LJS 92: How to Use Tritone Substitution In Your Jazz Improv

Welcome to episode 92 of the LJS Podcast where today we are talking about tritone substitution and how we can use it in our jazz improvisation. Tritone substitution is a cool harmonic tool jazz musicians use to add movement and color. This episode goes over several ways we can use it along with some lick examples. Listen in!

Listen to episode 92

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In today’s episode I explore tritone substitution and teach you how we can use this technique in our jazz improvisation. Jazz musicians are constantly adding and substituting chords and chord combinations while improvising and comping, and tritone subs are one great technique to use.

What’s a 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.

In this episode I give example of three different way to apply tritone substitution and I give some lick examples of how you could improvise over them. Here’s a quick overview of what I talk about:

  1. What a tritone interval is and what it sounds like.

  2. What a tritone substitution is.

  3. Why tritone substitution works when comparing chord tones.

  4. Three ways to use tritone substitution.

As promised in the episode, here are the different tritone subs I cover along with the accompanying licks.

Tritone Sub of V


Tritone Sub of VI


Tritone Sub of ii


Read the Transcript

All right. Hey, what’s up everybody? My name is Brent. I am the jazz musician behind the website LearnJazzStandards.com, which is a blog and a podcast, all geared towards helping you become a better jazz musician. Welcome, as I always say, whether you’ve been listening for a long time now or if this is the first time ever listening. Thanks for being here hanging out with me. I’ve got my coffee here ready to go. I’m ready to dive in to another episode here. This is episode 92 of the LJS Podcast, which today we are going to be talking about an important harmonic concept, harmonic tool in jazz music called the tritone substitution. Tritone substitution. This is a really cool concept, and so the goal for today’s episode … this is going to be a lesson, a teaching episode … the goal for today is to not only define what is tritone substitution in case you don’t know what that is already, but to dive into how we can use this tool to create more harmonic movement in our solos and to create different colors in our jazz improvisation.

Really excited to dive into that today. You can find today’s show notes over at LearnJazzStandards.com/episode92, and that might be helpful for you, because I’m going to be giving some lick examples over top of these things. So if you want … I always encourage people to learn things by ear, so if you’re in the gym right now, you’re running, or you’re in the car and you want to go sit down with this later, you can either just go listen to this and slow it down and listen to the licks that I’m showing you, or you can go to the show notes and take a look at that notation there. Keep in mind everything is going to be in concert C today, so you’ll have to transpose if you’re a saxophone player, trumpet player, whatever instrument you are that is other than a C instrument, which is piano and guitar and instruments like that.

Okay, enough banter, let’s jump into today’s episode. This is all about tritone substitution. Just quickly before we start, you can find a lot of this material that we are talking about today also in our e-book called “Zero to Improv”, so if you haven’t checked that out yet, go check that out. It’s an e-book that helps you become a better jazz improviser from the ground up, and it’s really a theory-based book, really kind of covers a lot of that stuff, including tritone substitution among many other things. So you can find that at ZeroToImprov.com.

Getting started with tritone substitution. Let’s start from the very beginning, because we have a wide range of listeners, all coming from different backgrounds today. So if you have no clue what tritone substitution is, we’re going to cover you right now. When we talk about tritone substitution, the first thing we have to ask is what is a tritone? What is a tritone? Here’s a definition for you: A tritone is an interval of three whole tones, hence the “tri”, between two notes. It’s an interval of three whole tones between two notes. You can also think of it as a sharp 4 or a flat 5 from a root note. An example of that would be a C to a Gb. A C to a Gb. If you could pull out your instrument right now and find that, you’d see that that is a sharp 4 or a flat 5, or what we call a tritone, or three whole tones away from the root note.

Let me sing a tritone for you. It kind of has this … it’s a very, I don’t want to call it an abrasive sound, but it has a tension sound to it. That was ascending. Here’s a tritone descending. That’s a tritone, and really quickly, let’s play this on a piano, just so you can hear that a little clearer, without my messy human voice in there. That is a tritone interval, ascending and descending. Back in episode 78, we talked about intervals during our ear training month that we had, and how important that is. That is a fundamental of ear training. That’s why we even have a whole course on that, “How To Play What You Hear”. It’s a ear training course, HowToPlayWhatYouHear.com, and it’s really important stuff, because it really does play a role in a lot of musical things, so it’s a fundamental. It’s something really good to have control of. It’s going to be good for you if you can recognize tritones just automatically by ear, and of course, if you can sing them, even better.

