Inversions for Rock Guitar

This lesson will explain how to use chord inversions for both understanding songs that you listen to as well as utilizing them in your own compositions.

Ultimate Guitar
This lesson will explain how to use chord inversions for both understanding songs that you listen to as well as utilizing them in your own compositions.

1) Background

Sometimes you may have heard a song that had pretty simple chords but wondered why it sounded really more interesting than other songs. Sometimes this interesting sound is created by careful construction of the bass line supporting the chords. My Chemical Romance is one example of a band that comes to mind that makes use of inversions in a rock setting to create interest.

Chord inversions are pretty fundamental. Any time that you use a bass note other than the root of the chord, you're playing an inversion. For a C-major chord (C-E-G), the first inversion would be to start the chord with the major 3rd, an E bass note (eg, E-G-C), and the second inversion starts with the 5th (eg, G-C-E). In each case, we're leading off the chord with other than the root note. But enough terminology, how is this used in practice?

2) Creating bass patterns

One way to use chord inversions is to make the bass line more interesting. In these examples, the bass notes will be created on the guitar, but you can also have the a rhythm guitar playing the higher notes of the chord and let the bass player emphasize the bass note(s). Realize that when playing rock guitar with a lot of distortion, you may want to leave an octave or so distance between the bass note and the rest of chord if you're creating a overall chord that is pretty dissonant. Distortion is not kind to notes with odd intervals or non-octaves that are too close together.

A typical way to use a chord inversion is to use the Vth chord starting with it's major third note. In the key of the C, the chord that would start with the B as a root note needs to have a diminished or augmented 5th if it were to stay in key. A better choice is often to use the G/B (G-chord with B bass note) instead. The following example shows a typical C - G/B - Am progression, where the bass notes descend the scale C-B-A.
Here is another use of the same technique in the key of G, using G - D/F# - Em.
But there are other ways to use inversions than just filling in for the "problem chord." Here is an example creating a descending bass pattern using only major chords, C - G/B - F/A - G - F - C/E - G/D - C (note the muted A-string for the C/E to avoid dissonance).
Sometimes you want to create an ascending pattern with the bass notes. The ascending or descending patterns can suggest a mood (ascending=happy, descending=sad) and you might use opposite patterns between the verse and chorus. Here is an example of creating an ascending pattern with no root note chords (Dm/F - C/G - F/A - Em/B - Am/C - G/D - C/E - Dm/F).
That previous example sort of exaggerates turning everything into an inversion. You don't need to use all the notes in the scale for your bass pattern or invert every chord to create interest. Just use these as ideas for inversions that you might not have thought of before.

3) Inversions in a rock setting

When playing rock music with power chords, it's still possible to make use of inversions. Here is an example of a series of descending boring power chords, F5 - E5 - D5 - C5.
You might make this descending pattern more interesting by using chord inversions to connect the F and C, eg F - C/E - G/D - C (shown below with optional notes on the B-string - if you have a lot of distortion, you may want to leave those notes out).
Lastly, don't confine yourself to playing just inversions of simple chords. Even in a rock setting, you can make use of inversions of 7th chords, for example. If you're transitioning from a C5 to an F5, you can make the transition sound stronger by inserting an inverted C7th (C5- C7/Bb - F5).
E------6-6 -1-1-1-1--

4) Conclusion

By inverting chords and using bass notes from simple (or extended) chords, you can add variety and interest to your compositions. Also, by understanding how inversions are used, you can better figure out your favorite songs by not assuming that all chords are built with the root note being the same as the bass note.

Do you have any favorite groups that make use of chord inversions?

5 comments sorted by best / new / date

    The whole reason for using inversions is to have good voice leading, and you demonstrated that well until the very end. The C7/Bb should resolve to F/A. I know you're using power chords, but it's really jarring to hear the 7th of a chord (especially when it's in the bass) not resolve down to the 3rd of the next chord the way it's supposed to.
    If I may be a real d*ck and smart-ass: The #5 of B would be an F##, and that note is not in the (theoretical) key of C. But good article, inversion can make a lot of difference. And that 'leaving notes out because of distortion' tip is really handy!
    But isn't F# #= G? In which case it IS in the key of C (the 5th) ?
    The key term here is *enharmonic equivalence. F## & G are the same pitch, frequency, they sound the same etc. But in notation they function differently. If you use a G as the 5th over an augmented B chord (B,D#,F##) then you are using inconsistent notation and the reader will have trouble quickly identifying the chord at first glance. But if you can glance in a split second and see that the chord contains from low to high: some kind of "B" "D" and "F", without looking at accidentals just yet, you can quickly assert that it is some kind of "B" chord. But with the G as the fifth, you are confusing the reader because they see (again skipping the accidentals for now) a B,D, and G which looks like some kind of first inversion "G" chord. For a prime example of how enharmonic notes function differently look into augmented 6th chords.