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Important Jazz Chord Substitutions You Need to Know

Welcome to episode 96 of the LJS Podcast where today we are talking about important jazz chord substitutions you should know about. Jazz musicians love to add and substitute chords and progressions within jazz harmony, and these are some common ones that you should explore. Listen in!

Listen to episode 96

One thing I love about jazz music is all of the harmonic possibilities. Jazz standards are already extraordinary vehicles for harmonic exploration, but the very nature of this music allows us to expand upon all of this.

When approaching jazz standards and common chord progressions we can consider substituting chords and chord progressions for each other. Regardless, of whether you are a comping instrument or not, you can use substitutions to add more color and movement to your jazz improvisation.

In today’s episode I talk about 5 chord substitutions that you may hear other jazz musicians use and that you should explore for yourself.

I will have basic examples in the show notes today, but if you want to get a lot more detail on these, check out this blog post that today’s episode is based off of.

Here are the substitutions I talk about:

1. iii Replaces the I

iii VI ii V

2. #i Diminished Replaces the VI

I idim ii V

Note: 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.

A7b9 vs Cdim7

3. Tritone Substitution

Tri tone sub of V

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

I IV iii VI

5. Chromatic ii-V’s

Chromatic ii V

Important Links

Zero to Improv eBook

5 Jazz Chord Substitutions You Need to Know

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

LJS Inner Circle Membership

Free Guide to learn standards by ear: Learn Jazz Standards the Smart Way

Read the Transcript

All right, what’s up everybody? My name is Brent. I am the jazz musician behind the website, which is a blog and a podcast all geared towards helping you become a better jazz musician. Welcome back if you are a regular listener and if you are listening for the very first time, I’m really excited to have you here, checking this out, hanging out with me. And I know you’re going to get a lot of value out of today’s episode, and today’s episode is actually a little bit of a theory lesson, a jazz theory lesson.

Now this lesson comes straight out of our e-book which, by the way, I looked up at the numbers the other day and over 1,000 people have downloaded and are using this book to help their jazz playing. It is Zero To Improv. You can’t find that at, and this lesson comes straight out of that and today’s episode 96 is all about important chord substitutions that you need to know in jazz.
Now jazz musicians, they are always messing around with chord progressions, right? If it wasn’t hard enough, jazz harmony tends to be a little bit more complex than say, pop or rock harmony and folk music and things like this.

There’s a lot of crazy, cool diatonic things, very colorful things happening in jazz harmony, but oftentimes jazz musicians like to go even further than that and add other substitutions to those chord progressions to add even more harmonic movement or just simply swap one chord out for the other to try to get a different color, a different sound in there. So I’m going to go over five important ones today that you should check out, and this can be helpful to go check out the show notes today which is, you can find that at, nine, six, and you can check all that out there.

And also this is based off of, we also have a blog post associated with today’s podcast episode, and I will be sure to link to that in the show notes which will be a lot more thorough if you really want to check all of this out, but I’m going to have plenty of audio examples for you today and I’ll explain things and everything should be cool whether you’re out on your run, out on your commute and you’re not at the computer, so don’t worry about that. Okay.

Now I’m looking forward by the way, you know, one thing that I said, one of the goals I have for the podcast this year in 2018 is to make you guys more a part of it, to try to incorporate you, the listeners, because this is your podcast as much as it is mine or Lean Jazz Standards’. This is your podcast. I’m here to serve you, and I want to incorporate you guys a little bit more into this next season of the podcast, and I’m going to talking a little bit more about that next episode, okay? I’m really excited about this. So definitely tune in for next episode but keep that in mind. I want to involve you guys a little bit more in this, and I have something to talk about to you next week.

All right. Enough of that, enough of the business. Let’s jump into today’s show.

Okay now, so in these five substitutions I’m going to be talking about today, I’m going to be talking about substitutions that are both diatonic and non-diatonic, okay? Now in case you are someone who doesn’t really know what I mean by that lingo, you know we have a whole range of different kinds of listeners today, those who have a little more experience, those that don’t, those that know this, those that know that, so let me be thorough. When I say diatonic, it means that it’s strictly within the given key center, okay? We’re strictly in the given key center. Now, let me explain that really quickly in the key of concert C. Now remember, if you’re a B flat instrument, you’re going to have transpose a whole step up. If you’re an E flat instrument, you have to transpose a minor third down from that.

