August 9, 2011

Chord Inversions for Cool Kids: The Low Five

graphic of chord inversions low five

If I told you that there is a guitar chord concept which gets very little attention, but will teach you something valuable about chord construction – and at the same time make your guitar playing generally more awesome – you’d be pretty interested, wouldn’t you?

I would too!

Well, wait no longer, my friends. That super-cool concept is…drum roll, pleasechord inversions!

Specifically, I’m talking about what trained musicians often call 2nd inversion chords, or chords where the 5th note of the scale is played as the bass note, below the root note.

Sounds exciting, am I right? (sarcasm alert)

Okay, so it’s not the sexiest-sounding topic. But it does produce some very cool results when used at just the right time.

As a bonus, one of the all-time classic guitar riffs – “Smoke on the Water” – uses this concept, so it’s definitely a tool to keep in your musical toolbox. Let’s check out what I like to call the Low Five!

The Power of Letters and Numbers

When guitarists talk about the 5th note of the scale, they are usually referring to the 5th note ABOVE the root. After all, that’s the second note in the mighty power chord – there’s a root note (the letter name of the chord, for example, D) and the 5th above (in this case, A) to accompany it and give it that larger-than-life sound. This also alludes to why power chords are named with a letter and a 5; it indicates the root plus the 5th above (D5, for instance, is just D plus A).

Rock music is virtually built on the power chord; the combination of root note and 5th above played through a cranked-up amp is glorious! Heck, even playing power chords on an acoustic guitar sounds great.

But rockers did not invent the power chord (although I’d bet the house they gave it that name). We can actually trace the use of “power chords” all the way back to the Middle Ages, where monks were rockin’ some vocal power chords of their own. The wide, hollow, and powerful sound of Gregorian chant is built on intervals of roots and 5ths.

There is also a sonic stability in the sound of roots and 5ths that is absent with more “character” notes like 3rds, 6ths and 7ths; that stability is why power chords sound good with distortion.

But the monks also knew something that the average rocker doesn’t really pay much attention to: the righteous power chord can be just as effective if the notes are inverted.

Chord Inversions, or Upside Down You’re Turning Me

photo of Machine Head album cover by Deep Purple

It’s as simple as this: instead of adding the 5th note of the scale ABOVE the root, you find that same note, an octave lower, BELOW the root. This produces what we refer to as an inverted power chord.

Probably the most famous example of an inverted power chord in the classic rock genre is the opening riff to “Smoke on the Water” by Deep Purple. Guitarist Ritchie Blackmore inverted his power chords to produce a sound that was a bit different from the standard, root-on-the-bottom power chord. If you’re playing this riff with regular power chords, you’re actually doing it wrong. Get inverted, baby!

The inverted power chord also works like a charm when it’s used strategically for effect. In modern rock it might be used when you’re going for a heavy, rich power chord sound (think Foo Fighters’ “My Hero”). It’s also a great tactic for dramatic effect on specific chords, like the final C power chord of Aerosmith’s “Dream On” or the final D of “Jessie’s Girl” by Rick Springfield.

Check out this video on Inverted Power Chords:

It’s Not Just For Power Chords Anymore

Truth be told, I learned of this technique when I was a young guitarist strumming my acoustic.

The more experienced players I knew would sometimes add the “low five” on open position chords to create a thicker sound than the standard chord would allow. Specifically, players will add it to a C chord to get a heavier, richer sound (like “Best of My Love” by The Eagles, or the intro to David Bowie’s “Space Oddity”), and that’s the way I first saw it applied.

But my favorite acoustic application is using the lower pitches to widen the sound of a smaller, 4-string open chord, like D, Dm, F or Fmaj7. Going from a 4-string chord to a 5-string chord yields a dramatic difference in sound! As a matter of fact, my standard D- and F-type chords almost always include the low 5.

Check out this video lesson on adding the 5th below in acoustic applications:

And Now A Little Chord Inversion Theory

You should note that adding the 5th below a chord to embellish it is technically changing the name of the chord. This is not necessarily a big deal, but to be completely accurate we should understand this concept.

When we see a chord name, like “D”, for instance, we are making an important assumption about that chord. We guitarists are assuming that the D note (the root note) is the lowest note we are playing/hearing. When you place any note other than the root note as the lowest note of the chord, you are making that chord a slash chord.

If a D chord had an A note as its lowest pitch, it would most accurately be called “D/A”, or “D over A”. The letter in front of the slash indicates the chord we play (D), and the letter after the slash indicates the lowest note we play (A). In the case of an open D chord, that A note would typically be played as the open 5th string. To take this concept one tiny step further, a D power chord with the 5th below would therefore be called D5/A.

Sometimes the music will dictate that you should play a chord as a slash chord, but many times you can decide for yourself if playing that low five will help or hurt the sound. If you think it makes the chord sound better, then go for it! Using myself as an example, I always play D as D/A, unless the sound of the song specifically requires that I pluck a D bass note. But if we’re just strumming, it’s D/A all day long!

Share This Lesson!

If you enjoyed this lesson and learned a few new tricks, please SHARE it with others via the buttons on the LEFT! Keep rockin’ that “Low Five” and we’ll see you at your next guitar lesson!

QUESTION: Are you using the low five in your music? What are you favorite applications of chord inversions? Leave me a comment below!

1 Comment »

  1. […] intro to enhance its ominous sound, such as droning the open low E string under an Fmaj7 chord and adding the low 5th to C to create C/G when he sings, “Ground Control to Major […]

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Jim Bowley is a professional guitarist, teacher and blogger. A native of Baltimore, he has over 30 years of playing experience and an advanced degree in Music Education from Towson University. Jim lives in Bel Air, MD where he maintains a thriving private lesson studio and performs with his band, Remains of Radio.

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