Question: What is a sus chord? I see sus in many chords but don’t know what it means. I know what augmented and diminished mean but not sustained.
Answer: SUS actually stands for “suspended” not “sustained.” You get it by raising the major third note of a major chord one half step to the fourth. Thus, the chord consists of 1 - 4 - 5 — a Csus chord would be C - F - G. Notice how this yields an unresolved sound. Traditionally, a C sus chord would resolve to a C major. But it doesn’t have to. Unresolved sus chords became common place in jazz of the 60’s (ref Herbie Hancock’s Maiden Voyage) and light, folky rock of the 70’s (Carole King is a great example).
Here’s a tip for voicing a sus chord. Play the root note of the chord in the left hand while you play a major triad based one whole step below the root in the right hand. Thus, for a Csus you would play the C note in the left hand and the B-flat major triad (Bb - D - F) in the right. Most times a sus chord is a substitute for the dominant seventh chord, so the Bb in the right hand fits in perfectly, with the D giving you a ninth and the F being the sus4. When playing the sus4 you generally avoid playing the third (E).
Another way you might see this chord noted is by: Bb/C, which means play the Bb major chord in the right and the C bass note in the left. Bb/C and Csus are essentially the same chord.
Question: I am a beginner piano player, and I would like to ask a question about chords. In my fake book I see chords written like C/A or F/G, what does this mean? Do I play the “C chord” first and then the “A chord” immediately after, or do I play the “C chord” and the second time through this measure play the “A chord”?
Answer: Just like the topic of the previous One Minute Lesson (sus chords) your question baffles a lot of people. So here’s the explanation. What you are seeing are called “slash chords.” In a slash chord the first symbol you see indicates the chord itself. The symbol on the other side of the slash indicates a single note to be played in the bass region at the same time you play the chord. Thus, C/A means play the C major chord, but simultaneously play an A note in the bass region of the piano.
Ordinarily one would play the root of the chord in the bass underneath the rest of the chord. However, playing a non-root bass note produces some interesting chord possibilities. In many cases using the slash chord nomenclature is the only way you can notate these kinds of chords short of writing them out in full music notation. You see this notation often in pop piano music, but very few people have ever seen or heard an explanation as to how to interpret it.
We saw one example of a slash chord in Lesson 24. Here we gave the example of Bb/C. If we think of this as some kind of C chord (and the C in the bass is a clear indication that the chord might function as a C), then the notes of the Bb major triad give us the 7th (Bb), 9th (D), and 11th or sus 4 (F) of the chord.
On the other hand if the bass note is already a part of the triad as in C/E, then chances are the chord is still functioning as a C chord (with an alternate bass). If you listen to church music in general and black gospel in particular, you hear chords of this type quite often.
One remaining question is how you actually play a bass note, a chord, and a melody simultaneously. If a piano player plays with a bass player, it’s the bass player who plays the note on the other side of the slash, while the piano player plays the chord itself with the left hand and melody with the right. If you’re playing solo piano, it’s a little trickier. With just two hands you have to play a note in the bass, a chord in the mid region, and the melody on top. It’s like a juggler having to keep three balls in the air all the time.
There are various strategies for handling this that we can cover perhaps at another time.
In our previous installment (Week 25) we introduced you to slash chords. By so doing we introduced a third component to a song — the bass line. While all songs have melodies and chords, some songs have a distinctive bass part as well. Often this bass part is indicated in chord music by using slash chords — the element on the right side of the slash being the bass note.
For example, the symbol Bb/C means to play the B flat major chord at the same time one plays the C note in the bass region of the piano. When we also have a melody going on, it means one has to play three different components simultaneously. Since the typical piano player has only two hands, how can this be accomplished? Here are a few strategies.
- Hire a bass player. Granted, this is a cop out. But bear in mind that is one of the reasons we have bass players in our bands. And if you are lucky enough to have a good bass player in your band, let him play the bass parts by himself. He doesn’t need competition from you.
- Use your left hand for the bass line, your right hand for the chords, and SING the melody.
What about the solo piano player?
- Learn to play chords with your right hand and invert each chord in such a way as to have the melody note always on top. Then your left hand can play the bass notes. I admit that this strategy is much easier said than done. Voice leading chords with the melody on top takes years of experience. I know of no shortcuts unfortunately.
- Have your left hand share the responsibilities of playing bass notes and chords. The basic strategy here is to play the bass note on the first beat of the measure, then the chord later on in the measure. In 4/4 time the chord could come on the third beat while the bass note is on the first. Or the bass notes could be on one and three while the chord comes on two and four. Let your ear decide what sounds best.
Since we’ve covered the topic of slash chords in the last two installments, perhaps you’d like to acquaint yourself with some typical slash chord progressions. Here’s one you’ve heard hundreds of times.
Cm Cm/B Cm/Bb Cm/A Cm/Ab G7
This simply means to play the Cm chord five times while the bass notes starts on the root and descends chromatically until it gets to the G note at which time the chord changes to G7. Try this progression on you piano and try to decide what this reminds you of.
Some of you will hear the intro to the Beatles’ song “Michelle.” Others might hear the chords to “Blue Skies” or “My Funny Valentine.” Others might hear the chords to “Feelings” or “This Masquerade.” It may even be reminiscent of “It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing.” The fact is all the songs use this familiar progression. If you omit the bass line, the chord progression is meaningless. Try it that way. You’ll just hear five C minor chords and a G7. Boring.
You add the chromatic descending bass line with the left hand (C, B, Bb, A, Ab, G) and you have a distinctive chord progression that just wouldn’t be the same without the bass line.
Here’s another bass line intensive chord progression with a more gospel feel to it.
Eb Bb/D Cm Eb/Bb Ab Eb/G Fm Fm/Bb
Remember when there is no slash in the chord, play the root. This way you will get a descending bass line of Eb, D, C, Bb, Ab, G, F, Bb. In this example the bass notes descend on a major scale as opposed to chromatically in the example above. Once again the bass line is an integral part of the chord in this example.