Slash Marks in Leadsheets

E chord with slash marks per measure

Article by Lee Evans:


A jazz or popular-music Fakebook is a book of songs presented as one-staff musical sketches consisting of each song's melody, plus alphabetical chord symbols above the melody, and the song's lyrics below the melody. each such presentation of a song in a Fakebook is known as a leadsheet.

A Fakebook is so called because the word "fake" is synonymous with "improvise" in the jazz vernacualr. What must be improvised are melodic embellishments and the chords, employing desirable voicing and voice leading, keeping in mind that a chord symbol does not always indicate whether the chord should be played in root position or in an inversion. The chord symbols will also serve as the harmonic framework for improvisation after the initial chorus of the song has been stated.

Baroque figured-bass keyboard parts may be considered to be classical-music precursors of the popular-music leadsheet, in the sense that both are mere sketches that require keyboard players to improvise a full realization based upon limited information.

Slash Marks

Among the symbols employed in jazz and popular-music fakebook leadsheets are slash marks, a subject of some mystery to many classical musicians. Slash marks are versatile in that they actually serve several different purposes that this article will define and illustrate with musical examples.

1. Chord Inversions

Slash marks are employed to indiciate chord inversions. An upper case letter tot eh right of a diagonal slash mark denotes the bottom note of the chord. Thus F7/C means an F7 chord played in an inversion in which C is the bottom note; in other words, in this case a 2nd inversion chord.

2. Non-Harmonic Bass Tone

An upper case letter to the right of a diagonal slash mark may also denote a non-harmonic bass tone. A non-harmonic bass tone is a tone that is not one of the chord tones indicated by the character to the left of the diagonal slash mark.

Example: Db/C or C/DbFAb

Had the above chord symbol (Db/C) been spelled DbMaj7, it would have been left entirely to the pianist to guess at the composer's voicing intention.

3. Polychords

A slash mark may also indicate a polychord. A polychord is a single chord comprised of two or more chords. A polychord is sometimes indicated by a horizontal slash mark rather than a diagonal slash mark, but this practice varies widely in different fakebooks.

Polychord symbolization is clearer and therefore preferred over a chord symbol showing harmonic alterations:

add #8
C add #6
add #4

... another way of expressing the above chord.

Example: C7/F#


As seen in polychord symbolization, when chord quality (major, minor, diminished, augmented, dominant 7th, etc.) is indicated by the character below the horizontal slash mark, or to the right of the diagonal slash mark, F#/C7, an entire chord rather than a single tone is to be played by the left hand while the right hand plays the chord indicated by the upper or left character.

4. Chord Repetition In A New Inversion

An upper case letter to the right of a diagonal slash mark, where there is no character to the left of the slash mark, indicates a different bass note to be played with the previous chord.

Example: Bb/F       /D should be played as
                Bb/F     Bb/D

5. Repetition

Diagonal slashes that come after the first beat of the bar indicate repetitions of what is written on beat one.

Example: FAC / / / is played FAC, FAC, FAC, FAC

6. Chord Changes

A. slash marks are employed in rhythm section parts to show the specific beats where chord changes occur.


C /// Bm7 // E7  Am7 / Abm7 / Gm7 / Gb7 /

B. Slash marks instead of note heads are at times also employed for rhythm section instruments to indicate specific points where chord changes occur off the beat.

7. Uneven Distribution Of Chords In A Bar

In a 4/4 bar where there are two chord symbols and no slash marks, it means that the chords are to be played on beats one and three, respectively.

Example: 4/4     C    Am

However, slash marks are employed to indicate the specific beats where there is a chord change:

a) in 4/4 bars in which one or more of the chords are played on other than beats one and three.

Example: 4/4  Eb // Eb+

b) in 4/4 bars containing three chords.

Example: 4/4  Cm / B+ Bb7

c) in 3/4 bars containing two chords.

Example: 3/4  Eb  Eb+ /

d) in any other uneven distribution of chords in a bar.

8. One Measure Repeat

the sign below means repeat the previous bar. If the repeats continue for more than one bar, number each repeat bar... or as an alternative, number every few bars.

9. Two-Bar Repeat

To repeat two consecutive different bars, use two parallel diagonal slash marks with dots and write the number 2 over it. This two-bar repeat sign is ordinarily used for rhythm instruments, but I don't see any reason why it can't also be used for other instruments. If more than two bars are to be repeated, traditional repeat marks are employed.

10. Single Grace Notes

A single grace note is usually written as a cue size 8th note, and may use a diagonal slash mark slanting upward tot eh right, no matter the stem direction.

11. Caesura (pronounced si-zhoor-uh)

The caesura (often referred to as 'railroad tracks' by jazz and pop musicians) is a slight pause, or breathing point, in the tempo; a break in the sound. These parallel diagonal slash marks, placed on the fourth staff line, should cross the top staff line at the exact point in the bar where the break occurs and should be located at the end of a note's full value... or just before the barline if the break occurs immediately before the barline. If a longer break is wanted, a fermata should be written over the caesura.

Note: Sometimes an apostrophe - called a breath mark - placed above the staff where the breath is wanted, is used instead of a caesura. This symbol may or may not interrupt the tempo, and is somewhat shorter in duration than the caesura.

I hope that the readers have found the information in this article informative and useful.

Lee Evans is professor of Music at NYC's Pace University. He is the author/composer/arranger of over 90 books, plus numerous articles. Among his recent books are:

Discovering Blues Improvisation Book 1: Intermediate Level - Book One (Book & CD)
Discovering Blues Improvisation: Intermediate Level: Book Two


"Jazz washes away the dust of every day life." -- Art Blakey
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