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Chord Substitution
by Rich Scott

An excerpt from Chord Progressions For Songwriters.

Chord substitution refers to the art of changing and/or adding chords to a progression in order to create harmony that is different and more interesting. “The general chord substitution rule holds that chords that share two or more notes in common can be readily substituted for each other” (Money Chords – A Songwriter’s Sourcebook Of Popular Chord Progressions). Substitutions that share two or more notes in common are referred to as a common tone substitution. Any chord substitution must sound good and your ear is always the final arbiter of acceptability. The box below shows several examples of frequently used common tone substitutions.

Original Chord Substitute Chords Original Chord Substitute Chords
I VIm; IIIm C Am; Em
IV IIm; VIm F Dm; Am
V7 VIIo; IIIm; bII7 G7 Bo; Em; Db7

Bass Line Movement

One of the main goals of chord substitution is to create more interesting bass line movement to compliment a song’s melody. An understanding of logical bass line movement can help you make better chord substitution choices. Below are examples of five types of bass line movements that have been repeatedly used to create hits songs.

Chromatic

Chromatic bass lines ascend or descend in half steps. The first example is the opening A section progression to Ain’t Misbehavin’ (Standard – 1937) shown below that is an example of an ascending chromatic bass line. The second example is the opening verse progression to Walk Away Renee (Left Banke – 1966) shown below that an example of a descending chromatic bass line.

Ascending

Cmaj7 / C#o7 / Dm7 / D#o7 / C/E / E7#5 / F6 / Fm6 /

Descending

C / / / G/B / / / Bb / / / F/A / / / Abo7 / / /C/G / / /

Cyclical

Cyclical bass lines follow circle of fifth movement descending by fifths (three and a half whole steps) or by fourths (two and a half whole steps). The first example shown below is the bridge to I Got Rhythm (Standard – 1937) that moves counterclockwise around the circle in descending fifths. The second example is the chord progression to Hey Joe (Leaves – 1966) that moves clockwise around the circle in descending fourths.

Descending Fifths

E7 / / / / / / / A7 / / / / / / / D7 / / / / / / / G7 / / / / / / /

Descending Fourths

Ab / Eb / Bb / F / C / / / / / / /

Diatonic

Diatonic bass lines ascend or descend in scale steps. The first example is the main verse progression to Like A Rolling Stone (Bob Dylan – 1965) shown below that an example of an ascending diatonic bass line. The second example is the opening verse progression to Mr. Bojangles (Nitty Gritty Dirt Band – 1971) shown below that is an example of a descending diatonic bass line.

Ascending

C / Dm / Em / F / G / / / / / / /

Descending

C / / C/B / / Am / / C/G / /

Pedal Points

Pedal points sustain the same bass note through a series of chord changes. The main verse progression to Billie Jean (Michael Jackson – 1983) shown below is an example of a tonic pedal point.

Am / Bm /A / C/A / Bm/A /

Tritone

Tritone bass lines move up three whole steps then resolve down a half step. Bars nine to twelve of the A Section to Here’s That Rainy Day (Standard - 1949) shown below includes two examples of bass lines that move by three whole steps, then have a downward half step resolution.

Fm7 / / / Fm7 / B9 Bb9 Ebmaj7 / A9 / Abmaj7 / / /

In the remainder of this section, you will look at a dozen must-know chord substitution techniques for any songwriter, performer, or arranger.

Backcycling

Backcycling is a technique used to create movement in a chord progression that has little chord change by utilizing the circle of fifths shown below.

Backcycling essentially works backwards from a place you want to get to. For example if you want to get to a “G7” chord (the target) as in the simple four bar folk progression shown below, you work backwards from the “G7” to the “C” chord by inserting as many consecutive chords as you want from the circle of fifths creating the backcycled progression below. Then, through the use of chord quality changes and embellishments, the standard progression is created.

