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:
(repeat with chord substitution)
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:
Or you could keep the first substitution with the C major / A minor7:
What other combinations do you see?
So far, I can see:
(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:
E minor7 (which leads smoothly back to Aminor7 to repeat… that’s “circle of fifths” movement)
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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