The next thing is to ask, we know what a tritone is by definition, by sound, but what is a tritone substitution? Here’s another definition for you: Tritone substitution occurs whenever a chord is being substituted or replaced by another chord with a root a tritone interval away. Here’s an example. If you have G7 chord, and it’s being replaced by a Db7 chord, that is a tritone substitution. So imagine a second the root is G. What is a tritone away? Remember, we talked about how you can think of that as a flat 5 or a sharp 4 or three whole tones. It would be Db, so G7 to Db.

Let me play on my guitar really quick what that’s going to sound like. Here’s a G7. Here’s a Db7. G7. Now for the fun, I’m going to play a Db9. We’re replacing a dominant 7th chord with another dominant 7th chord. That’s a kind of important fact, because most often in jazz, when we’re talking about tritone substitution, it’s a dominant 7th chord that is substituting the chord in question. This doesn’t mean that you can’t substitute other chord qualities, but a dominant 7 is most often the chord being used to replace.

Now, let’s start talking about some different kinds of tritone substitutions. This is where we can really start putting this stuff into practice and seeing how it works. The first one, and I would say the most common tritone substitution, so really pay attention here, is when it occurs in a ii-V-I chord progression. A ii-V-I chord progression. We talk a lot about ii-V-I chord progressions. This is the most popular chord progression in jazz and often times even in popular music. If we’re talking about in concert C, a concert C with a ii-V-I in a concert C, it’s Dmin7, G7, Cmaj7. If we want to do a tritone substitution within this ii-V-I chord, we’re going to be subbing out the V, and so this is why we call this tritone substitution “tritone sub of V”. Tritone sub of V. In other words, we are substituting the V chord, which would be G7. Dmin7 is the ii chord, G7 is the V chord, Cmaj7 is the I chord, the parent tonal center.

Like we just discussed, actually, what is a tritone interval away from G7? Let me give you a chance to think about it really quick. It would be Db7. That was the last example that we gave. G7 to Db7 is a tritone away. An interesting thing about tritones too is what is a tritone away from a Db7? You can think of it even ascending, right? It’s G7. It’s very symmetrical, so that’s the interesting relationship going on there. And when we do that, we start finding that they share a lot of the same chord tones. First, before we talk a little bit about that and the notes that they share, listen to what this tritone sub of V in a ii-V-I sounds like. If you listen to the bass notes there, it went D, Db, C. So D, Db, C. It’s a chromatic movement going on there.

Let’s talk about really quick what notes do the G7 and the Db7 share? Why can we substitute them from each other? The first place that we want to start, the most important place that we can start, is by talking about the guide tones. We’ve talked about guide tones on this podcast before, but really quickly, what are guide tones? Guide tones are really the important notes in the chord that define the chord quality, and in the case of 7th chords, that would be the 3rd and that would be the 7th of each chord. Let’s take a Dmin7, for example. What is the 3rd? The 3rd is F. What is the 7th? Is C. The 3rd and the 7th of Dmin7 is F and C. Now, if we go to the G7, as if we’re doing a ii-V-I, what are the 3rd and the 7th now? It’s B and it’s F. That’s the 7th. So B is the 3rd, F is the 7th.

Now, Cmaj7, what is the 3rd and the 7th? You have E is the 3rd, and what’s the 7th? It’s B natural. That’s the 3rd and the 7th. The guide tones per se in a ii-V-I chord progression. Let’s do some voice leading adding them together. So Dmin7, G7, Cmaj7. Those are the guide tones. Now let’s quickly zoom in to a G7 and substituting it for a Db7. So again, like we said, for the G7, it’s B and it’s F is the 3rd and the 7th. Well, let’s take a look at the Db7 chord. What is the 3rd and the 7th of a Db7? Put on your thinking cap here. 3rd of a Db7 is F, and the 7th, the flat 7, because it’s a dominant 7th chord, is what? It’s a B. So essentially, they’re switched on you. The 3rd of a Db7 is the same as the 7th of a G7. They’re both F. And the 7th of a Db7 is the same as the 3rd as a G7. So automatically right there, if we were to do those guide tones again for a ii-V-I, but with a tritone substitution, so Dmin7, Db7, Cmaj7, the guide tones are still going to sound like this. They’re the exact same. Doesn’t matter if we’re playing a Dmin7, G7, Cmaj7 or if we’re playing a Dmin7, Db7, Cmaj7.

