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Week 25: Slash Chords

Question: I am a beginner piano player, and I would like to ask a question about chords. In my fake book I see chords written like C/A or F/G, what does this mean? Do I play the “C chord” first and then the “A chord” immediately after, or do I play the “C chord” and the second time through this measure play the “A chord”?

Answer: Just like the topic of the previous One Minute Lesson (sus chords) your question baffles a lot of people. So here’s the explanation. What you are seeing are called “slash chords.” In a slash chord the first symbol you see indicates the chord itself. The symbol on the other side of the slash indicates a single note to be played in the bass region at the same time you play the chord. Thus, C/A means play the C major chord, but simultaneously play an A note in the bass region of the piano.

Ordinarily one would play the root of the chord in the bass underneath the rest of the chord. However, playing a non-root bass note produces some interesting chord possibilities. In many cases using the slash chord nomenclature is the only way you can notate these kinds of chords short of writing them out in full music notation. You see this notation often in pop piano music, but very few people have ever seen or heard an explanation as to how to interpret it.

We saw one example of a slash chord in Lesson 24. Here we gave the example of Bb/C. If we think of this as some kind of C chord (and the C in the bass is a clear indication that the chord might function as a C), then the notes of the Bb major triad give us the 7th (Bb), 9th (D), and 11th or sus 4 (F) of the chord.

On the other hand if the bass note is already a part of the triad as in C/E, then chances are the chord is still functioning as a C chord (with an alternate bass). If you listen to church music in general and black gospel in particular, you hear chords of this type quite often.

One remaining question is how you actually play a bass note, a chord, and a melody simultaneously. If a piano player plays with a bass player, it’s the bass player who plays the note on the other side of the slash, while the piano player plays the chord itself with the left hand and melody with the right. If you’re playing solo piano, it’s a little trickier. With just two hands you have to play a note in the bass, a chord in the mid region, and the melody on top. It’s like a juggler having to keep three balls in the air all the time.

There are various strategies for handling this that we can cover perhaps at another time.

For further information on advanced chords, including slash chords, see our program Power Chords.

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