But if we’re in the key of concert C, we have C major seven is the one chord, D minor seven is the two chord, E minor seven is the three chord, F major seven is the four chord, G seven is the five chord, E minor seven is the six chord, B half-diminished is the seven chord, and then finally, we go back to the one chord again. That’s C major seven. Okay, so all this is diatonic. All these chords are essentially a major scale harmonized with seventh chords. Now, if we’re going non-diatonic that means that we’re going outside of the diatonic series, so for example, C major seven and D flat major seven, that’s chromatic essentially. That’s non-diatonic. D flat major seven is not within the series, okay? Does that make sense?

I’ll explain that a little further as we go through them but let’s go ahead and start off with our very first substitution here, and the first one is the three replaces the one, okay? Three replaces the one, so in jazz you will often see the three chord replacing the one chord, so for example, in the key of C, a C major seven is replaced by an E minor seven. So, the chord progression that this is associated with, each one of these chord substitutions is obviously in association with a chord progression. It could be multiple chord progressions, but the one I want to use an example is a 1-6-2-5 chord progression, okay? So, again in concert C major that would be C major seven, A minor seven is the six chord, D minor seven is the two chord, G seven is the five chord, right? Okay.

So, now what happens when we want to replace that one with the three, okay, again this is diatonic. This is not non-diatonic. The three is in there. What happens? What is the chord progression turn into, okay? It turns into E minor seven, that a three chord, right, in C, and then it turns into A minor seven and then D minor seven, G seven, okay so … Where oftentimes jazz musicians will turn that six chord into a dominant chord. Okay, they always do that and you can add al kinds of alterations. I’m just playing my guitar. It doesn’t matter what instrument you play, but I always like to have … I’m a guitar player, but I always like to have different sounds going on, so you can hear it in better context. So here’s a little backing track of this 3-6-2-5 so you can hear what this sounds like.

Okay, so that resolved to the one there, but …. So, you can basically, when we’re talking about these chord substitutions, it means that you can substitute it any time you want. You can either substitute it if you’re an accompanying instrument like me, or if you’re a horn player or any other kind of player, you’re just soloing, you can also instead just substitute that three for the one. And you see this all the time happen in, for example, a rhythm changes. You start out going … Then you go to the three, right? All right, so you can do stuff like that, and you can switch it around all you want.

Sometimes the 3-6-2-5 is just a chord progression that’s composed that way, but you can always substitute that, you can substitute that chord and you will hear that happen. And when you’re in an actual playing situation with different jazz musicians, the reason why you want to be aware of these is because you might hear a musician go there and play that. And so you want to have your ears open for that and be able to recognize that sound, so that you can play that as well. Make sense? Okay.

So, the 3-6-2-5, you’re substituting the three for the one, okay? Let’s move on to the next chord substitution that I want to go over. This is a really important one and that’s the sharp one diminished replaces the six, okay? The sharp one diminished replaces the six, okay. So the most common context for this is again, in a 1-6-2-5 chord progression, but this is where you have that six turn into a dominant seventh chord. Again like I said before, jazz musicians do that all the time. They’ll turn that dominant seven. So you got a C major seven is the one chord and the six chord diatonically would be A minor seven, right? But instead you’re turning it into a dominant seven chord, right? Jazz musicians do that all the time. And of course the 2-5, so D minor seven, G seven, so …

You can add an alteration there, right? All kinds of things you can do. That’s all voice leading. You can do tons of different things, but in this particular case, we’re going to sub that six for a sharp one diminished, okay? A sharp one diminished, so now the chord progression is going to become C major seven, then C sharp diminished seven. Ooh, right? To a D minor seven, G seven, so it sounds like this, right? And then we can turn it around, right? That was a 3-6-2-5 again right there. But yeah, so sharp one diminished, so that’s C sharp diminished seven, and then two, D minor seven, G seven, right?

Okay, so what’s going on here? Why can you substitute that sharp one diminished, right? This isn’t really diatonic here. This is non-diatonic essentially. Well, it is in a way non-diatonic. Here’s how you can think about it, okay? And this will help if you have the show notes to visually see this, but a dominant seven can be altered always, right? What I mean by altered, I mean that you can add a flat nine to it, so an A seven flat nine would sound like this, at least on the guitar. I mean, there’s tons of different voicings. Sharp nine. That’s a sharp nine. Flat 13. And here’s a sharp 11. Sharp 11 with a nine, okay? There’s all kinds of different things that you can do to alter that chord. And so oftentimes you can and will want to alter a dominant seventh chord. You don’t have to, but it’s a good choice.

