Slash Chords – An Introduction

June 20, 2007

Chaim BursteinSlash chords offer musicians a plethora of new sonorities to incorporate into their playing and arranging.Not to be confused with poly-chords (two triads stacked upon each other), the term �slash chord� refers to a triad played over an independent bass note. There are innumerable ways in which to incorporate slash chords into your playing and writing. For the sake of time, and in the spirit of creativity, I�ve chosen to focus on three different ways to use slash chords, leaving the rest for you to explore on your own.

Our first look at slash chords will take us through their traditional usage in jazz and popular music. From there, we�ll move on to more modern uses of slash chords including techniques used in modal music as well as those of the 20th century avant-garde.

What Is A Slash Chord?
A slash chord is any triad played above a bass note: D/C, Bb/C, F/C, and Ab/C are all examples of slash chords.These four chords fall into two different categories. The first two are examples in which the bass note acts as the root of a chord, while the second two are more commonly called �inversions,� since both contain the bass note within the structure of the triad itself. Since most musicians are familiar with inversions and their usage, we�ll explore the less commonly used slash chords and their tonalities.

Perhaps the most frequent use of the slash chord is as a substitution or simplification of complex harmonic structures. Oftentimes, it�s easier to write Bb/C than Csus4(9). With this in mind, Example 1 lists some commonly used slash chords and their respective substitutions.

Example 1

Slash Chord Substitution For
E/C Cmaj#5
G/C Cmaj7(9)
A/C C7(13,b9)
Eb/C C7#9
D/C C7Sus(9) (Dom or Maj7)
Bb/C C7Sus(9)

Now that we know some commonly used slash chords, let�s take a look at a few ways of applying them to our improvisation and arranging. These chords are a great way to play �outside� of the changes when dealing with diatonic chord progressions. In addition, slash chords can be used to score horns or strings, as well as to simplify your rhythm player�s chord charts.

Most young improvisers are taught that every chord has a scale to which it is married. Next time you�re improvising and run into a Cmaj7 chord, try using some of the substitutions found in Example 1. Rather than playing a C major scale over Cmaj7, try playing melodic lines using only a G or an E triad. These will give you the chord sounds of Cmaj7(9) and Cmaj7#5. Once you get comfortable with these triads, try adding the 7th of each chord to the mix. Not all 7th chords will work well, but if you experiment these can yield some interesting results. Two of my personal favorites are Gmaj7/C, which will give you a C Lydian sound, and E7/C, which will give you a C Lydian Augmented sonority.

As composers and arrangers, we can easily fall prey to utilizing the same chord voicings over and over again. To get yourself out of that funk, try thinking in slash chords. These can be especially useful when used during cadences or high points in an arrangement.

In Example 2 you�ll find two different harmonizations of a II-V-I progression scored for four trombones in root position. The first two bars show a very typical harmonization of the progression. The second two bars show the same progression re-harmonized with slash chords. The top voice plays the same melody each time, yet is written differently to reflect the upper-structure triad used in each slash chord. This technique can be used for scoring strings, woodwinds, brass, and even vocals. Try using different inversions of the upper-structure triads. Each time you invert the triad above the bass note, you�ll get a different melody note in the lead voice.

Example 2
Example 2

Slash chords can be especially useful when you�re writing complex harmonic progressions for younger bands. Often, young guitarists and pianists don�t have an extensive knowledge of 7th chords and their extensions. If you�re dealing with an inexperienced rhythm section, try re-writing some of the more complex chords as slash chords. Most young players will have a good working knowledge of triads, and will have no problem playing a triad in the right hand and a bass note with the left. Alternatively, you may have them just play the triad while the bass player takes care of the root motion. Example 3 shows how to simplify complex chords by substituting slash chords. The treble clef contains the original chord voicing, and the bass clef shows the appropriate slash chord substitutions.

Example 3
Example 3

Try This At Home!
Hopefully the suggestions in this article have provided valuable insight into how to use slash chords in your improvisations and arrangements. Next time, we�ll take a look at some more modern applications of slash chords. In the meantime, remember to experiment. In the spirit of creativity, I haven�t covered all possible triad and bass note combinations � not by a long shot. Try developing a few of your own voicings to add to your bag of tricks.Hopefully, your search will stretch your mind and your ears, taking you to a whole new world of musical possibilities.

A graduate of Berklee College of Music, Chaim Burstein is an active jazz musician and educator in the greater Philadelphia area. He is currently working towards obtaining his Master of Music in Jazz Studies from the University of the Arts located in

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