Original Progression

C / / / C / / / G7 / / / G7 (target) / / /

Backcycled Progression

C / / / A / / / D / / / G7 (target) / / /

Substitute Progression (Chord Quality Change & Embellishment)

Cmaj7 / / / Am7 / / / Dm7 / / / G7 (target) / / /

Next, we will backcycle the first five bars of the twelve-bar blues progression. The first example below shows bars one through five of the twelve-bar blues progression. The second example inserts backcycled chords leading to the targeted “F” chord. The last example completes the substitution with chord quality changes and embellishments to create a cycle of “IIm-V” chords.

Original Progression

C / / // / / / / / / / / / / / F (target) / / /

Backcycled Progression

C / / / B / E / A / D / G / C /F (target) / / /

Substitute Progression (Chord Quality Change & Embellishment)

C / / / Bm7b5 / E7 / Am7 / D7 / Gm7 / C7 /Fmaj7 (target) / / /

Chord Quality Change

The quality of any chord (e.g., major, minor, or dominant) can be changed to another quality as long as the root remains the same as shown in the box below.

Original Chord Quality Chord Quality Substiutions
Major Minor or Dominant
Minor Major or Dominant
Dominant Major or Minor

Chord quality changes were used to create the two examples shown below. The replacement of a major chord by its minor quality, or vice versa, is referred to as a parallel major/minor substitution. Two examples of this type of substitution are shown below. The first example changes the quality of the “F” chord to “Fm” transforming the doo-wop progression into the main verse progression to Sleep Walk (Santo & Johnny – 1959). The second example changes the quality of the “G” chord to “Gm” transforming the rock and roll progression into the Louie Louie (Kingsmen – 1963) progression.

(1) Original Progression

C / Am / F / G7 /

Substitute Progression (Parallel Minor/Major)

C / Am / Fm / G7 /

(2) Original Progression

C / F / G / F /

Substitute Progression (Parallel Minor/Major)

C / F / Gm / F /

Diminished Seventh

Replacing a dominant seventh chord with a diminished seventh chord whose root is a half step higher is referred to as a diminished seventh substitution. For example, a “C” can be substituted by a “C#o7” chord. Keep in mind that there are only three different diminished seventh chords (C#o7, Do7, and D#o7) with each having four possible names and roots (C#o7=Eo7=Go7=A#o7, Do7=Fo7=G#o7=Bo7, and D#o7=F#o7=Ao7=Co7). Another way to look at this type of substitution is that the “VIIo” substitutes for the “V” chord. Two examples of this type of substitution are shown below.

Original Progression

Dm / / / G7 / / /C / / // / / /

Substitute Progression (Half step Substitution #1)

Dm / / / G#o7 / / /C / / // / / /

Substitute Progression (VIIo for V Substitution #2)

Dm / / / Bo7 / / /C / / // / / /

Dominant Seventh

A dominant seventh chord can be replaced by another dominant seventh chord whose root is a note contained in a diminished seventh chord based on the root of the original dominant seventh chord. For example, the “C7” (C-E-G-Bb) shares two notes in common with the “Eb7” (Eb-G-Bb-Db), “Gb7” (Gb-Bb-Db-E), and “A7” (A-C#-E-G) chords. Notice that the root of each of these chords is contained in the “Co7” (C-Eb-Gb-A) chord. Three examples of this type of substitution are shown below.

Original Progression

C7 / / // / / / / / / / / / / /

Substitute Progression (Dominant Seventh #1)

C7 / / // / / / Eb7 / / / / / / /

Substitute Progression (Dominant Seventh/Tritone #2)

C7 / / // / / / Gb7 / / / / / / /

Substitute Progression (Dominant Seventh #3)

C7 / / // / / / A7 / / / / / / /

Embellishment

Adding extended (7, 9,11 or 13), altered (b5, #5, b9, #9, or #11), and/or other tones to a chord is referred to as embellishment. Below is a table showing commonly used embellishments by chord qualities that are used to add color and interest to chord progressions. Keep in mind that the “m7b5” chord can replace diminished chords.