So, if we were to make that six chord, the diatonic six chord into a dominant seven flat nine chord, so that’d be an A seven flat nine. So imagine you got a C major seven as the one chord, and then an A seven flat nine, okay? It adds a little color, adds a little tension because then it goes to the D minor seven, right? So there’s some resolution in there. So if you do that, it’s going to match up perfectly almost with the notes of a C sharp diminished seven.

Now to prove that to you, what are the notes in an A seven flat nine? Okay, A is the root, C sharp is the third. E is the fifth. G is the seventh, the flat seven, right? And then B flat is what? It’s the flat nine, right? B flat is the flat nine. So that’s that chord just spelled up like in a closed position voicing, just from the root up to the very top extension where there’s a flat nine.

Now, if it’s a C sharp diminished seven, how do you spell that chord? Okay, well the root is C sharp, okay? Now what is C sharp to the A seven. That’s the third. Then the fifth is, oh I’m sorry, the third is E, and what is the E to the A seven, that’s the fifth, and then the fifth, wow. Getting so confused. The fifth is G which is the seventh of A seven flat nine. The B flat is that flat, flat seven, that double flat seven which makes up a C sharp diminished seven which is the flat nine of the A seven flat nine. So if you noticed, the only note that’s not present in the C sharp diminished seven is the A. They’re basically the same chord, just there’s no A root in there. So, they essentially just substitute for each other incredibly well. So now instead of the 1-6-2-5, you’ve got one, sharp one diminished, two, five.

Now this happens in songs like “Have You Met Miss Jones?” So that like, that one’s in F major though, so … Okay. But you see that happen all the time in jazz, and you may just hear a musician or yourself, you can do this, substitute that for the six chord. You can do that any time you want, and actually there’s a ton of diminished theory which we’ll probably do an episode coming up on diminished theory. There’s lots of diminished theory where you can substitute different diminished chords for dominant seventh chords. It’s really cool stuff, so a lot to explore there. But you’re going to want to know that one. That’s the sharp one diminished replaces the six. Here’s a little backing track so you can listen to that.

All right, so that one resolves to the one chord as well. Okay, let’s move on to the next kind of chord substitution here. This is number three, and this is actually one that we’ve gone into detail on in episode 92, and that’s tritone substitution. I mean, this is a really common chord substitution and that’s why I dedicated an entire episode to it. So I really encourage you, after you’re done listening to this one, if you haven’t listened to that one yet, go back to episode 92 and check out that one about all the different kinds of tritone substitution, but I’m going to really quickly go through it now just to review. I think it’s important to add it into this list because it is so common. Now just really quickly to reiterate what I’ve said before, is that a tritone is an interval, right? A tritone is an interval. You can think of it as a flat five away from a root note. So in the case of C, if I play a C, a tritone interval away from that is an F sharp or a G flat, whatever you want to call it, right?

Okay, so it has that kind of dissonant sound to it. Now when you do a tritone substitution, what you’re doing is you are basically taking a dominant seventh chord and replacing it with, whatever chord you’re replacing, you’re placing it a tritone away usually with a dominant seventh chord. Not always, but usually. So, again in the case of C, let’s do a case of C major, concert C major. Let’s say we’re doing a 2-5-1 chord progression. This is the most common form of tritone substitution, so that’s D minor seven, G seven, C major seven, right? Now, what we’re going to do a sub of is, is of the five chord, so it’s called the tritone sub of five. So the five chord is what? It’s G seven. What is a tritone away from G? It’s D flat. Okay, D flat.

Now what we’re going to do is we’re going to play a dominant seventh chord set. I’m going to play a D flat seven nine or a D flat nine, okay? So now for the five chord, instead of playing a G seven, I’m going to be playing a D flat seven, okay? So, in a 2-5-1 chord progression it’s D minor seven, D flat seven, C major seven. So, D minor seven, D flat seven, C major seven, okay? That make sense? So, that’s a tritone substitution, and again, if you really want to get inside tritone substitution, go back to episode 92. I really talk a ton about it. I go way, into way more detail and for that reason, I’m not going to go into too much more detail in this one, but you can check that out in the show notes, and you can also go back to episode 92 to learn more about that.

