One of the favorite devices of many guitarists, especially jazz musicians, is the technique of chord substitution—A musician may choose to replace one chord, or sequence of chords, with another sequence that serves the same function but does it in a more interesting way. By guest contributor, Ry Kihn
Many beginning and intermediate musicians, even with strong backgrounds in music theory, are intimidated by the thought of learning chord substitutions. While there is a great deal of material to cover when learning how to substitute chords, the basic techniques for creating chord substitutions are fairly straightforward.
Musicians learning about substitutions often ask if all members of an ensemble must make substitutions together. In general, the answer is no. Part of the power of a substitution is the tension that is created by superimposing a new chord on top of the original. However, in some cases, such as with turnarounds, it is useful to have everyone together. You should learn to anticipate places where substitutions may occur and listen for them, so you can react accordingly. Your song progression sounds good, but maybe you want it to sound better.
Substituting chords can add flavor, dress up a part, add air, mystery and a wide range of other dynamics to make the part stand out. If you’re playing in a highly improvisational format, changing a chord to something close is one way to throw ideas at the soloist. Chord substitutions happen in two major ways: First, the chord might be close to the original—so it sounds “mostly” right. If the chord called for is C major (made of C-E-G notes), you might try A minor (A-C-E) or E minor (E-G-B), which each have two of the same notes. It’s the one note that’s different which makes it a substitution.
In the second way, the chord is different from the original, but leads naturally into it. These substitutions are usually for just part of the duration. Instead of an F major being played for two bars, you might try C7 for the first bar, and F major for the second bar. The C7 naturally resolves to F, so even if the C7 is a bit of a leap from where you ‘should’ be in the progression, it leads you right back to your original path.
One simple example of chord substitution is to remove the root (bottom note) of a triad and add a tone a diatonic third above the fifth (top note of a triad). For example, in the key of A major take an E major chord (which is made up the notes E, G#, and B) and remove the root, E. Now add a diatonic third above the fifth, B, which is D. You now have the chord G#, B, and D. You have substituted an E Major with a G# diminished chord. An alternative way of viewing this particular substitution is to call it an E7 with no root notes. What you call it depends on where it is in the song, and what you’re trying to achieve.
You may also substitute by going in the other direction, that is remove the fifth and add a diatonic third below the root. So in the aforementioned chapter, the original chord is E, G#, and B. Remove the B and add a C# below the E. You have now substituted and E major with a C# minor chord. Theoretically, any chord can be substituted for any other chord as long as the new chord supports the melody. This is a technique employed in music such as bebop or fusion to give a music piece more sophisticated harmony. It is also commonly used to increase logistical ease on transitions, often on guitar.
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Originally posted 2009-09-05 06:06:44.