What makes it sound so tense, though? What makes this Db7 sound so tense? Let’s start looking at that really quickly. Let’s go note-for-note in here. For our sake, for demonstration purposes, I’m actually going to be playing a Db9, so we’re going to add that 9th extension in there. That’s really going to demonstrate all the different notes that we can play, and oftentimes jazz musicians will add this extension in there. Let’s start first, the Db, that’s the root note of the tritone sub. What is that to the G7? AS we already talked about, it’s the same as the sharp 4 or the flat 5, however you want to think about it, so essentially that is the sharp 11 of a G7. A Db is the sharp 11 of a G7. So here’s what a G7 sharp 11 sounds like on a guitar. So we have that note in there. We’ve already got an altered extension in there. That’s part of the reason we’re hearing a lot of tense sounds going on.

Now, what is the 5th of a Db7? The 5th of the Db7 is Ab. What is an Ab to a G7? Think about that really quick. An Ab is only a half step up from a G7. What is that? It’s a flat 9, so another tension-sounding note that needs resolution. So we have that sound going on. So far, we’ve got a sharp 11 and a flat 9 in there. Now let’s talk about the 3rd. Actually, I skipped over the 3rd, but that’s because we already talked about that. The 3rd is an F, which is the same as the 7th in a G, so there’s no tension in there at all. So we talked about the 5th, that’s the flat 9. The 7th, we talked about that as well, that’s the B natural, which is the same as the 3rd in the G7, so those work together.

Let’s talk about the 9th though, because we’re adding the 9th in there. What is the 9th of a Db9? Well, it’s going to be Eb. What is an Eb to a G? What is it? An Eb to a G is the same as the flat 13th, or you could also call it the sharp 5. In other words, if you’re playing a Db9 instead of a G7, but relating it to the G7, we’ve got a sharp 11 in there, a flat 9, and a flat 13. In other words, we’ve got an altered chord. So you could also just think of this as going from a Dmin7 to a G altered chord. So Dmin7, G7 altered, Cmaj7. Or if you want to think of the tritone sub, Dmin7 (I’m playing Dmin9), Db7 (Db9), Cmaj7. They’re essentially almost the same thing. They’re very related to each other. Does that make sense?

That was a long, roundabout way of explaining that. I know that that was probably a little bit brainy, a little bit lengthy there, but it’s important that you understand why tritone substitution works, and what effect it brings. Really quickly, here’s a little lick. I’m going to give lick demonstrations for this, just something you can take home with you and practice some of this stuff. Just so you can kind of hear in a real situation what improvising over this would sound like. Here’s a little lick over top of a tritone sub of V over a ii-V-I chord progression. Again, you go to the show notes, LearnJazzStandards.com/episode92, if you want to take a look at that notation.

Now let’s look at another kind of tritone substitution. I call this one the “tritone sub of vi”. Tritone sub of vi. In a strict diatonic sense, the vi chord is a minor 7th chord, if we’re talking about 7th chords here. So in the case of a I-vi-ii-V chord progression, it would be Cmaj7 … this is the key of concert C … it would be Amin7, that’s the vi chord, Dmin7 is the ii, and G7 is the V. But oftentimes, jazz musicians like to turn that vi chord, the Amin7, into a dominant 7th chord. So it would be an A7. Cmaj7, A7, Dmin7, G7. It creates a little bit more tension, a little bit more harmonic movement there. So, we’re going to be talking about that vi chord, so the A7 chord, and we’re going to be doing a tritone substitution of that. What is a tritone interval away from A? Think about it really quick. A tritone away from A is an Eb. It’s an Eb. Now the chord progression reads Cmaj7, Eb7, Dmin7, G7.
When you listen to this, if you’re familiar with the song “A Foggy Day” by George Gershwin, you’re going to hear it immediately. It’s like the first four chords of “A Foggy Day”. So really, the first four chords of “A Foggy Day” is a tritone sub of vi within a I-vi-ii-V chord progression. Here’s what this sounds like. All right, so Cmaj7, Eb7, Dmin7, G7. Yeah, it creates a lot of cool, interesting movement, and that tension, instead of that vi chord, that dominant vi chord into the ii chord. Again, it’s all about chromatic movement. It’s this flowing, chromatic movement that’s going on.

