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In years gone by, when I saw a chord marked, for example, A, I would use any inversion or voicing I felt was appropriate - still do; it doesn't have to be root position. Or does it? Is there an untold rule that says unless a marked chord has a slash saying which inversion,(i.e.A/E, 2nd inv.) it should be played as root. It's a given that a slash chord needs (at least as far as the composer's concerned) the bass note to be that after the slash.

When did chords start to be named with slashes, and where did it come from?

  • Many web-sites public melody with slashes, for example amdm.ru/akkordi/freya_ridings/166609/castles, but when or where it come from - do not know. – nick_n_a Dec 12 '18 at 9:07
  • IMHO whether you are faithful to the notated inversions depends on instrumentation and the feel you’re going for. If I’m playing solo guitar, I’ll only follow the inversions if I can make it work. Of course with an ensemble the bass player (or whoever has the low end) is going to choose and I think more often than not it’s goong to sound best if they follow the notated bass line, unless you’re rocking it up or simplifying it. Solo keyboards is where it gets dicey for me. If I can “hear” it the way it was intended, I’ll play it that way. Otherwise maybe not. – Todd Wilcox Dec 12 '18 at 11:24
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I can't say anything about the history, but @Peter seems to have that covered in his answer.

...To Slash or not to Slash?...

If you have only one accompaniment instrument - like a piano or guitar - which needs to handle the bass - or if you are the bass player - you should be mindful of the inversion indicated by the slash. Someone filling in the middle while a bass instrument deals with those inversions has more latitude to not use the proper inversion.

While pop styles seem tolerant of 'interpreting' the chords with substitutions, different voicings, etc. classical style really doesn't allow that latitude. I suppose I am a biased snob, because I feel you must play the right inversions. Can you imagine playing highway to Hell without the slashed D/F#!

The choice also needs to be tempered with an understanding that many song books list the wrong chord symbols. I've seen many slashed, added, and sus'ed chords that are obviously wrong compared to the recorded arrangement and inexplicably try to represent non-chord tones in the melody.

So I think there is room for interpreting, but I think essential inversions should be recognized and played as indicated.

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Slash notation started gaining traction in the 1960 or 1970s. You can find them in the Real Book Fifth Edition, which was produced some time in the 70s.

There are several old interviews with jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, in which he discusses the half-diminished chord (aka minor 7 flat 5). Dizzy says that he and other early bebop musicians (specifically Thelonious Monk) thought of this chord as a "minor sixth chord with the six in the bass." So the concept of slash chords was around in the 30s or 40s, but it doesn't appear that they were using the actual slash notation at the time.

  • That's just what m7b5 is - an inversion of m6. Or the other way round - can't make my mind up! Never seen those chords with a slash though. And certainly didn't see them in the 60s or early 70s. That doesn't mean they didn't exist though... – Tim Dec 12 '18 at 15:55
  • Yes, Dizzy even says in one of the interviews that he would notate a Cm7b5 as Ebm - without a slash or even the 6. My point is that the idea was around, but the notational system came about later. – Peter Dec 12 '18 at 16:03
  • @Peter, even if Dizzy didn't write it out, would the two symbols then be Cm7b5 and Ebm6/C? – Michael Curtis Dec 12 '18 at 18:34
  • @MichaelCurtis Yes, though, I think Cm7b5 (or half-diminished) has won out in modern lead sheets. Especially in the case of minor ii-Vs: Cm7b5 -> F7 is pretty standard, while Ebm6/C -> F7 would not be as intuitive to a player today. – Peter Dec 12 '18 at 18:57
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    Here's a transcript of the interview I referenced: dh.howard.edu/hujohp_transcripts/6 - Dizzy talks about chords quite a bit in this interview, including Charlie Parker's original chord changes for Confirmation. – Peter Dec 12 '18 at 19:06
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I'd probably look for some context in the music. For a piece that uses a bunch of slash chords, I might consider voicing anything without a slash as root position. If there's only a few slash chords (or none), I'd just play whatever I felt was best for the song. This is subjective, but I'd argue that for simple piano parts, root position would be more often the intent behind "A", for example.

I know that for ukulele music, inversions are disregarded unless specified (F means 0-1-0-2 usually). I'd say probably your interpretation was correct, in that if no slash inversion is specified, it's up for interpretation.

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