In this tutorial, we're going to learn the most common types of chord substitution. The art of replacing chords is useful for songwriting and for transforming any boring song in an original and creative one. This is a bit advanced topic aimed at intermediate guitar players who already know their chords, but don't worry, we'll try to make the things easy.
Before reading the tutorial, be sure to be familiar with the Nashville Numbers System: this notation will be used throughout this tutorial. Are you ready? Let' begin!
|Major/Minor to Suspended||C to C sus2, C sus4||Learn more|
|Adding the 9th||C to C9||Learn more|
|I Maj7 to iii minor||C maj7 to E min||Learn more|
|I6 to vi m7||C6 to Am7||Learn more|
|Major and Minor swap||C to Cm||Learn more|
|I to vi m||C to Am||Learn more|
|Secondary Dominant||C | G7 to C | D7 | G7||Learn more|
|Degrees Substitution||C to Em, F to Dm, G to Bdim||Learn more|
|bVII borrowed chord||C | G | Am | F to C | G | Bb | F||Learn more|
|V7 to vii dim7||G7 to B dim7||Learn more|
|VI to #i dim||A7 to C#dim||Learn more|
|V to Vdim||G to G dim||Learn more|
|Tritone Substitution||G7 to Db7||Learn more|
All popular music is guided by a set of rules. Even if you are a new guitar player sitting down to write your first song, you will unwittingly follow the rules. If you don't your song will likely sound bad!
However the rules are there to be broken and there are specific ways to break them. By taking common progressions and using chord substitution you can come up with new melodies, riffs, and songs.
Before we can start substituting chords we need to know the most popular chord progressions.
Generally most songs use one of these at some point, sometimes if they make enough changes you won't even notice.
Changes can be: Modulations (key changes), Extended chords, and Chord substitution
And the names of the progressions or genres below are really just estimates of popularity, they can mostly be used by any musician and style
|Pop Rock Lydian||I-II-IV-I|
|Folk/Pop||I-V and I-IV|
|"Axis of Awesome"||I-V-vi-IV|
|Blues||I-IV-I-V-I (or similar variation)|
|Classic Rock||I-bVII-IV (also bIV mixes well in variations)|
|Classic Rock Ballad||I-iii-IV-V|
|Old Pop Standard||I-I#dim7-ii7-V|
The progressions are denoted with the Nashville Number System notation: the uppercase Roman Numeral is major and the lowercase a minor, and these can all be played in different keys.
In some cases when analyzing a song you can simplify the chords so it is easier to spot the progression:
You will still use those notes when substituting it just helps when first outlining a song. Now that you know most progressions here are some ways to go about finding new chord ideas.
There are a number of different methods of substitution, some are pretty simple and barely meet the definition.
For example extending a chord isn't the same substitution as changing its key, but you are still changing the qualities of the chord.
So we will include every common method used.
And you will see some overlap, as always in music theory you can have multiple ways of finding an answer.
The point is to not overthink the process. Look at the chords you are given and make your best judgement on what to replace them with.
And even if you are following the guidelines below always use your ear.
Note: most of the examples below are in the key of C. Of course you can substitute any chord by applying the generalized formula (see the table at the top).
For example, substitute a C major with a C sus2 or C sus4
When we remove the 3rd note and add the 2nd or 4th we get a suspended chord.
Using a Csus2 (C D G) would give us a different sound than C major.
In a lot of rock music progressions the sus2 and sus4 are commonly seen.
In "Free Fallin" Tom Petty adds both to his intro on a basic I-IV-V progression.
The sus chords are big in folk and rock.
We can add the 9th to a chord to make it sound more interesting.
Take the C major; we can add the D as the 9th and have C9 (C E G Bb D).
The 9th is common in funk, boogie woogie, and R&B in general (especially when it is a 9sus4).
Once you are comfortable with extended chords start cutting parts off to substitute. Take the chord Cmaj7.
It is made up of C E G B.
Now just chop that root note off (C) and use E G B, the notes that compose the Em.
And of course Em is the mediant (iii) of the key of C.
And as you will see this is used in similar methods below. By cleverly cutting off certain parts of our chords we can find a quick way to substitute.
