The reason for my question is because it seems like everything I read, the bass note is normally the root of the chord, but I am outlining an Am chord where E is the bass note. I thought I found an answer to my question when I read about slash chords by signifying my Am chord as Am/E to specify that the lowest note is E.

However, confusion set in when I noticed almost everything was specifically related to guitar and piano playing the chord with all notes at once. I also read that the slash chord is supposed to tell the bass player what note he/she is supposed to play (which triggered me to finally post this).

Basically, I am unsure whether or not I am breaking an unwritten rule when I outline an Am chord starting at the root, but having the E be an octave lower than normal. If it is fine, then what is proper way of notating it on actual sheet music when notating the chord?

For reference here is what I am referring to: I am going from Em (top) -> Am (bottom)

EDIT: I guess messed up the chord name. I should have said this was an Am9 instead of Am. I did intend the B note as it sounded good on an actual bass guitar (at least to my tonedef ear).

enter image description here

  • Hey @TyCobb, do you mean that you have an Am and Em at the same time, or do you mean that the last Es in your bass line have an Am chord above them? Dec 10, 2014 at 7:11
  • @BobBroadley I am outlining an Em chord (1st 2 bars in the image) and then progressing and outlining an Am chord (next 2 bars). The E is lower than my root's A in the last bar. I hope that answers your question. I'm not playing notes together.
    – TyCobb
    Dec 10, 2014 at 7:15
  • Do you really hear an Am chord in the last bar of the bottom line?
    – Matt L.
    Dec 10, 2014 at 8:12
  • @MattL. No, but as I wrote this, I was imagining following a guitar that was playing variations or notes of Am. I didn't think the bar mattered and that as long as I didn't deviate from Am, any note I played was still part of the Am chord.
    – TyCobb
    Dec 10, 2014 at 8:21
  • 1
    Does it sound good? If so, screw rules, unwritten or otherwise.
    – slim
    Dec 10, 2014 at 10:38

3 Answers 3


You're not breaking any unwritten rules here. It is in fact pretty common to use the 5th of the chord leading up to the root a fourth higher in the bass. However, in your bassline the question is if you really mean an A minor chord in the last bar. If you hear an A minor chord over both bars in the bottom line then - by definition - that's the way it is because you're the composer. But you might want to try other chords to see if it is really an A minor chord that you mean. Just two suggestions for the last bar for you to compare to your original A minor sound:

Em Bm7 (=D/B) or Em A/B

  • Thanks a lot for the info. I will try this out tomorrow after work. Question though, is it the octave difference that made you ask that question? I am curious because wouldn't my first two bars suffer from the issue? Maybe I don't understand the issue.
    – TyCobb
    Dec 10, 2014 at 8:34
  • @TyCobb: Well, in general you can have any bass note under any chord (you know about slash chords), but this bass line doesn't sound to me as if you intended very complex chords. So it's just a matter of perception and style. As for the first two bars, I hear the following chords: | Em D | D/F# Em/G |
    – Matt L.
    Dec 10, 2014 at 8:40

How you describe the harmony (chords) at a point such as the beginning of bar 4, depends upon what any chord symbols are going to be used for. There are in fact several ways to notate the passage you're describing. (For this answer I'm assuming that you do indeed want an Am chord sounding with all the bass notes in bars 3-4). Here are some options:

  • if you simply want all instrumentalists to know that an Am chord sounds throughout bars 3-4, just give them an Am symbol at the beginning of bar 3. Even though the bass line is changing through these bars, the other instruments will keep playing Am. Even putting a single Am marking in the bass part is a useful thing to do here, as the bass player will be aware that the harmony remains the same, even though their bass line changes notes. This is probably the best way to notate this passage if you feel that the bass line is an independent line, which is not integral to how the harmony functions. (Consider this example: the bass plays an A Minor scale, while the other instruments continue to play Am chords - in this case, it would be a nonsense to describe the chords as Am, Am/B, Am/C, Am/D, Am/E, Am/F, Am/G, even though this would technically describe the relationship between the continuous chord and changing bass line!)
  • if, on the other hand, you feel that the notes in the bass line are integral to defining the harmony, and so it would be useful for the other instrumentalists to reflect this this in their own choice of chord voicings/types, then yes, you could give the following chords to everyone: Am, Am/C, Am/E, Am/B. This would also be useful in a score, as it shows the overall harmony, created by all parts together. This could certainly be valid for your example; the bass line doesn't feel like an independent "melodic" line, and it's use of repeated notes and regular changes every two beats (ish) certainly make it feel like it has a harmonic function.
  • you could choose some kind of half-way point between these two sets of chord symbols. The first six beats of line two all outline an Am chord, as the bass notes are all chord tones of Am, even though the bass is changing the inversion of these chords through arpeggiation, however, the B under the last chord is not part of an Am chord. So, you could use the following: Am / / / | / / Am/B / | Again, I must stress, this only makes sense if you "hear" the Bs in the bass line here as part of the harmony (i.e. you may want them reflected in the chords played with these bass notes) rather than simply non-chord-tones independent of the accompanying chords.

