In this free guitar lesson, I explain what slash chords are in music, why composers use them, and when you might choose to skip them while reading a chart.
First off, slash chords do not refer to the guitarist known as Slash of Guns N’ Roses fame. The term slash refers to the use of a forward slash in a chord name such as G/B, C/G, or D/F#.
What are Slash Chords in Music?
Whenever a chord name includes a forward slash, the letter before the slash is the basic chord and the letter after the slash is the alternate bass note. Normally, when you play a G chord, you have a G note in the lowest or bass position. The chord G/B is a G chord but with a B note in the bass position. This means you would begin strumming on B and leave the G note below it (as well as the string) out. You can also play this chord by fretting the 3rd fret of the second string too. You would call any version of a G chord with B in the bass “G with B in the bass” or “G over B” or “G/B.”
Songs That Use Slash Chords on Guitar
This chord shape is used often on guitar. A few examples include “Landslide” by Fleetwood Mac, “Stairway to Heaven” by Led Zeppelin, and “Tom Sawyer” by Rush. Using G/B in these cases makes for a nice step-down motion in the bass. Notice how the B note bridges the gap between C and A.
This same type of movement is often done using the chords G, D/F#, and Em. The F# note is the 3rd in the D chord. I like to use my thumb to fret the F#. Others prefer to use their index finger on F# and then their remaining fingers to build the D shape, sometimes leaving the first string out to simplify. You hear D/F# used at the beginning of “Free Bird” by Lynyrd Skynyrd. You also hear D/F# used along with A and G in “Highway to Hell” by AC/DC.
C Chords with Alternate Bass Notes
Some common alternate bass notes for a C chord include C/G and C/E. C/G is used at the beginning of the verse to “Wish You Were Here” by Pink Floyd. It’s followed by a D/F#. Using these alternate bass notes gives the chords a lower tonality and creates a more interesting sound in the low end. C/E is used in “Plush” by Stone Temple Pilots. The verse in this song uses the chords G, D/F#, F, C/E, and Ebmaj7. C/E is used later in the bridge as well.
Sometimes slash chords are created when two different guitar parts are combined. For example, the bridge to “Jessie’s Girl” by Rick Springfield features a guitar pedaling on a G bass note and another guitar playing the chords G, D, and A. Technically, the sound you hear is G with G in the bass, D/G, and A/G, but this sound is produced by two different guitars.
When to Skip Slash Chords
Sometimes slash chords can be left to bass players only. The interlude section to “I’m Yours” by Jason Mraz features the chords B, F#/A#, G#m, F#, and E. These chord changes are based on a descending B major scale in the bass. The F#/A# chord could be played using a few different chord forms such as “C form,” “D form,” or “E form,’ if you’re familiar with the CAGED chord system, but any one of these options is tricky to play. So, another option is to play a plain F# chord and let the bass player play the A# note.
When a bass player plays an alternate bass note, it really doesn’t matter if the guitar player follows or not. Because the bass guitar is so strong in the low end, any note played on it will clearly be established as the bass note regardless of what the other instruments play.
Keep this in mind when you play songs from chord charts and a bass player is present. Any time you see a slash chord, you can simply play the chord before the slash and let the bassist play what comes after the slash. In many cases, there’s no need to play Twister with your fingers as you try to grab an alternate bass note on your guitar if the bass player is going to play the note for you. On the other hand, if you’re a bass player, you can ignore what comes first in a slash chord and focus only on what comes second because that’s your job.