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We know about slash chords - when it says C/E, we play a C major chord with the lowest note being an E - 1st inversion if you like.

Just plain old C though. Does that mean it has to be played with the root (C) as the lowest note? It tends to be that way, although when I'm on bass I often play root of any chord - but on many occasions do not. As a guitarist I often play full 6 string chords, and a barred C at 3rd fret has G underneath, making it a 2nd inversion. I don't have a problem with that, even when the chord states 'C'.

It's the same on keyboards - I don't see 'C' and feel obliged to make it a root chord, even when there's no-one else playing low notes.

A lot of guitar driven sites portray chords only in root position, almost making it 'wrong' to do anything else, although I do have guitar tutor books that seem to think like I do.

Question - does 'C' mean it must be root at the bottom, or is it 'play that chord, and use your own initiative'?

Note - while this question is similar to one about slash chords, it's not asking the same thing.

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    Forgive the possible pedantry, but are the asterisks in the title part of the notation in question? – Richard Jan 25 at 19:09
  • @Richard - you've noticed poss. ped. - but here, I was let down by the way one uses ** ** to highlight certain parts of print... it didn't work, and I couldn't be ...... to edit. We don't often see chords designated with asterisks, I think! – Tim Jan 25 at 19:16
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    Somehow I'm just as confused as I was when I first commented! :-) – Richard Jan 25 at 20:32
  • @Richard - when one types out on this site, there are certain 'things' that are available, one is that when one uses '**' it places letters into bold. This is apparently unavailable in titles. God knows why - 'cos I don't! – Tim Jan 25 at 20:40
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    FWIW, title doesn't support any markdown, so it's better to remove the non-functional bold markdown than making the readers confused... – Andrew T. Jan 26 at 6:42
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I don’t think C alone means it must be in root position. However a slash chord denotes what must be the lowest note. This may be because that bass note is walking down or creating tension in a way that is instrumental (no pun intended) to the song.

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Lead sheets are generally intended to be used for improvisational performance. So nothing has to be anything. Even if you see C/E you might choose to play some other bass note than E for part or even all of the period during which that symbol is in effect. But if you do, it might sound rather less like it does on the recording :-)

If no bass note is indicated, you have a few possibilities: the composer or arranger did not know about slash chords (unlikely but possible) or did not care to specify the inversion (more likely) or did intend to specify a root position chord (probably the most likely). You can judge which one is most likely in a particular instance based on the context. For example, if many other chords in the same chart are slash chords then it's almost certain that the symbol is intended to specify root position.

But, once again, the specification of the bass note does not mean that it is wrong to play other notes. In particular, bass parts often play the nominal bass note only at the beginning of the measure, moving to another chord tone soon thereafter. This is frequently ignored in the lead sheet. And, in the name of improvisatory creativity, one can play an entirely different chord. If that's okay, it's surely possible to play the same chord with a different bass note, as long as it sounds good.

Sometimes a song has a particularly distinctive melody in the bass. In such cases, lead sheets often take pains to reflect this with slash chords. This goes back to the concept of "context" mentioned earlier: in these cases one will want to think extra carefully about whether it's a good idea to deviate from the specified bass notes.

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TL;DR: when you see a plain "C" chord symbol, having C as the bass note is the only safe option that's not wrong. (Except if there are instructions to not do that, or if you know that the written chords are wrong to begin with)

Musical notation, including chord symbols, is written communication from people to people, happening in a cultural context. It is subject to the same phenomena, deficiencies, mis-interpretation, guessing etc. as any other kinds of written communication from people to people. The writer writes something in order to communicate ideas and to cause some actions to happen with the readers.

What do writers expect to happen if they write a "C" chord symbol? Most of the time in simple pop songs they want to tell the reader that a C major chord with C as the bass note should be played, at least on a rhythmically strong moment. I don't think music writers are offended if someone plays something slightly different, or plays a walking bass line or something, as long as it's done with good taste and without putting the composer or arranger to shame. If a C/E sounds good there and serves your musical purpose, go for it. It's easier to just do it and apologize later than ask for permission...

However, if the chord symbols are meant to be used as a strict harmonic analysis, then it means the notes C, E and G and C being the lowest note. Whether it's a practical lead sheet for a pop song, or a theoretical harmonic analysis - I hope people can tell the difference!