TL;DR: The short answer to the very specific question about the E under an Am chord is that, yes, this is an Am/E (it is an inversion). But, bass players commonly move between chord-tones when creating a bass line to fit with a particular chord, and use non-chord-tones too. So, you could simply use an Am marking here, and consider the bass line to have a certain amount of independence from the accompanying chord.

Personally, I would favour simply using an Am marking, because I simply hear the bass line as an (reasonably) independent line, which is essentially outlining an Am arpeggio under an Am chord before ending on a non-chord-tone which approaches the root of Em strongly by a fourth. If your bass line more strongly emphasised notes which would not be expected under an Am chord, I think this would make it far more important to use slash chord notation. For instance, if the bass line were primarily using non-chord-tones, say a B throughout bars 3-4, rather than just in the last two beats, this would greatly affect the effect of the harmony, and an Am/B would be a good idea in all parts. Or, for instance, if the whole of the line used an E under the Am chord, this would merit using an Am/E symbol, for the same reason.

Lastly, with a nod to @Matt L, are you sure you want a B under Am harmony at the end of the line? I kind of like the "clash" effect you get here, but other notes might work better. If it is what you want, the distinctive sound of this chord in particular, might justify using the notation in the third bullet-point above.

  • That idea reminds me of the intro to Midnight At the Oasis - 1st chord called F#11 - Emaj 2nd inv. with F# bass.Another way to name the chord?
    – Tim
    Dec 10, 2014 at 13:25
  • It is what I intended because I did like the sound (at least coming out of my bass guitar). Playing it on my piano last night just to see what it sounded like yielded a "meh it's okay" result. I know I can use it because it can be whatever I want, but I thought I was okay because B was listed in Am9. And now I realize I probably should have said Am9... D'OH!
    – TyCobb
    Dec 10, 2014 at 16:17
  • @TyCobb - Am9 is far more often played with the B note on the top of the chord - something like A-C-E-G-B, but of course it could be anywhere. It's your tune, after all !
    – Tim
    Dec 10, 2014 at 16:29

Not entirely sure what question you're asking, but any octave for a bass note will work. When you're on, say, Am, then frequently the bassist will be playing any of the notes which constitute that chord :A,C and/or E. Certainly at the 1st and 3rd beats of a 4/4 bar - the strongest, usually. The last beat or half beat may stray so that it points to the first note of the next bar, and that particular note may or may not be in the chord, or even in the scale of the Am.For instance, going from Am to a bar of Dm, I may put an Eb as the last bit of the Am bar, going straight to the D root.

Slash chords, of which you're familiar, are the best way to show what to play, the bit after the slash being the bass part, but in my example, you probably wouldn't mark the last bit of the bar with another chord change, as in Am / / Am/Eb. It gets too messy.If the tab and dots are there, there's no need, anyway.

  • Thanks a lot for the description. I think I understand better now on what I should/can be doing in terms of following along. I think part of my problem is that I am just creating a bass part because that's all I have ever known, but never played with anyone and after many years of playing, never actually took the time to learn actual chords or theory. It was all jukebox style and random beats.
    – TyCobb
    Dec 10, 2014 at 16:25
  • I guess what I trying to get at in my last comment is that I am attempting to build a bass line first as I learn and add other tracks on top of it afterwards.
    – TyCobb
    Dec 10, 2014 at 16:39

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