Learning about slash chords from The Beatles
When learning to play guitar, or music in general, there is a seemingly limitless amount of material to cover. It makes sense to put some topics or techniques to one side to avoid being overwhelmed. ‘Slash chords’ such as D/F# are one example, where one can mostly get away with completely ignoring the letter after the slash and songs will mostly sound ok. This is great thing, since it means we can play along with our favourite tunes sooner, developing other skills such as changing between the basic chord shapes, strumming, rhythm etc. In this article I will lay out a few ways to simply start reading and playing slash chords and why you might want to bother!
I will illustrate each approach with an example from a Beatles song. The Beatles were real masters of using slash chords. Perhaps unsurprisingly they are particularly prevalent in songs written by Paul McCartney. In the examples I have not included a chord box shape- you could look these up, but an important part of the exercise is working out the shapes yourself!
Reading a slash chord
A chord symbol such as D/F# is read ‘D major over F sharp’. This means you should play a D major shape (i.e. the notes D, F# and A) and ensure there is an F# note on the bottom, i.e. the lowest or bass note. As with most chord symbols, a slash chord doesn’t tell you specifically which ‘inversion’ to play, (i.e. the order of the D and A notes, and whether any of the notes are doubled). This may seem like a lot of theory to play a simple chord, but there are some shortcuts to playing slash chords. The main prerequisite for working out these shapes ‘on the fly’ is knowing the note names on the 6th and 5th strings up to roughly the 5th fret.
The simplest slash chords to read are ones which use one of the ‘open’ chord shapes (ie our friends from CAGED). In these cases we simply play the well known chord shape and either modify the lowest note played, or add an additional note, depending on how many fingers or strings we have spare. Here is an example of each:
D/F# – Normally a ‘D’ shape is strummed from the 4th to 1st string, having the open D on the 4th string as the bass note. The only option to add the F# is the 2nd fret of the 6th string. (The 4th fret of the 4th string is too high to function effectively as a bass note). Note the thumb is often used to play the bass note on the 6th string and mute the 5th string simultaneously, this may take a little getting used to.
C/B – Normally a ‘C’ shape is strummed from the 5th string to 1st string, having a C on the 5th string as the bass note. This C note is simply shifted down one semitone, from the 3rd to 2nd fret of the 5th string to add the B note. Make sure that you definitely don’t play the E note on the open 6th string, it’s even more important this is muted than when playing a normal C shape (which you now know would technically make it C/E!)
When deciding whether to modify a note or add an additional note on a spare low string, if there are multiple valid choices you probably want to pick the one ‘closest’ to the notes used by the previous or next chord in the progression.
Some slash chords may sound more complex such as C#m/G# (used in ‘Something’). For this one we can take the barre chord shape for C# minor rooted at the 4th fret of the 5th string, but instead use the index finger to play the G# on the 4th fret of the 6th string, muting the 5th and 1st strings, and leaving the C# minor triad on the 2nd 3rd and 4th strings. This can be used as a ‘sliding’ chord shape for any minor chord with it’s fifth in the bass.
Note that the slash ‘name’ for a chord is only one of the many names describing a given set of notes. For example Am/F# could also be called F#m7b5 since they both have the same set of notes (F# A C E). Unfortunately there is no simple rule here, it depends on the context in which they are used, but ultimately the name is just a guide for other musicians, it doesn’t change the sound
How Slash Chords Can Be Used
If you strummed the C/B, you may not have really liked the sound, since it is a little dissonant and can be a bit ‘muddy’ (due to the B on the 4th string and the E on the 4th string), and you may be questing when this chord is useful. Below are four ways in which slash chords can be used within songs, with an example for each.
An easy use of slash chords is to create a ‘drone’ bass note which other harmonies are played against. ‘Eight Days a Week’ is an example of this with the progression D E/D G/D D. When working this one out, remember you don’t have to use all 6 strings!
Probably the most common use of slash chords is to create linear movement in the bass voice during a chord progression. In other words a simple melody or baseline consisting of notes moving directly upwards or downwards in sequence by either a semitone or whole tone. This creates a very pleasing effect which smoothes the transition between chords. An example of this is ‘Penny Lane’ which uses a long progression in A major A A/G# F#m7 A/E D Bm7 E7sus4 E7.
This starts with a descending bass line (A, G#, F#, E, D) which makes it sound much more interesting than the simpler A A F#m7 A D Bm7 E7sus4 E7 where the ear has very little to ‘get a grasp of’ in the first 4 bars. It’s so effective that the same 4 initial chords are used in the famous bridge of ‘Hey Jude’.
As linear movement of the bass line is a form of voice leading between chords, it can also make modulations or key changes sound smoother. An example of this is leading out of the chorus of ‘All you need is love’ from D major back to G major of the verse. G A D D G A D D G B7 Em Em/D C D G
Lastly, sometimes slash chords just sound interesting and add a different colour to a chord progression. A favourite example of a nice sounding non-diatonic slash chord which doesn’t obviously form a linear bass line or drone is the Fm/Ab chord in the following progression in C major from ‘Hello, Goodbye’ C C/B Am Am/G F Fm/Ab C
I’ve shown a few different ways in which slash chords can be used, and demonstrated with examples from the Beatles back catalogue. A great exercise is to try and find some examples of your own, or even better, try and write a chord progression using each method. Let us know in the comments how you get on!