Major (“I”) Chords

6, 6/9, add9, maj7, maj7b5, maj9, maj9#11, maj11, and maj13

Minor (“IIm”) Chords

m6, m6/9, m7, m7b5, m7#5, m7b9, m9, m9(M7), m11, and m(M7)

Dominant Seventh (“V”) Chords

7b5, 7(b5/b9), 7#5, 7(#5/b9), 7b9, 7(b9/#11), 7#9, 7(#9/#11), 9, 9b5, 9#5, 9#11, 11, 13, 13(b5/b9), 13b9, 7sus4, and 7+

The example below shows an example of how the standard progression can be dressed up by using embellishments.

Original Progression

C / / /Am / / / Dm / / / G7 / / /

Substitute Progression

Cmaj7 / / /Am7 / / / Dm9 / / / G13 / / /

Half-Step

Inserting a chord a half step above or below another chord is referred to as a half-step substitution. A diminished seventh chord is frequently used as a passing chord between two other chords creating chromatic ascending or descending bass line progressions such as the first example below. The second and third examples create interesting walking bass lines by approaching each chord of the progression from a half step above. The last example approaches each chord from a half step below.

(1) Original Progression

C / / // / / / Dm7 / / / G7 / / /

Substitute Progression (Ascending Chromatic Bass Line)

C / / /C#o7 / / / Dm7 / / / D#o7 / / /

(2) Original Progression

Cmaj7 / / /Am7 / / / Dm7 / / / G7 / / /

Substitute Progression (Half Step From Above)

Cmaj7 / / Bbm7Am7 / / Ebm7 Dm7 / / Ab7 G7 / / Db7

(3) Original Progression

C7 / / /A7 / / / D7 / / / G7 / / /

Substitute Progression (Half Step from Above)

C7 / / Bb7A7 / / Eb7 D7 / / Ab7 G7 / / Db7

(4) Original Progression

Cmaj7 / / /A7 / / / Dm7 / / / G7 / / /

Substitute Progression (Half Step from Below)

Cmaj7 / / Ab7A7 / / Db7 Dm7 / / Gb7 G7 / / B7

IIm-V

Replacing a dominant seventh chord by the “IIm-V” progression is referred to as a “IIm-V” substitution. In jazz, there seems to be an unwritten rule that says that all dominant seventh chords must be replaced in this manner. The first example below shows a folk progression transformed into a jazz progression using this type of substitution.

Original Progression

C / / // / / / G7 / / / / / / /

Substitute Progression (IIm-V for V)

C / / // / / / Dm7 / / / G7 / / /

The “IIm-V” progression can also be inserted a half step above or below another “IIm-V” progression as shown in the examples below creating a chromatic “IIm-V” embellishment. This can also be looked at as a half step substitution with the additional “IIm-V” substitutions.

Original Progression

Dm7 / / // / / / G7 / / / / / / /

Substitute Progression (Half Step from Above #1)

Eb7 / / /Ab7 / / / Dm7 / / / G7 / / /

Substitute Progression (Half Step from Below #2)

Dbm7 / / /Gb7 / / / Dm7 / / / G7 / / /

Similarly, replacing a dominant seventh chord by a “bVII-V” progression in this manner is common in country music.

Inversions

The term inversion refers to the lowest sounding note (bass note) in a chord whether it is the root or not. If the root is the lowest note, the chord is said to be in the root position. When the third is the lowest note, the chord is said to be in the first inversion. Likewise, if the lowest note is the fifth or seventh note, the chord is said to be in the second or third inversion, respectively. Inversions are particularly useful in creating ascending, descending, and pedal point bass line movement as shown in the three examples below.

