Simplifying Slash Chords

Most of my beginning guitar students have no problem strumming through songs with basic open chords, but faced with symbols like G/B (which are commonly called “slash chords”), they often get that panicked deer-in-the-headlights look.

Experienced theory maestros recognize these symbols as representing inversions—chords that are voiced with a note other than the root as the lowest note, but newbies needn’t fear. It doesn’t require a degree from Juilliard to come to terms with slash chord grips—once you understand how to interpret them, how to finger them, and when to use them.

Reading a slash chord symbol is a breeze. The letter to the left of the slash represents the chord name. The letter to the right simply specifies the bass note (lowest note) of the chord (which is often a chord tone but never the root). For example, when you strum a plain old G chord, the G root note is in the bass, but a G/B is interpreted as a G chord with a B note in the bass, and is called “G over B.”

Ex. 1 shows three common open-position slash chord voicings: the aforementioned G/B, C/G (a C chord over a G bass note), and D/F# (a D chord over an F# bass note). They’re really no trickier to finger than their root-position counterparts, but here’s a hip-grip tip anyway: On the C/G and D/F#, mute the open fifth string by slightly bending downward the finger that’s fretting the sixth string.

Because slash chords allow you to alter the lowest note of a chord, they are invaluable in progressions that have ascending or descending stepwise bass lines—lines that move to adjacent scale tones. Play the bass line in Ex. 2 and notice the stepwise movement from C to B to A to G to F# then back to G in the first three measures. Now play Ex. 3 and see how the slash chords are deployed to replicate the silky-smooth bass line movement from Ex. 1 underneath the arpeggios. This tactic is a staple of coffeehouse folksters everywhere and a great way to sweeten your own solo-guitar arrangements. Feel free to play Ex. 2 with either a pick or your picking-hand fingers, but be sure to let those chords ring out.

The R. E. M.—approved jangle of Ex. 4 makes use of D/F# in the third measure to complete an ascending bass-note climb (E, F#, G, A) underneath the chord progression. Strike the bass notes of each chord separately and emphasize the second, third, and fourth strings when you strum to create the illusion of two distinct parts being played—bass line and rhythm accompaniment. This is infinitely cooler than just hacking away at block chords, and is an ear-pleasing demonstration of how incorporating a few slash chords into your playing will allow you, too, to slash and burn.