Okay, really quickly, let me play for you a backing track here of a tritone sub of five. All right, so number four is diatonic-ish, and that would be a 1-4-3-6 turnaround to a 2-5-1, so I’m including the definition of a substitution as anything that provides an option outside of the possible original changes, so sometimes a 1-4-3-6 is a common turnaround to a 2-5-1. That’s actually written in the changes, but again, you can substitute it for a lot other things. You could essentially … Essentially the thing that you’re really substituting is that four chord and that three chord. Those are the ones that are different. It’s a different way to go from a 1-6 to a 2-5-1. You can go 1-4-3-6-2-5-1. You’re adding a whole range of changes in there. So again that would sound like this, so this is again, in concert C, it would be C, F seven, I’ll talk about that in a second, E minor seven. In this case we’re going to do an A seven, we’re going to make that six chord dominant, so …

Okay, right? So it’s really the 1-4-3-6 is getting to the 2-5-1 which resolves the chord progression, right? So, for the four chord here’s the first kind of, you can substitute that whole entire chord progression, right? But, the chords that are really being substituted in there that are being added in addition are the four and the three, so you have the C major seven is the one chord. Now the four chord, instead of it being a major chord which it normally would be, a major seventh chord in the diatonic series, we’re changing it to a dominant seventh chord. Happens all the time in jazz, okay? You can do this with the four chord. It’s fine. It’s a bluesy thing. In the blues this is what happens, so C major seven, F seven rather than F major seven, and then we’re going a half-step down to the E minor seven, the three chord, and then we’re going to turn that six chord into a dominant seventh chord.

The reason I bring this one up is because it does happen all the time. You’ll hear it, and you can always substitute this in your improvisation, so for example, I could go … right? Resolving on that D minor seven. So you could hear all those changes come out there. I was outlining that C major seven that I play there. Right? It’s a little chromatic passage there, and then I went … Perfectly outlines the F seven there and then, E minor seven. What did I play? Right? So … And then I hit the third of the A seven, so I went … Targeted with some enclosure that third, that flat seven, right?

So it’s all about outlining these different progressions in your improvisation. You can do that and the rest of the band, if they’re trained, they’ll be able to hear what you’re doing with that, they can either follow along or it’s going to create some contrast from what they’re playing. So it all works, right? It all works. Okay, so let me play a little backing track of this for you, so you can hear what that sounds like. Just a little different context there.

Okay, now let’s go over the last substitution I want to go over. I mean, and again, these aren’t like the only substitutions you can do, but these are a list of popular ones you should be aware of. So, the last one I want to talk about is one that really happens all the time and you can really outline this in your improvisation is chromatic 2-5s. Okay? Chromatic 2-5s and essentially anytime that you come up with a 2-5 chord progression, whether it’s a 2-5-1 or whether it’s a 3-6-2-5, if you think about a 3-6 is a 2-5 of the two. A 3-6 is the 2-5 of the two. If that truly doesn’t make any sense to you, that’s totally okay. But all these are like 2-5 chord progressions. They’re cycling in fourths, so you can essentially approach them a chromatic half-step up.

Now there are some songs, some standards that have this automatically written in, but all the time you can add this. It sounds out if the band isn’t playing with you, but that’s what’s so cool about it, is that even if the band isn’t playing with you, you can still play it and it’ll sound really hip because you’re resolving it. So let me explain this. So again, let’s stay in the key of concert C here and we’ll stick a 2-5-1, so that’s D minor seven, G seven and then C major seven, right? Let’s say those are both, all those chords are played for a bar each, so … Okay, something like that. Now what we’re going to do is we’re going to add a chromatic 2-5 to it, so we’re going to start with a 2-5 chromatic above the D minor seven, the two chord. So what would that be? Half-step above D minor seven is E flat minor seven, so it would be … And what’s the five to the E minor seven? It’s A seven, right?

So now we have … And then we’re going to go to the D minor seven, G seven, C major seven. So now we’re going to play each of these chords for two beats each because we’re going to still make it fit into the three bars we had before. So now it’s going to sound like this, okay, to the one chord. So chromatic 2-5, 2-5-1, chromatic 2-5, 2-5-1, okay? This happens, you can do this in your improvisation. That’s the really cool thing so … Something like that, right? Now it sounded out at first, okay. So you’re outlining both of those. Does that make sense? And you can apply this to really anything you want. Let’s say, let’s go to the 3-6-2-5 that we did before, so that’s E minor seven, A seven, we’re going to add the dominant, D minor seven, G seven, C major seven.

Let’s say, again for the sake of our studies today, each one of those is going to be one bar each, but we can add chromaticism to that, making each chord two bars each, so now E minor seven is our three chord, right? Well, now we’re going to go F minor seven, so … Okay, we just added a bunch of chromatic 2-5s in there. F minor seven, B flat seven, E minor seven, A seven, E flat minor seven, A flat seven, D minor seven, G seven, C major seven. You can add chromaticism wherever you want as long as you resolve it. And that’s a cool and easy way to sound like you’re playing quote-unquote out. If you want to sound like you’re playing a little outside the changes, then you can do this chromatic 2-5 technique but just make sure you resolve it, right?

