How to Play Chord Inversions on the Piano or Keyboard

Always playing chords on the piano or keyboard with the root at the bottom means you have to jump your hand around the keyboard, which can result in difficult, choppy-sounding playing.

By simply rearranging the order of the notes of a given chord, you can make much smoother transitions. These different groupings of the notes are called inversions. Rearranging the order of the notes doesn’t affect whether a chord sounds major or minor.

The three triad inversions

You can play any three-note chord from three positions:

  • The root position: The traditional note grouping (root, third, and fifth)

  • The first inversion: The root note moved to the top of the chord (third, fifth, and then root)

  • The second inversion: The third moved up on top of the root (fifth, root, and then third)

    [Credit: Illustration by Jerry Kovarsky]
    Credit: Illustration by Jerry Kovarsky

As you play the three inversions, you can hear that the chord quality sounds basically the same.

Listen to hear the chords and inversions you see above.

Here you see how to play the blues progression by always moving to the closest note to form the needed chord. Moving to the nearest note is called voice leading in music theory, where each note in the chord is considered a voice. Pay attention to the marked fingerings to play them as smoothly as possible.

[Credit: Illustration by Jerry Kovarsky]
Credit: Illustration by Jerry Kovarsky

Listen to hear the blues progression using chord inversions.

You can apply the same concept to make the pop/doo-wop progression sound smoother as well; Example 1 uses the ii chord, or the Dm, and Example 2 uses the IV chord, the F major. Now it sounds like what you hear on recordings, right?

[Credit: Illustration by Jerry Kovarsky]
Credit: Illustration by Jerry Kovarsky

Three-note chords in your left hand

If you play an arranger keyboard or play in an ensemble with a bass player, you can use these types of inversions in your left hand for a smoother sound. Because the arranger style or the bass player always provides the root tone, you’re free to use these close inversions.

Here are some possible ways to play the three-chord rock sound with some rhythm added. Each example starts on a different chord inversion and uses different rhythm patterns. If you have onboard drums, pick a simple rock pattern and play along with it. Repeat each two-bar phrase over and over.

[Credit: Illustration by Jerry Kovarsky]
Credit: Illustration by Jerry Kovarsky

You can do the same thing for the doo-wop chords. You have two variations for each starting chord inversion, one always using the straight repeated rhythm with good use of close chord movement, and the other varying the rhythm a bit more. Repeat each two-bar phrase over and over.

[Credit: Illustration by Jerry Kovarsky]
Credit: Illustration by Jerry Kovarsky

This example employs a time signature, 12/8, that you may not be familiar with. Each measure has 12 beats, and each group of three eighth notes forms a strong pulse. So it feels like each measure actually has four beats, with each beat getting three subdivided pulses: 1-2-3, 2-2-3, 3-2-3, 4-2-3.

Listen to hear the blues and doo-wop progressions played using left hand chord inversions.

Two-handed chords in a pianistic style

When you’re playing chords on an acoustic piano or an electric piano, you use the closest inversion chords possible in your right hand and play the root note in your left hand — either a single note or two notes an octave apart for more power (best on acoustic piano). Check out the basic voicings and fingerings, and then examples with rhythm added to each hand.

[Credit: Illustration by Jerry Kovarsky]
Credit: Illustration by Jerry Kovarsky

Check out the blues progression played in a two-handed, pianistic fashion.

[Credit: Illustration by Jerry Kovarsky]
Credit: Illustration by Jerry Kovarsky

Listen to the doo-wop progression played in a two-handed, pianistic fashion.

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