I know you’re thinking… “whoa, big words.”
But let me assure you that this concept is very easy to understand.
Maybe you’ve heard of it. Perhaps you’ve seen these words thrown around forums. Well, I’m finally going to demystify tritone substitutions for you…
As you know, a tritone is made up of the 1 and b5 interval.
C D E F G A B C
1 2 3 4 5 6 7
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In C major, that’s C + Gb (G is the fifth… simply lower it to Gb).
It’s also known as a diminished fifth interval. (Diminish literally means to “make smaller”).
But here’s the thing with tritones. Unlike other chords, you really only have to learn 6 of them.
Yes! 12 is THE magic number in music. There are 12 major chords, 12 minor chords, 12 diminished chords… 12 of everything!
But with tritones, they are symmetric. In other words, they are the same if you take the bottom note and move it to the top. It doesn’t matter.
Take that “C + Gb,” flip it, and you’ll get “Gb + C” (it’s still a tritone).
On the other hand, if you take a perfect fifth like “C + G” and flip it, you won’t get the same fifth — instead, you’ll get a fourth (“G + C”). That’s because they aren’t symmetric.
Tritones are basically equal when you transpose them.
And get this…
They cut the octave perfectly in half.
Yes, believe it or not, the “b5” (flatted fifth) marks the MIDDLE POINT of the octave.
So if you go from C to Gb and then from Gb to C, you would have encompassed an octave.
Octave = 12 half steps
Tritone = 6 half steps (or 3 whole steps, thus the name “tri”)
Because of all this, there are really only 6 of them. Gb + C is basically the same as C + Gb (at least for the purposes in which we’ll use them).
That means, all you have to do is learn these (and I’m going to use informal spellings just to keep thing simple):
C + Gb
Db + G
D + Ab
Eb + A
E + Bb
F + B
…And you’ll automatically know these, the “flipped” versions:
Gb + C
G + Db
Ab + D
A + Eb
Bb + E
B + F
So the key is to master not only these tritones played as chords (or dyads) but to master, for example, what a tritone up from C is. In other words, you should be able to know that the other “tritone” side of D is Ab. Or the other side of G is Db. Or the other side of E is Bb, and vise versa.
Because once you understand this, tritone substitution is easy.
It basically says that you can substitute the chord a tritone away for the chord you’re currently on. It works best with dominant chords but you can mess around with it on major and minor seventh chords as well.
But basically, let’s see how this works in a 2-5-1 chord progression…
Normally, in a 2-5-1, the “5” tone is a dominant chord.
2-minor7 >>> 5-dominant7 >>> 1-major7
In C major, this plays out as:
D minor7 >>> G dominant7 >>> C major7
D minor7 = D + F + A + C
G dominant7 = G + B + D + F
C major7 = C + E + G + B
See the “G dominant 7?” The rules behind “tritone substitution” say that you can replace this G dominant7 with the dominant chord that is 3 whole steps away (or a “tritone” away).
That is the golden rule!
I said “follow” because, in my experience, you can usually play your original chord and then follow-up with the dominant chord a tritone away. And other times, you can substitute the original chord altogether.
And like I said, if you know your tritone relationships very well, it won’t take long to know that you can use Db dominant 7 in the place of G dominant 7 (“G7” for short).
D minor 7 >>> Db dominant 7 >>> C major 7
D minor7 = D + F + A + C
Db dominant7 = Db + F + Ab + Cb
C major7 = C + E + G + B
*Cb is basically the same as playing “B” — just spelled differently.
Why does the Db7 work so well as a substitute for the G7 chord?
Well, let’s look at their notes:
G + B + D + F
Db + F + Ab + B
(Yes, I know that “B” should say “Cb” but I’m trying to make a point here).
Regardless of what you call them, do you see the two common notes that these two chords share? In fact the notes they share (“B + F”) form a tritone, themselves! There are just tritones everywhere!
Next week, I’m going to show you how to use tritone substitutions in 1-6-2-5-1 chord progressions. I’ll even show you how to simply move JUST the bass note of most of your chords up a tritone, and how it can totally change the feel of your chords! You’ll love it!
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All the best —