We can use chord inversions to figure out new substitution ways.
Remember inversions are where we would play a C major C-E-G like G-C-E to get the same chord, but a little different sound.
Technically first and second inversions involve the triad notes starting on a different root, but inversion will also apply to all note order changes.
This reordering of notes is a great way to find a new direction to go in a song.
And it can also be used to make transitions with a bass line, a very common part of pop and rock.
At the first verse of "I Am the Walrus" the chords go A to A/G to C to D/E and back to A again.
They transition from A to C using G in the bass and D back to A using E in the bass.
"Landslide" is another popular tune that substitutes a first inversion and a couple slash chords with different bass notes.
One of the easiest ways to substitute is to simply change a major chord to a minor or the opposite way.
This is quick and requires no music theory skills at all.
- In "Eight Days a Week" The Beatles use an E (II) instead of Em (ii)
- Hank Williams also makes the same minor to major change in "Hey Good Lookin."
- The Beatles also took that common V and made it a minor v for the bridge of "I Want to Hold Your Hand" The song uses the key of G and its fifth D, and then changes to Dm, it makes for a great mood change in the song.
And of course there are famous songs that switch majors to minors. For example:
- "Air That I Breathe" and "Creep" do this. And if you notice they are the same song!
- So is Lana Del Rey's "Get Free". People reuse progressions unknowingly all the time.
The famous jazz substitution/progression ii-V7 can also be changed from minor to major making it II7-V7.
You may also see these switches for fun, sometimes folks purposely take a song and switch the minor and major to get something really weird.
This requires our Circle of Fifths chart or you can remember the vi to every root I.
Pro tip: on the fretboard, if you place your root on the E low string, the 6th is always two strings up and one fret down.
This is a very simple method like the one before, just in this case the root changes also.
You will see it often in rock songs that switch from the major to the relative minor like:
- "Mr. Jones"
- "Into the Great Wide Open"
- "Crazy Train"
We can also substitute the secondary relative minor.
We find the dominant of the key (V) we are in and then use that key's relative minor.
Example: in the key of C, the dominant is G, and the relative minor of the key of G is E, so we can substitute C major with E minor.
Another example: to substitute F maj, we know that it's dominant is C (one fifth up from the root F), and the relative minor of C is Am.
This is easy to find on the Circle of Fifths as the minor of the next chord in clockwise direction:
Sometimes we don't use the relative minor, just the secondary dominant.
In the key of C the root or tonic is C major and the dominant or fifth is G major.
To find the secondary dominant we go to the fifth of G which is D7.
We can use this method of the "dominant of the dominant" which is the same as following the Circle of Fifths. Giving us one of the main patterns of many jazz songs. As you've seen that pattern can be manipulated in a variety of ways.
Here's simple example in the key of C. We simply add the dominant (D7) of the dominant (G7) of our key (C):
C | G7 becomes C | D7 | G7
We can get creative and place a secondary dominant before any chord (called in this context target chord). This technique is used to create tension and anticipation before our target chord, as the dominant pleads to be followed by its tonic. Sometimes this substitution works greatly, other less. Let your ear decide.
For example, if we want to create more tension before the Am chord in the following progression, we substitute the chord that precedes our target chord Am with its dominant (E7):
C | Em | Am becomes C | E7 | Am
The secondary dominant is used in the Alicia Key's song "Empire State of Mind" during the chorus.
In this section we show how to swap chords within the same key.
I -> iii or vi
The tonic is the I and it is common to replace it with chords that sound similar, especially the iii and the vi.
So if you have a Cmaj7 you can substitute an Emin7 or Amin7, the iii being used the most.
We touched on this above showing that the iii chord had similar notes, and so does the vi.
A great example of using the iii in place of the I is the song "Before He Cheats"
IV -> ii
The subdominant IV and super tonic ii are also used to easily replace each other.
Look at the chord progressions at the top: the doo wop I-vi-IV-V is a IV/ii swap for the jazz standard progression of I-vi-ii.
Used in songs like "Heart and Soul" and "I've Got Rhythm".
