, 3=ring, 4=pinky):

The only moving note is on the 4th string--the three notes (a Dm chord) on strings 1-3 stay the same throughout, but you have to change the fingering a bit to play it.

  1. Or play those slash notes up higher in the chord as in this tab with the slash notes played on the 2nd string (tune the 5th string up two frets to A):

Both of these sound more interesting, and more like the songs, than just playing a Dm all the way through.

Conclusion

Don’t let slash chords scare you off. If you’re a beginner or in a hurry, just play the chord on the left. If you have the time to experiment with the notes on the right side, you may find some really good-sounding music.


Michael Bremer is a writer, editor, publisher and banjo player. He is writing and publishing the Banjo GED series of instructional materials, and also writes and edits for Hal Leonard.

Banjo GED #1: Chords! Chords! Chords! teaches you everything you could ever want to know (and more) about playing chords on a 5-string banjo in G tuning.

www.banjoged.com

Banjo Aerobics (published by Hal Leonard) is a book of exercises to help you gain technique and better understand the banjo neck.

http://www.amazon.com/Banjo-Aerobics-Michael-Bremer/dp/1480305413/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1375981686&sr=8-1&keywords=banjo+aerobics


Clawhammer Cookbook (published by Hal Leonard) will be  available any day now ...



5 comments on “Chord Nerd Tip #6: Understanding Slash Chords”

mcate Says:
Monday, February 10, 2014 @1:54:20 PM

Excellent article and great information for us beginners...thanks.

Merc70 Says:
Monday, February 10, 2014 @3:41:34 PM

How do you do the left hand on that first tab?

Banjolio Says:
Tuesday, February 11, 2014 @1:15:11 PM

Merc70:
At your request, I put in fingering diagrams.
Hope this helps.
Thanks for reading and for requesting more info.

Michael

Banjo Rose Says:
Sunday, February 23, 2014 @9:41:43 AM

This was a perfect description of this concept that I did not understand, but I do now. As an intermediate player I had figured out ignoring the note on right did not affect a song but now we have a new weapon! Thank you so much for this info.

Banjolio Says:
Sunday, February 23, 2014 @10:01:31 AM

And Thank You, Banjo Rose for letting me know that these articles are useful.
Michael

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