Let’s actually try combining the two tritone substitutions we know so far. We’re going to do the one we just learned, the tritone sub of vi, but we’re also going to do the tritone sub of V in this same chord progression, because it’s I-vi (so we can sub the vi) -ii-V (we can sub the V) -I. So it’s going to sound like this. It’s going to sound like Cmaj7, Eb7, Dmin7, Db, Cmaj. Didn’t that add a lot of color into that chord progression? The lick I want to show you, the little line I want to show you, is over top of that chord progression. Let’s take a listen to this one. Again, I just want to stress that regardless of what chord we’re substituting here, it’s the same relationship. As long as the dominant 7th chord substituting another dominant 7th chord a tritone away, it’s that same thing we talked about with the relationship between G7 and Db7. They’re sharing those guide tones, but they’re also incorporating all these altered tones in there, so that it sounds as if the original dominant 7th chord is altered.

Let’s move on. I want to talk about one more other kind of tritone substitution. One other kind, and this one is the tritone sub of ii. Tritone sub of ii. We’re moving back to a ii-V-I chord progression, but this time we’re going to be talking about a minor ii-V-i chord progression, because this is the situation that this most commonly happens in. A minor ii-V-i, do you understand the diatonic series of 7th chords as it pertains to harmonizing minor scales with 7th chords, then you’ll know that the ii chord is a minor 7 flat 5 chord. Again, if we’re doing concert C minor, it would be Dmin7 flat 5, and then G7, but it’s usually altered for the V chord, flat 9, whatever you want, then the i chord is minor, so Cmin7. If we’re going to be doing a tritone sub of that Dmin7, what is that going to be? What is a tritone sub away from D? It’s Ab, so you’ll hear this right away. What I’m going to do is I’m going to go Ab7, G7, Cmin7. Heard that before? It’s that total bluesy sound in there, tritone sub of ii.

This one’s a little unconventional, though, because the guide tones aren’t exactly the same. The guide tone that is the same is the 7th of Dmin7, which would be C, is the 3rd of Ab7, but the 3rd of D is F. What is F in relation to the Ab7? That’s the 13th. So that’s why oftentimes, you’ll hear an Ab13 … that’s the 13th up top there … to that V, because it has that relationship with each other. So it’s a little bit different of a tritone substitution, but certainly worth mentioning there, and it gives that really bluesy sound. So that’s a way you can sub a dominant 7th chord, even for a minor 7 flat 5 chord. Again, unconventional in the sense that we’re not subbing a dominant for a dominant this time. It’s a minor 7 flat 5, but the concept still applies. The concept is still there, so I wanted to share this kind of a tritone substitution with you as well.

Really quickly, just a cool little bluesy lick to go over top of this. Check it out. So simple, so easy, but it just outlines that tritone sub so well, I love that lick. It’s great.

The big question. We just talked about tritone subs. We talked about three different kinds, two that are conventional, using subbing dominant chords for each other, the tritone sub of V, the tritone sub of vi, and then one not so conventional, the tritone sub of ii, subbing a dominant for a minor 7 flat 5 chord, a half diminished. But you may be asking, “So what? When can I actually use this? When can I actually think about this in my improvisation?” or if you’re a rhythm section instrument like a bass player, guitar player, piano player, you might be thinking, “When can I impose this?”

Certainly, if you are a rhythm section player, you can impose this when you’re taking your own solo and accompanying yourself for sure, and you can outline these yourself, but you may be wondering, “What if I’m a piano player, and the bass player’s not playing the tritone substitution?” Doesn’t matter, because it’s still going to sound like you’re just adding tension to the chord that you’re substituting for. That G7 is, compared to a Db7, all the guide tones are the same, it’s just that tension in there. Even if you’re doing a tritone sub of ii, it’s just going to sound like you’re adding tension into the process there. You can impose that on top of things.