V -> VII
And the dominant chord V and leading tone VII can also be substituted for one another.
Which is not only common in jazz but classic rock as well.
Depending on whether the tones are diminished or major and how they are used in different genres is discussed below.
The bVII is also commonly used in jazz and rock substitutions especially in progressions that involve the I, IV, and V.
The bVII degree does not belong to the major key, so it's called borrowed chord.
Jazz will also often use the bVII with the common ii-V-I jazz progression we keep seeing over and over again.
And when used with the IV chord we get the classic rock progression above I-bVII-iV.
In fact, the progression from bVII to IV sounds natural and very satisfying.
Here's a simple progression in the key of C that uses the borrowed chord Bb (bVIII):C | Bb | F | C
Or we can make the "Axis of Awesome" progression a bit more interesting :
C | G | Am | F becomes C | G | Bb | F
Popular songs that use the bVII chord are:
- "Believe" by the hard rock band Savatage begins exactly with C, G, Bb and F.
- "Sugar Magnolia"
- "Good Times Bad Times"
- Won't Get Fooled Again"
And among a bazillion other songs!
While it is common in rock to use the bVII with the IV, it can be seen elsewhere.
If we take the dominant with the flat major seventh, the bVII-V7 progression, we get a staple of earlier rock.
The bVII-V is used in songs like "Sitting on the Dock of the Bay", "Little Children" and "Rumble".
And in jazz it sometimes is even used with the minor iv (another major to minor substitution).
So the chord progression iv-bVII7 would be Fm-Bb7 in the key of C, it has a nice funky vibe to it.
The I chord is the tonic and the V the dominant.
So if you have a G7 chord in the key of C you can replace it with a B dim7, especially if it is right before the C chord.
In fact many older swing and jazz tunes use this quite often.
Also if we ever have a major VI we can treat it as a dominant and replace it with a #i diminished chord like so.
Cmaj7 | A7 | Dmin7 | G7 becomes Cmaj7 | C#dim | Dmin7 G7
You will often see this I-I#dim change in standards like:
- Let It Snow"
- "I Could Have Danced All Night"
Sometimes the V chord is simply diminished in the progression which is used in songs like "This Love" (which also uses an iv instead of IV).
Or we can try replacing the Vdim with a #Vdim:
It is very common to hear the #Vdim-I cadence at the end of a jazz standard piece.
You should notice now that a diminished can go on more than just the V and VII.
In the song "Michelle" in the key of F, instead of a Dm the Ddim is used.
In general the diminished VI is a great common turnaround in jazz music.
Remember the tritone is the diminished fifth/augmented fourth interval, that spans 6 half-steps. It divides exactly the octave in 2 equal parts, and it's famous for its dissonant sound. In fact, it was called the devil's interval.
A tritone substitution occurs whenever a dominant 7th chord is being substituted or replaced by another dominant 7th chord with a root a tritone interval away (basically you shift the chord 6 half-steps up)
For example G7 is replaced by Db7 as G-D is a fifth so G-Db is an augmented fifth.
This is very common in jazz but a couple pop examples are "Girl from Ipanema" and "If I Fell".
Below is an example chord progression using this substitution.
Dm7 | G7 | Cmaj7 becomes Dm7 | Db7 | Cmaj7
It isn't necessary to really memorize all of the methods above.
Once you know the basics and how they relate to one another the substitution will become second hand.
In every substitution above we have used chords with similar notes or raised or lowered notes in the chord. No matter how complicated the substitution seems, it is always that same simple process.
It's not always easy to find song examples of substitutions, especially as our chords get more complicated in jazz it can be hard to pin them down. But as you play more tunes you will notice they usually follow the chord progressions and substitutions discussed above.
As you practice make sure you write the chords down and find the structure of the song.
Eventually you will be comfortable writing your own music after having "dissected" many other tunes.
First start with simple substitutions like major/minor changes and simple chord family familiars.
From there try adding a few diminished chords in the progression, chop off notes, add them, invert them; manipulate the notes in any way that sounds good.
With some practice and experimenting you may just turn a common chord progression into a great new song!
Share with your fellow guitar players!
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