Playing the same old chords on every song can get pretty boring, pretty fast. Chord inversions are a way to add color to your average progressions. They give you more harmonic options and stronger bass lines that harmonize better with the main melody, all of which make your sound more interesting.
Learning inversions will not only get you out of a rut, it will also better acquaint you with the fretboard, open your ears to new sounds, and make you a more well-rounded musician. Luckily, inversions are pretty easy once you understand what’s happening conceptually.
Without getting too mired in chord theory, here are 8 fundamental things you need to know about chord inversions so you can start adding them to your bag of tricks:
1. The origins of a chord. In order to understand chord inversions, you have to understand where chords come from and how they are constructed. Chords are built from scales. A scale contains the seven notes of the musical alphabet (A through G). For simplicity’s sake, let’s work in the key of C, which is one of the easiest keys to play in. The C major scale looks like this:
C D E F G A B C
2. The function of the tonic note. The first note or “tonic” of any scale not only serves as the name of that scale, but also as the name of the key and the note upon which a key’s root chord is built.
3. The anatomy of a chord. A triad is the basic three-note chord form from which most chords are derived. The major triad formula is 1-3-5. Every major triad has a root, or bass note (first or tonic note in the scale), third, and fifth note. So for the C major scale, C (1) is the root note, E (3) is the third, and G (5) is the fifth.
4. How to invert a chord. A chord is in its root position when the root is the lowest note. Again, in the key of C, the triad is C E G. A triad is inverted when its third or fifth replaces its root as the lowest note. So all we’re doing is rearranging the stack of notes in a chord and changing its bass note. Inversions allow you to play several possible voicings of the same chord.
5. First inversions. In our example, C is the root of the chord, E is the third, and G is the fifth. If the third of the C chord (the E note) gets bumped down to become the root note, we would call that a first inversion of a C major chord. The chord would now read as E G C. You’ll notice that the C note has moved from the bass to the highest note in the triad.
6. Second inversions. When the fifth note of the triad is the lowest note, it is referred to as a second inversion. If the fifth of the C chord (the G note) gets bumped down to become the root note, we would call that a second inversion of a C major chord. The chord would now read as G C E. Notice that the E note has moved from the bass to the highest note in the triad.
7. The number of inversions per chord. The number of different ways you can invert a chord is equal to the number of notes in that chord. As you already know, if you are playing a three-note C major chord, there would be three total ways to play the chord—C E G (the root position C chord voicing) and two separate inversions: E G C (first inversion) and G C E (second inversion). If you are playing a four-note chord, say a C major 7 (1-3-5-7 on the C major scale or C E G
B), there would be four total ways to play the chord—C E G B (the root position C major 7 chord voicing) and three separate inversions: E G B C (first inversion), G B C E (second inversion), and B C E G (third inversion).
8. Chord inversions will expand your knowledge of the fretboard. Building chord inversions across the entire fretboard will help you to build your chord vocabulary. Although a few inversions have some long stretches and can be challenging to play, they are definitely worth the effort in the textures and colors they add to your chord progressions. Inversions are part of the bigger picture that you’re piecing together as you connect your knowledge of scales, chords and other theory into a roadmap for navigating the fretboard.