Theory for Idiots: Chord Inversions

In this episode of ‘Theory for Idiots’, we take a look at chord inversions. If you feel like a bit of an idiot when it comes to music theory, then keep reading!

So, hopefully you’ve followed this series and already read up on what makes a chord (or you already know that part). In this lesson, we’ll be using that knowledge to (hopefully) make our chord progressions much more interesting.

How to ‘invert’ a Chord

So, your basic chord has three notes:

  • The root– which gives the chord it’s letter name
  • The third– which tells us if the chord is major or minor
  • The fifth– which acts as a ‘thickener’

This can be best shown on the guitar in an open C chord, which has the notes (low to high): C, E, G, C, E. Below you can see the chord diagram with the first three notes labelled.

This chord is in root position, because the root note is the lowest sounding note. Now, the basic idea behind chord inversions is that we switch up the order of these notes. More specifically, we’re putting a different note in the bass– which means we’re changing the lowest sounding note of the chord.

Now, the first inversion of this C chord would have an E as the lowest note. Here is an example of what our new chord might look like:

So, instead of ‘C E G’, this chord now goes ‘E G C’- the order of notes has been inverted. This is the theory behind a ‘chord inversion’.

Following the same logic, the second inversion has a G on the bass. So, the notes will go either ‘G C E’, or ‘G E C’ instead of the original ‘C E G’. Below is an example of how that might look.

Using Chord Inversions in Songs

Right, so that’s the theory…

…however, theory isn’t ever much good on it’s own!

We’ve learnt that a ‘chord inversion’ is when you change the order of notes in a chord, but what this means in practice is that you can use parts of chord shapes. This opens up the way to making your chords much more interesting.

For example, let’s take a fairly standard chord progression:

This sounds fine, and works well played like this…but it’s pretty boring. So, let’s swap these chords for inverted versions:

See, we’re using exactly the same shapes on the fretboard, but changing the lowest note that we’re playing. Now we can add a rhythm, and produce something a bit more like this:

…or we could apply the same idea to something a bit more ‘rock’…

Check out the video for how these examples sound.

In Review

So, this is a fairly basic concept: we’re mixing up the notes in a chord, or (more specifically) we’re changing the lowest note. It’s important to remember that we can’t just change it to any note and call that an inversion- it has to be a note already in the chord.

For example, a C/E is an inversion, but a C/F is not, because there is no F note in a C chord.

In practise on the guitar, this means we can play only small parts of larger chord shapes. We then saw how these might be used in rhythm guitar parts.

Try experimenting yourself, to see what you can come up with!

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