This is Brian from SongADE, and today’s lesson is a Songwriting Block on chord inversions. Inversions can add color, interest, and motion to your music.

As always, I’ve provided you two ways to learn about this concept:

  • Video
  • Text

Feel free to use one or both!

Prerequisites

Before we get into the heart of inversions, you should be familiar with some basics:

  1. Know your basic major and minor scales, as well as major and minor chords.
  2. Understand the chords of any major or minor key. For instance, if I’m in E, I know that E, A, C# minor, F# minor, and B major are all part of that key.
  3. Understand scale degrees. If you’re not clear on this concept, check out our songwriting block lesson linked in the description.

If you’re not clear on those, I would learn that stuff first. You can find that in the SongADE database or elsewhere on the internet. If you feel really confident in those areas, this lesson is for you.

Root Position

Before we delve into inversions, it’s crucial to grasp basic chords. These are primarily constructed using the first, third, and fifth scale degrees. Taking G as an example:

  • G (the “one”)
  • B (the “third”)
  • D (the “fifth”)

Even if a full G major chord seems like it comprises more than three notes, the one, three, and five are merely repeated. So in essence, if you’re playing all six strings, you’re hitting the same three scale degrees in different octaves. In the case of G: 1-3-5-1-5-1.

Similarly, with C as another example:

  • C is the “one”.
  • E is the “third”.
  • G is the “fifth”.

And if you look at playing a full C chord over five strings, it’s still just those three notes: 1-3-5-1-3.

Inversions

Root position chords have their root note (the “one”) as the base note. For example, in a G chord, G is the lowest note, while in a C chord, C is the base. In inversions, a different scale degree takes the role of the bass note. For instance, a D major chord in root position has D as its lowest note. But if F# becomes the bass note, the chord becomes an inversion – specifically, the first inversion.

Common First Inversion Chords on Guitar

Here are some frequently encountered first inversion chords on the guitar:

  1. D first inversion
  2. G first inversion
  3. E first inversion
  4. A first inversion

E and A first inversions are particularly versatile as they don’t use open strings, making them movable shapes on the fretboard.

How Do Inversions Apply To Songwriting?

How does this apply to songwriting? Inversions apply to songwriting in a few ways:

1. Variety

Inversions add variety to your music so they add color, contrast, movement, and a kind of interesting instability.

When you play a root note chord, like a D, it’s very stable and balanced. But when you play the first inversion (D/F#), there’s more instability there. It creates a little bit of conflict and vibration, and that can be really interesting, emotive, and fun for the listener.

2. Leading Tones

the other thing inversions do in the context of songwriting is introduce leading tones into your instrument Parts leading tones create a pull toward the notes next to them particularly the note that’s higher so if I play a d first inversion it really wants to go to a g if I play a g first inversion it really wants to go to a c it can go the other way too let’s do the D first inversion again and resolve it down to an E minor or the G first inversion down to an A Minor this is a really cool concept and can be used to The Listener to the next chord or part of the song

3. Stepwise Basslines

The other thing inversions can help us do is create stepwise basslines within our instrument parts.

For instance, if I were to play G-D-E minor, I could play all root note chords, and that’s fine, but if I wanted to create a stepwise bassline down to the E minor, that’s where an inversion could be used. That F# could be done as a D first inversion, or D with F# in the bass, and then I’ve kind of got this walking bassline down to the E minor.

I can go the other way too. If I start on an A Minor, I can walk up with a G first inversion and then go to a C, rather than simply going A minor-G-C. There’s nothing wrong with that, but sometimes root note chords aren’t quite what you’re looking for.

The Extra Beat: Voicings

And here’s your extra beat: The way you build a chord is called voicing. So, a root note D chord and a first inversion D are the same chord, but they’re two two different voicings.

Additionally, if you play a root note D chord in two different ways, it is considered a different voicing:

e|----2----------5---------
B|----3----------7---------
G|----2----------7---------
D|----0----------0---------
A|-------------------------
E|-------------------------
      D          D

Those examples are two different voicings due to the order of the notes and where they are played on the guitar neck. Even though it’s the exact same chord, the voicings are considered different even though the bass note is the same!

Voicings are something that I mention for awareness and to make you more fluent. It’s certainly something I’m going to be referencing in future lessons quite often.

Homework

As always, let’s talk about your homework:

  1. Learn at a minimum the four inversions introduced above. Exploring other inversions is also recommended.
  2. Practice the inversions alongside the chords they naturally lead to.
  3. Create a riff using inversions to craft a stepwise baseline.

Final Thoughts

Today we learned about inversions, the most common of which is the first inversion, built off of the third scale degree. Some inverted chords are used more than others, and some inversion shapes are movable on the guitar neck.

Inversions add variety to your music, they can lead the ear toward other chords, and create stepwise basslines. I hope this lesson helped you learn about inversions and that you consider using inversions in your own music.

Thanks for joining me, and I’ll see you in the next one!