What do readers expect from chord symbols? I think that there's an implied promise, "if you act according to these instructions, then it will sound at least roughly like the song you expect to hear." I guess many people have been disappointed by the approximations in pop song books not really fulfilling that implied promise. If you look at transcriptions of pop songs, there might be lots of sounding notes on a definitive popular recording in addition to C, E and G - or even completely different chords - but still it's just written as "C". Why? Maybe for the sake of simplicity, or the transcriber's decision that extra notes aren't really relevant. Or perhaps because the transcriber was in a hurry or lazy, or wanted to get credits and money for making an "arrangement". ;) Then someone looks at the transcription and complains about it being "inaccurate". Sure it's inaccurate, it's always a compromise. So, if you see just "C", but you know it's wrong and your audience expects a C/E, then play C/E! ;)

What comes to guitarists - if there's a bass player who's playing lower than you, then by all means play any kind of inversions you want, as long as you don't make a low-frequency mess by stepping on the bassist's toes. It may make the sound more open if the bass notes aren't always doubled. And it might even be better for guitarists to avoid low notes completely, to avoid clashing with a bass line, if the bass player likes to improvise and if the bass isn't 100% tightly coordinated between guitar and bass.

A lot of guitar driven sites portray chords only in root position, almost making it 'wrong' to do anything else,

This is a good point. I think it would be great to remind guitarists that they do not have to play all the low notes indicated in the fingerings. It might make the chords sound more interesting if you leave out the lowest notes and let the bass player handle the bass.

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It depends on both your instrument and the style of music.

In jazz, for example, the (double) bass will often play C, but the piano might well play a "rootless voicing", which means - roughly - anything vaguely in a C chord except for C. In certain styles of jazz, the chord (G,B,E) might be a decent but bland choice. This might look like E minor in 1st inversion, but it will sound like C major 7 when the bass plays the C. The idea is to play the 3 and 7 (E and B) which define the color of the chord, but let the bass play the root (C). The G is optional. Now, back to that bass. In a "walking bass line", the bass might play C on the down-beat, but might play something like the sequence (C E D B) on beats (1 2 3 4). And maybe there's a saxophone, which gets to play whatever it wants, including the occasional Eb and Gb. The basic rule is that the highest instrument gets all the fun.

In a blues song, the bass might play something like (C E G A Bb A G E) over 2 measures. If you play it, you'll recognize it. I've flatted the B because the basic blues chords are all mixolydian (flatted 7) whether it says so or not.

In standard rock, usually the lowest instrument plays the root - in this case, the C - at the bottom of the chord. The simple (C,G) is a "power chord". In a ballad, the first inversion often has a "sophisticated" sound. In certain genres, alternating between C and (down a fourth) G half-notes is standard, particularly for the brass section. Again, play it and you'll see what I mean.

So, the answer to your question "do I have to play C as the lowest note" is "definitely not". But the answer to the obvious follow-up question "what should I play, then?" is a slightly less helpful "it depends".

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When 'C' is written, C/E or C/G might be OK. When 'C/E' or 'C/G' are also found, the instruction becomes more specific.

Of course, players will often elaborate on (or just plain disobey) these instructions! If you want to be sure of what's played, use notation.

And, of course, if you're the guitarist, or the keyboard player, and another instrument is taking the bass line, THEY decide what the inversion is. The voicing of your contribution is harmonically unimportant.

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If it says a C chord, then you should be playing the C, E and G notes, with a C being on the bottom. Of coarse, you have musical freedom to do whatever you want, but the primary motif of the song indicates that a C should be on the bottom.

If it says a C/E, then you play the same C, E and G notes, with an E on the bottom.

If it says a C/F, then you play a C, E and G with an F on the bottom. This has a more dissonant sound, but that is how you read the chord.

You can, for example, have many complex variations of inversions. For example, one could play a C9(b5)/G. All that means is that you are playing all the notes of the top chord, and then you are playing the bottom note in the bass, even if it is not part of the top chord.

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  • C9(b5)/G wouldn't really be a chord that we meet at any time in our career. Playing a b5 with a P5 higher is hardly feasible. – Tim Jan 25 at 19:34
  • My point was that you can play a note in the bass that may or may not be a part of the main chord. I actually own a major music publishing company, and I'm involved in transcribing music for a living. We have transcribed thousands of songs, and almost every day, I deal with chords of this nature. There are a lot of different kinds of unique chords. The main point here is, no matter what the chord is, there is a way to transcribe it properly, and interpret it properly. – Ryan Dahl Jan 26 at 23:47

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