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Why are there two letters in the chord name? What are Slash chords?

Why are there two different letters in the chord name? What are slash chords?


3/23/21 
 
The first letter stands for the chord that needs to be played. The second letter stands for the bass note or the lowest note that should be played instead of the root of the chord.
 
For instance, in the "C" chord, the lowest note played would be "C." In an "C/G" chord, all of the notes of the C chord would ring but you would also play the low G on the sixth string (third fret). 
 
 
In the lingo, musicians would call C/G, "C over G." Meaning the C chord will literally be ringing over an G bass note. Here's a diagram of a C/G:
 
Just in case you're unsure, the bottom part of your third finger can mute the fifth string.
 
What are some common songs with slash chords?
 
This list could get long... I'm going to add more songs at the end of the article. Scroll to the bottom for the larger (incomplete) list of songs.
 

Why do songwriters use slash chords?

Songwriters and composers use slash chords to make the bass voice of the guitar more active. Also, the lowest note of the harmony changes the way the listener perceives the music.
 
Let's look at Landslide by Fleetwood Mac as an example. This song is famous for its finger style guitar part by Lindsey Buckingham. The gist of the verse chord progression is C, G/B, Am7, G/B. This basically means that the bass line is C, B, A, B. This leads to a smoother chord progression. 
 
If you are able, try playing this song with a 6th string G in bass on the 2nd and 4th chords of the progression. In other words play these chords: C, G, Am, G.
 
Sounds a lot less smooth doesn't it? All of a sudden, the song sounds ham handed. The bass is jumping around in a goofy and tubby way....
 
Check out this classical John Lennon tune:
 
 
In this example, Lennon starts with a D chord and then strangely moves to a D/A#: 
 
(D/A# diagram)
 
All of a sudden this chord brings a dark and brooding vibe that you could never get from just playing a D major chord. On its own it would be tricky to figure out where to place this chord, but after the D it creates the mood that Lennon needed for the song.
 
Continuing on, the next chord is D/B:
 
(D/B diagram)
 
With only a half-step rise in the bass voice, the color of the progression changes to a more hopeful feeling. Music theory nerds might analyze this D/B as a Bm7. Excuse the pun but that chord in isolation would be a Bm7.
 
However, in the context of the other chords in this progression, this configuration of notes doesn't really function or sound like a Bm7. Since the D Major is so clearly established at the top of the progression the moving bass line established by the slash chords allows the listener to hear the D chord in relation to the moving bass line. The D/B truly sounds like a D over B.
 
The next chord is D/C:
 
(D/C diagram)
 
C is a dissonant note against the D chord. Specifically, this would be the note that would make it a D7 chord if you played the C on the second string first fret. Conversely, in the context of this song, this D chord over a C bass note doesn't sound or feel like a D7 chord. 
 
Try it out: Play the progression D, D/A#, D/B, D/C, G. Now play the same progression but with a D7 instead of a D/C. 
 
It sounds substantially different! Yes, you can still feel the low C as a seventh of the chord but when you change the bass note to the root (D) it changes the feeling of the progression.  
 
This moving bass line has drastically affected the way the listener hears the progression. Further, these dissonant and unexpected bass tones support the ideas of the song. This makes Lennon's lyrics all the more powerful! 
 

Do I have to play that difficult slash chord bass note?

 
No! You don't have to play these bass notes.
 
In most cases you can totally skip the slash chord bass note and everything will be okay. In the best case scenario, you will be playing in a band and the note literally belongs to the bassist anyway. 
 
If you're playing by yourself, using the correct bass notes will improve the quality of the song. However, if you can't play the chord clearly or if the rhythm suffers, that will harm the music much more than skipping a bass note in order to play cleanly and in time.
 
 
 
What are common slash chords? 
 
Here are some commonly used slash chord scenarios with diagrams:
 
As mentioned above, frequently after playing a C chord songwriters, rather than playing a regular G will go to the G/B.
 
 
When leaving the G, another common slash chord move is to go to D/F# and then down to a regular Em chord. This progression is in the chorus of Landslide.
 
 
Another song that uses the D over F# chord is Plush by Stone Temple Pilots. Once the verse section of the song starts after the intro the chord progression of the song is: G, D/F#, F, C/E, EbMaj7 etc. Notice that the bass voice in each chord descends by half-step (one fret at a time) all the way through the progression!
 
This leads to a really smooth low voice. I should say that the guitarist has to play a higher voicing of the EbMaj7 because the guitar is in standard tuning but that caveat aside... the bass voice sounds good.  
 

Random tip!

Are you having trouble playing a F chord? They call it the "F chord" for a reason...

Well guess what... You don't need to play the low F on the sixth string in every instance! A lot of times you can play a F/C! F/C does most of what an F does but it doesn't necessarily require the barre. Check out the diagram:

Next time you're playing a song with the dreaded "F chord" try F/C instead. To be clear, this won't work in all cases but it definitely will sometimes. Keep an eye out for a blog about improving your barre chords.

 

Let's take a look at Can't Find My Way Home by Steve Winwood.  

 
This song really shows off how cool stepwise bass motion can sound! The intro and verse progression is Csus2, G/B, Gm/Bb, D/A. Thus, the bass line is C, B, B flat, A. If you haven't listened to the song yet click the link above. Below are diagrams of the chords he's using. Strum through them and appreciate the beauty of stepwise bass progression.
 
I hope that this has been helpful for understanding slash chords!! 
 
Keep an eye on Video Guitar Glossary for more blogs about unusual or interesting chords!!
 
More slash chord songs:
 
Tears in Heaven - Eric Clapton
Mood for a Day - Steve Howe
This Train - John Mayer
Time in a Bottle - Jim Croce
Babe I'm Gonna Leave You - Led Zeppelin 
From the Morning - Nick Drake
 
This could go on for a long time....
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