Music Theory Minute: Inversions
By Dave Eichenberger
The first thing we learn as guitarists are usually some basic chords. These chords contain very specific notes played with shapes that every guitarist has used for well over 100 years. We now know that in addition to the billions and billions of chords that are available to us, there are many ways to play the exact same chord. Which version of the chord you use might have to do with location: if you are playing a folky song at the first few frets, it is silly to grab one chord at the 15th fret in the middle of your chord progression. Not only will it be difficult to get up there, but it will sound funny too, as the whole low end drops out for this plinky chord in the mandolin register. However, you have other choices right where you are. The chord you might be looking for might be an inversion of a chord you already know. This article will explain what inversions are, and how they are used with easy chords we probably already know.
The Root Position
Root position chords are like most of them we know. The classical definition of a root position chord is one with the root in the bass. A C chord has three distinct notes: C, E, G. That is the root, the major 3rd, and the perfect 5th. If you play them in that order, with the C in the bass, you get a root position C chord:
Guitarists usually add another C and E above that on the B and E strings, but you really only need the first C, E, and G. The First Inversion Taking the C in the bass of the chord (the root) and putting it an octave higher leaves the third in the bass…the E. This is called the first inversion. Guitar players will see this written in a chord chart as a slash chord: C/E. We would say that it is a C chord with an E in the bass. Piano players might just say C, first inversion.
The Second Inversion
Take that E in the bass and put it up one octave, and we have the second inversion. Usually written as C/G, it sounds different than the other two C chords we played.
Using Lower Notes
In practical use, inversions can consist of any note other than the root of the chord in the bass. In other words, when you play the first inversion of a C chord, you could just as easily use the open low E string, no matter what order the rest of the notes of the chord are in. You could add the low G on the third fret of the E string for the second inversion, for a deeper sound, too. Listen to these chords with the deeper notes in the bass:
You can certainly have inversions of more complex chords. Four note chords like A7 will also have a third inversion, so you will end up with four variations: A7, A7/C#, A7/E, and A7/G. Some sound better than others, and some may be perfect for a particular sound you are going for.
Power chords can have inversions, too. While you may have heard that power chords are sometimes called fifths due to the distance between the root and the second note, if you invert them (take the root up an octave, leaving the fifth in the bass), you get two notes that are a fourth apart. Below is an example of power chords we all know and love:
Here is an example of the first inversions of power chords, which are used a lot by guitarists such as Ritchie Blackmore. Remember, it is the same two notes, in a different order (and different fingering):
Make Them Yours
Once you understand inversions, it is easy to learn chords all over the neck, providing you know or can figure out the names of the notes on each string. Try playing an Em, D/F# and G, and notice how the bass ‘walks up’ as the harmony changes. If you are bored of the same old chord shapes, and don’t need extended harmonies, try different inversions of those boring chords. You are bound to hear something you didn’t hear before, and will soon be playing them all over the neck.
What are your favorite versions of popular chords? Any favorite chord progressions you’ve been playing recently?