One of the prominent characteristics of jazz music is its rich harmonic language. Not only does jazz utilize the full spectrum of diatonic harmonic movement, it includes modal harmony, and also a slew of substitutions.

It’s important for musicians studying jazz to know some of the common jazz chord progressions that you will encounter in jazz standards. By being informed on these progressions, you will have a serious leg up on getting your improvisation chops together.

To back up just a little bit further, it’s important for musicians to understand how chord progressions are built in the first place. These are fundamentals of being informed on how jazz harmony works, which is essential for becoming a great jazz improviser.

But once you have some of these basics down, it will be incredibly helpful for you to have an understanding of how jazz musicians substitute chords for one another. Why? Because jazz musicians do it all of the time.

Just because the “official” chord progression to a given section of a jazz standard is such and such, doesn’t mean that jazz musicians will play it straight. Often they will utilize different tools to substitute chord changes and create more or different kinds of harmonic movement.

So today’s lesson is all about common jazz chord substitutions. While there are many possible substitutions in the context of chord progressions, we will go over five important ones you need to know.

It’s important to note that the five chord substitutions are taken in the context of a chord progression and not individual chords themselves.

Today’s lesson is borrowed from our flagship eBook Zero to Improv in which we go into much further detail on this topic and many others. Let’s dive in!

1. iii Replaces the I

In jazz, you will often see the iii chord replacing the I chord. For example, in the key of C, a Cmaj7 is replaced by and Emin7.

The common chord progression you will see this happen in is the I-vi-ii-V. This would be Cmaj7-Amin7-Dmin7-G7. But when the iii replaces the I, it becomes Emin7-Amin7-Dmin7-G7.

It’s important to note that in this example the vi chord has been made into a dominant 7 chord (VI). This is a common practice in jazz and creates more voice leading. There you go, a little bonus! This brings us into the next one…

2. #i Diminished Replaces the VI

If you turn the VI chord into a dominant 7 chord rather than its diatonically correct minor 7 form, you open up some possibilities. One of those is replacing VI with a diminished 7 chord.

Now, I don’t want to go too much into the theory behind this. Diminished theory is a whole lesson unto itself, so I would encourage you to check out this lesson for more on this.

Here’s the context: a I-VI-ii-V, which in the key of C is Cmaj7-A7-Dmin7-G7. When we replace a #i diminished for the VI it becomes Cmaj7-C#dim7-Dmin7 G7.

Think of it this way: a dominant 7 can be altered (b9,#9, b13, #11). If we were to make the VI chord into a dominant7(b9) chord it would share all of the important notes except the bass note of the chord, with the C#dim7.

3. Tritone Substitution

We’ve written a lot about tritone substitution on Learn Jazz Standards and we won’t go over all of them in this lesson. Let’s instead focus on the most typical example.

First off, for those who are new to this concept, what is tritone substitution?

A tritone substitution occurs whenever a chord is being substituted or replaced by another chord with a root a tritone interval away. Example: G7 is replaced by Db7.

A tritone is an interval of three whole tones between two notes. You can also think of it as a b5 or a #4 away from any given note.

One of the most common tritone subs is Tritone Sub of V.

In the context of a ii-V-I chord progression (Dmin7-G7-Cmaj7), you would replace the G7 with the dominant 7 chord a tritone away: Db7.

4. I-IV-iii-VI Turnaround to a ii-V-I

Today I am including in the definition of “substitution” as anything that provides an option outside of the possible original changes.

A turnaround is anything that brings you back to the I chord. Our first example, iii-VI-ii-V, is a turnaround heading back to the I chord. A I-VI-ii-V is a turnaround because it is cycling back to the I chord. But there are other ways to get there.

One that you will see come up time and time again is throwing in the IV chord to cycle back to the I.

5. Chromatic ii-V’s

This is a very common substitution/add-on, so pay attention. Take a look at this common ii-V-I progression:

Jazz musicians will sometimes opt to create even more harmonic movement by taking the 1st bar and adding a ii-V a half-step up from the original ii-V. They will then push over the original ii chord into the second bar, giving each chord two beats each.

Now there are even more changes to improvise over and connect to each other. Pretty cool right?

Give some of these chord substitutions a try. Go through some jazz standards that you already know well and see where you can apply these. This is great practice. And the next time you go to a jam session, jam with a friend, or play a gig, keep your ears open for these possible substitutions.

30 Days to Better Jazz Playing