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  • A 9-Second Method to Chord Substitutions

    by Jermaine Griggs · 5 comments

    in Chords & Progressions,Piano

    I touched on primary chords and chord substitutions in this post last week, but today, I want to take it a step further.

    (I recommend you go check out that post on primary chords as a primer to this lesson.)

    In short, every key has primary chords built off the 1st, 4th, and 5th tones of the scale.

    In C major:

    C is 1
    D is 2
    E is 3
    F is 4
    G is 5
    A is 6
    B is 7

    The primary chords are built off C, F, and G.

    The 2nd, 3rd, 6th, and 7th tones create what we call secondary chords.

    But don’t let the “secondary” fool ya because they are very important when it comes to chord substitutions.

    Recall in that past post how we paired certain primary chords with “brother-sister” secondary chords.

    C major (primary) pairs up with A minor7 (secondary)
    F major (primary) pairs up with D minor7 (secondary)
    G major (primary) pairs up with E minor7 ( secondary)

    …And even D minor (secondary) pairs up with B half-diminished7 (secondary).

    Quick Primary/Secondary Chord Substitutions

    Because C major (C+E+G) and A minor7 (A+C+E+G) share most of the same notes (including the highest note/melody), this makes the “A minor” a perfect replacement when it comes to chord substitutions.

    For example, if you had a progression that went from C major to F major to G major (aka – “1-4-5,” one of the most popular chord progressions ever), you could actually swap out the C major for A minor 7.

    Granted, you usually like to lay down the original progression by playing it the natural way first. But when it repeats, you’ll find it also sounds good (or even better) when you go to A minor (A+C+E+G) instead of C major (C+E+G).

    But what’s really going on here?

    If you look closely at the chord, we’re still playing a C major… we’ve just put “A” on the bottom as the bass or root note. And when you do that, it changes the whole chord to “A minor 7,” even though 75% of the notes belong to C major.

    (That’s why C major and A minor7 have a really close relationship. In fact, they are relatives… but that’s another lesson).

    So the progression could go something like this:

    C major
    F major
    G major

    (repeat with chord substitution)

    A minor7
    F major
    G major

    We’re not done though…

    More Chord Substitutions

    C major and A minor7 aren’t the only pair of the key.

    F major and D minor7 link up just as good.

    What if the third time around, you swapped in D minor7 (D+F+A+C) for the F major (F+A+C)?

    That would give you two more possible chord substitutions:

    C major
    D minor7
    G major

    Or you could keep the first substitution with the C major / A minor7:

    A minor7
    D minor7
    G major

    What other combinations do you see?

    So far, I can see:

    C major
    F major
    G major

    C major
    D minor7
    G major

    A minor7
    F major
    G major

    A minor7
    D minor7
    G major

    (This is another lesson but the G major can easily be extended to a G dominant 7 for even more flavor).

    Even More Chord Substitutions

    What about the G major / E minor7 pair? Can we throw that in?

    This expands our potential chord substitutions:

    C major
    F major
    E minor7

    A minor7
    F major
    E minor7 (which leads smoothly back to Aminor7 to repeat… that’s “circle of fifths” movement)

    A minor7
    D minor7
    E minor7

    C major
    D minor7
    E minor7

    So, really, this is a game of “mix n match” and preference.

    Because each of these chord substitutions preserves the melody (or what Jason White phrases, “never sacrifices the melody”) and pretty much has the same chord makeup, you get practically the same function.

    Some chord substitutions will work brilliantly well, others you can pass on. But it’s all up to you.

    It’s very important when playing by ear that you understand your options. As I always say, playing by ear is all about having options. You don’t have sheet music in front of you. You don’t have to copy someone else’s homework. You know countless ways to play the same thing… and this kinda stuff is where it starts.

    How many places do you play 1, 4, and 5 chords that you can substitute in their relative minor partners (6, 2, and 3)? That’s your homework.

    Well, that’s all I have for you on chord substitutions — see you next time.

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    Hi, I'm Jermaine Griggs, founder of this site. We teach people how to express themselves through the language of music. Just as you talk and listen freely, music can be enjoyed and played in the same way... if you know the rules of the "language!" I started this site at 17 years old in August 2000 and more than a decade later, we've helped literally millions of musicians along the way. Enjoy!

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    { 4 comments… read them below or add one }

    1 Richard

    This can be applied to all Chords? The 6th tone of any particular major chord, is the Minor Substitue for the Major Chord? Just take time to experment. Dick B

    Reply

    2 Jermaine Griggs

    Yes Richard, that is correct. Whatever is the 6th tone of that major chord’s scale can simply be played in the left hand bass without even changing the chord on right hand… Thus creating the minor7 chord of whatever the 6th tone is. Bb major can be turned into Gmin7 by simply playing Bb major on right and G on left. Because melody and 75% of chord doesn’t change, it is perfect candidate for substitution and variety.

    Reply

    3 val

    This is amazing and very helpful at the same time. Thank you and God bless you.
    sincerely Val

    Reply

    4 graham

    hi gaham here ur chords on substition is great
    just want to know the all the chords i seen can i play
    the first tonic note on the bass let me know

    Reply

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