That’s the whole point of the chromatic 2-5, is you’re starting a half-step above, but then you’re resolving to the diatonic 2-5-1. Pretty cool, right? I mean, that’s a really cool one to do. You’ll hear people do that all the time really. And I personally like to use that technique in my jazz improvisation when I’m playing a gig or a jam session with other people. Okay, now again to close us off and keep on theme here, here’s a little backing track so you can hear a different context of this.

Awesome. ALthough that’s all the ones I want to talk about today, but how do you actually put these to practice? How do you actually put these to work? Well, I wouldn’t suggest tackling all of them at once. Maybe find one that’s interesting to you, like for example, if you thought the chromatic 2-5s was cool, go to a jazz standard that you know really well. Sit down with your instrument and go ahead and start playing through that song, and look for opportunities where you could add that chromatic 2-5 in there. Maybe it’s a 2-5-1, maybe it’s something else, but see if there’s ways where you can add chromaticism into that song and just take a passage or a chord progression from that and work through it and play through it. The best way to improve upon this stuff is just to play, right? Just to actually do it, and see if you can implement that chromatic 2-5 in different places into the song and resolve it properly.

Work out some lines if you’re not quite avid or experienced in navigating chord progressions. You can work things out. You can slow it down. It’s the practice room, so it’s the laboratory, right? Slow things down, chop it up, break it apart. That’s what I love about practicing. Now if, let’s say it’s the tritone substitution that interests you, right? Then, find different 2-5-1 chord progressions and see how you can add that tritone sub into your improvisation, or if you’re an accompanying instrument, again like a piano player or a guitar player or vibes player, try comping through that and try actually playing those chords and creating those chord substitutions, and I mean, if it’s a diatonic substitution like one of the ones we went over, like a 1-4-3-6 which is turning around to the two, look for areas where maybe the chords, you could add that four chord into there. You could add that three chord. Look for different opportunities where you could swap these chords out or add more harmonic movement.

That’s just the basic way to do it. Grab one or two of these. Look through a song that you know really well, and start applying it, and the more you work on this stuff. The more it’ll just naturally come out in your playing, and it’s going to help you understand the different options that you have in your improvisation. Ultimately, I have this rule. It’s called the jazz improv rule and that is if you want to become a better jazz improvisor you need to understand jazz harmony, okay? And a lot of people just like to work on their soling skills, their improv techniques, scales, different things like that, transcribing solos, all of that stuff, super great, but then they forget about actually learning jazz harmony, okay? They forget all about that, and I think that’s really important because the more we understand jazz harmony and the different things we can do, the way we that we can substitute it, then the more options we’re going to have in our jazz improvisation. And I think that’s the biggest takeaway, the biggest lesson from today.

All right. That’s all for today’s show. I want to thank you so much for listening. Thank you for tuning in. I really appreciate it. Remember you can go to the show notes. That’s 96 to check out some of the stuff I’ve been talking about today and you can also, by the way this lesson, as I said at the beginning of the show comes from our e-book Zero to Improv, which you can find at It’s more of a music theory approach to improvisation and helps you become a great jazz improvisor from the ground up.

Okay, now as I always say at the end of the show, and if you’ve been listening to the show for a while, you know what’s coming. If you got value out of this podcast episode, go to iTunes or your favorite podcast listening service, leave us a rating and a review, a kind one and let us know how you like the show, and this just helps other people find the show. It helps other people jump on board and say, “Hey, a lot of people like this show. I should be listening to it, too,” so feel free. It’s a free way to give back to us and just to help us out. Just go to iTunes and leave us a rating and review.

Okay now, next week we are coming out with episode 97. We are inching closer and closer to episode 100, which we have a lot of awesome things planned for episode 100 through 104, 104 being our birthday episode, our two year birthday episode, so looking forward to seeing you back next week.

Brent Vaartstra
Brent Vaartstra
Brent Vaartstra is a professional jazz guitarist and educator living in New York City. He is the head blogger and podcast host for which he owns and operates. He actively performs around the New York metropolitan area and is the author of the Hal Leonard publication "Visual Improvisation for Jazz Guitar." He's also the host of the music entrepreneurship podcast "Passive Income Musician."

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