(1) Original Progression

C / / /C / / / F / / / G7 / / /

Substitute Progression (Ascending Bass Line)

C / / /C/E / / / F / / / G7 / / /

(2) Original Progression

C / / /G / / / F / / / G / / /

Substitute Progression (Descending Bass Line)

C / / /G/B / / / F/A / / / G / / /

(3) Original Progression

Am7 / / /D / / / F / / / Am7 / / /

Substitute Progression (Pedal Point)

Am7 / / /D/A / / / F/A / / / Am7 / / /


Mediant

Replacing the “IIIm” for the “I” chord, or vice versa, is referred to as a mediant substitution. For example, the “C” (C-E-G) can be replaced with the “Em” (E-G-D) chord. Conversely, the “Em” can be substituted for the “C” chord. The example below shows how a rock and roll progression can be transformed into a rock ballad progression by applying this type of substitution.

Original Progression

C / / // / / / F / / / G7 / / /

Substitute Progression (Mediant)

C / / /Em / / / F / / / G7 / / /


Relative Major/Minor

Replacing a major chord by its relative minor, or vice versa, is referred to as a relative major/minor (or submediant) substitution. For example, the “C” (C-E-G) can be replaced the “Am” (A-C-E) chord. Conversely, the “Am” (“VIm”) can be substituted for the “C” (“I”) chord. The example below shows how a doo-wop progression can be transformed into a standard progression by applying this type of substitution.

Original Progression

C / / /Am / / / F / / / G7 / / /

Substitute Progression (Relative Minor/Major)

C / / /Am / / / Dm / / / G7 / / /


Scalewise

Replacing two or more bars of the “I” chord with fill-in chords taken consecutively from the harmonized scale is referred to as scalewise substitution. An example of this type of substitution is shown below.

Original Progression

Cmaj7 / / // / / / / / / / / / / /

Substitute Progression (Scalewise)

Cmaj7 / / /Dm7 / / / Em7 / / / Dm7 / / /


Tritone

Replacing a dominant seventh (or a minor seventh) chord by a dominant seventh chord whose root is a tritone away is referred to as a tritone (or flatted fifth) substitution. A tritone is an interval of an augmented fourth or diminished (flatted) fifth (three whole steps). The box below shows a listing of tritone substitutions.

Original ChordTritone
A7Eb7
Bb7E7
B7F7
C7Gb7
Db7G7
D7Ab7
Eb7A7
E7Bb7
F7B7
Gb7C7
G7Db7
Ab7D7

Another way to look at this type of substitution is that the “V” can be substituted for the “bII7” chord. The first example below shows how a tritone substitution can be used to create a chromatic descending bass line in the jazz progression. The jazz progression bass line movement is changed from cyclical to chromatic. The second example shows how a tritone substitution was used to turn a standard progression into the opening verse progression to Our Day Will Come (Ruby & The Romantics – 1963). Then, using an inversion and another tritone substitution, the progression is further transformed into a chromatic descending bass line progression.

(1) Original Progression

Dm7 / / /G7 / / / Cmaj7 / / / / / / /

Substitute Progression (Descending Bass Line)

Dm7 / / /Db7 / / / Cmaj7 / / / / / / /

(2) Original Progression

C / / /Am7 / / / Dm7 / / / G7 / / /

Substitute Progression (Our Day Will Come)

C / / /Eb7 / / / Dm7 / / / G7 / / /

Substitute Progression (Descending Bass Line)

C/E / / /Eb7 / / / Dm7 / / / Db7 / / /


Additional Resources

If you want to learn more about the Chord Substitution, take a look at the following lessons:

A Chord Substitution Primer (Maximum Musician)

Chord Substitution (Guitar-Masters)

Chord Synonyms (MoneyChords)

Discussion of Backcycling (JustJazz.com)

Flat-Five Substitution (Guitar Lesson World)

General Principles of Chord Substitutions (JustJazz.com)

Substitution Rules (WholeNote)

Substitution Theory (Guitar-Masters)

Tritone Substitutions (JustJazz.com)

Using Tritone Substitution (Jazz Guitar ONLINE)


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