Now, if you’re a horn player, and you’re like, “Well, yeah, but what if I’m playing these tritone substitutions in my improvisation, but the bass player, the piano player, guitar player isn’t following along?” That’s okay, it’s still going to sound like you’re adding tension. The important thing with tritone substitution is that you need to resolve that tension, that tritone, to the resolution chord. In the ii-V-I, that’s going to be the I chord. In any line, you can go as far outside as you want, as long as you resolve it and you play that line with confidence. That’s really the truth. Sometimes I get that question, “How do I play outside?” Well, just play outside confidently and resolve it. That’s really the answer. It’s a really simple answer.

So no matter what instrument you play, you can impose this stuff, even if you’re a bass player. If you want to do that tritone substitution, and maybe the piano player isn’t doing it, or maybe the soloist isn’t doing it, that’s okay. It’s still going to sound like it has purpose, especially because this is moving in a chromatic situation. It’s moving chromatically with these tritone substitutions. So don’t be afraid to use this. Don’t be afraid to try this. What I would suggest for practicing this stuff is practice these three different kinds of tritone substitutions, try improvising over them a little bit, and the next time you’re playing, whether it’s a jam session or a gig or whatever it may be, try to throw some of these things into your playing, into your improvisation. It can really add some color, really add some harmonic movement.

All right, that’s all for today’s show. I want to thank you so much for listening. Thanks for tuning in. Remember, find some of these musical examples over at LearnJazzStandards.com/episode92. Now again, like I said earlier, all this stuff you can also find in our e-book, “Zero to Improv”. You can find that at ZeroToImprov.com. We have over a thousand people who have bought this to date, and we released it this year, actually. So join everybody else and check out this e-book, and as I always ask, to give back to this podcast for completely free, just simply go to iTunes and leave a rating and a review. That just helps other people find this episode, really supports us and what we’re doing here at LearnJazzStandards.com and the LJS Podcast.

Next week, we have a really cool guest coming on the show. He’s a saxophonist-composer. His name is Chad Lefkowitz-Brown. He’s an insane musician, and I first heard him when I first moved to New York City, playing at a jam session in Harlem, and I was absolutely blown away. He’s gone on to do amazing things in his career, and he’s a great educator. So please stay tuned for next week. I’ll see you back then, on episode 93.

30 Stepsto Better Jazz Playing

8 COMMENTS

  1. Whats your thoughts about scale for sub V chords.. doesnt it make more sense as a Lydian b7 scale instead of a Mixolydian, so that root of orginal dominant is in the scale? (see your Eb7 sub for A7 example above)

    • Hi Mark,

      Thanks for listening! I'm not the biggest user of chord/scale theory, though I do think it has its place. I would focus more on the chord tones being highlighted. But you could just think about the Mixolydian of the dominant sub chord. Or you could think about the altered scale from the original V chord as a choice since that tritone sub is really hitting all of those altered notes. Ultimately, I think of scales as "pitch collections", a way of mapping out note choices, so any scale that helps you think about it better works!

      • thanks! I get your pitch collection point (especially from previous podcasts) over "scales".. I just keep wanting to hear the 5th of the key as the passing tone even when the sub V chord comes in.. the b5 of the key (or the P4 from the root of the sub V) always sounds wrong to my ears over the Sub V (or V7 altered).. I'll try to remember to be free of my thinking when i play, and just listen 😉 Thanks!

  2. I was discussing the tritone sub with a colleague, and when I explored the concept at home, I found that a tritone sub for a V7 doesn't really sound good in a major key. Is that why you only discuss using it on VI7 of minor keys and VI7 of major keys, but not V7 of major keys?

    • Hi James,

      Thanks for listening! Actually, the tritone sub of V7 in a minor key actually would be quite appropriate because, as discussed in the episode, it hits a lot of those altered notes from the V chord. The note that's probably rubbing you wrong is the #11 (as it relates to the V chord). But depending on how you utilize it, it could sound quite good. But certainly there is a little bit of extra tension in there. Hope that answers your question!

      • Yes thank you I know it works well in a minor key, but my question is why doesn't it sound good using a tritone sub in the V7 of a major key?

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