Chord Substitution: 6 Ways To Spice Up Your Harmonies

chord substitutionWould you like to learn how to apply chord substitution to your favorite tunes? You’re in the right place.

In the video below, Steve teaches one of his Jazz Inner Circle students a big principle in reharmonization.

Chord substitution is one of the greatest musical tools in jazz. It can also be used in other genres of music.

Take 1 minute to watch the video below. Steve will reveal a big chord substitution tip for you. After watching, scroll down for intense chord substitution techniques with tons of audio and sheet music examples:

Chord Substitution Quick Lesson Video

6 Tips To Go Deeper With Chord Substitution

Now that you’ve taken a few minutes to watch the video above, let’s get further into these tips.

Down below, I have 6 epic chord substitution tips for you to discover. Let’s dig in:

1. The Unbreakable Rule In Chord Substitution

chord substitutionTo start our conversation, let’s use the nursery rhyme “The Wheels On The Bus” as our canvas.

One easy way to study chord substitution techniques is to start with simple melodies like children’s songs.

Even if there are no chords at this point, you can hear that “The Wheels On The Bus” is a recognizable melodic idea.

Here’s a transcription of “The Wheels On The Bus” for you to explore.

(Don’t worry. It’s going to get a lot more intense with tips 2 to 6, but do check this out first for the meantime)chord substitution

The most important rule you have to keep for chord substitution is to respect the melody.

You can substitute chords all you want but never alter the melody in a way that makes it unrecognizable.

Some variations in pitch and rhythm are allowed. In fact, this happens all the time.

For example, there is not one recording of Misty that strictly follows how it’s written in a fake book.

Just listen to Errol Garner’s performance to see what I mean:

A Word Of Caution

chord substitutionBe warned: If the melody is altered too much, you will no longer recognize it.

Remember that you always want your audience to recognize the melody.

At the very least, you want your audience to recognize a stable musical idea all throughout.

If you want to capture audience attention, give something familiar but add twists or flavoring to it.

chord substitutionThink about it like this: A melody is like the main ingredient of any recipe.

Let’s say your main ingredient are noodles.

You can always cook noodles in different ways with different sauces, but it will always be a noodle dish.

In the same way, the melody of a song can be arranged in different ways but it will always be the same song.

However, if you replace the noodles with something else like bread, it’s no longer a noodle dish.

If you replace the melody of a song with different one, it becomes a different song.

Always remember that the melody is a huge part in making a song identifiable.

Now that we’ve established an inviolable rule, let’s proceed to adding our jazzy flavors.

2. How To Capture Attention By Altering Chord Quality & Adding 7ths & Extensions

chord substitutionThe simplest way to reharmonize a tune is by altering chords.

I guarantee that this is the fastest and simplest chord substitution technique.

To get things going, you can learn it through a practical example below.

Let’s look at the simplest chord progression of “The Wheels On The Bus”chord substitution

Now, we can make some changes to the basic chords that will deliver a great impact.

Let’s start chord substitution by using 7th and 6 chords instead of basic triads:chord substitution

You can even try to alter the chord quality as long as you don’t change the melody and that the chord will resolve nicely to the next chord.

One example that we altered the chord quality is by adding a b9 to the C7 chord. This gives the chord a more diminished quality.

You can alter your chords from major to minor in certain cases and it will sound good. Let your ears be the judge.

By adding 7ths and extensions as well as altering chord quality, the tune sounds a bit different now, right?

You have instantly added some sophistication to the melody.

chord substitutionOne legend who uses this technique is Ray Charles.

Ray used chord substitution in many of his hits such as “Sweet Sixteen Bars”, “A Fool For You”, and “I Want A Little Girl”.

If you want to learn more about how Ray used these techniques and more, check out our latest course, Play Like Ray.

inside Play Like Ray, you’ll discover Ray’s 17 secrets for creating passing chords and melodic fills that drastically upgrade the sound of simple chord progressions.

Get instant access to Play Like Ray here.

Adding extensions and altering chord qualities of the original chord progression sound okay.

However, it still sounds a bit plain. Why not spice it up a bit more?

Find out how by reading on.

3. How To Use Common Tones For Chord Substitution

chord substitutionOne of the easiest ways to substitute one chord for another is by changing one or two notes of the original chord.

In this way, you are utilizing common tones for chord substitution.

Again, when you are doing this, keep in mind that you cannot alter the melody note in the chord.

Let’s take a look at how you can add new chords to “The Wheels On The Bus” using common tones:chord substitution

When we first started out, we only had a I – V chord progression going on. By altering a few notes, we now have a ii – V – I chord progression.

A little change can go a long way into making the tune sound richer.

Sounds cool, right? But guess what: We can go further than that. Check out the next tip.

4. Why Functional Harmony Is An Awesome Tool For Musical Variety

chord substitutionHere’s another chord substitution technique you can use:

If a chord can stretch for at least 2 beats, you replace it with a ii – V that resolves to the next chord.

This is what we can call a functional harmony technique.

We say it’s functional because the chords we’re substituting belong to a key where you can find the target chord.

Check out how we use functional harmony in “The Wheels On The Bus”. In this example, we can find an A7 – D7 – Gm7 progression from bar 3 to 4 and a Gm7 – C7 – F chord progression on bar 5 to 6:chord substitution

Using functional harmony this way allows you to go to another key and then return to the original key in an instant. The added tension and resolution points make the tune more interesting and catchy.

chord substitution

As a matter of fact, functional harmony is one of the techniques that every modern musician needs to have. This is especially true if you want to become amazing at improvisation.

Are you struggling with improvisation? Do you want to address that and go deeper into it with functional harmony?

The Jazz Improvisation Super System is the perfect course for that.

Inside the Jazz Improvisation Super System, you’ll discover the most cutting-edge chords, scales, and harmony secrets that today’s top musicians must know.

Learn more about the Jazz Improvisation Super System here.

Now, what if we decide to throw a wrench into that functional harmony engine. Would it still sound good?

As a matter of fact, it can still sound good. Read on.

5. How To Use Non-Functional Harmony To Insert Interesting Twists

chord substitutionNon-functional harmony is a chord substitution technique that ramps up tension to another level.

This technique involves replacing chords belonging to the key of the song (or chord progression) with chords that don’t.

The only way it can sound good is if we take in consideration our first tip.

Again, you can use any chord over any song as long as you preserve the melody notes.

Here’s how you can use non-functional harmony in “The Wheels On The Bus”. You will see that we borrow a number of chords that is not found in the key of F major:chord substitution

As you can see in the example above, we have a couple of chords that you would not expect from the key of F.

You also may say that some of the chords don’t make sense but sound good.

You can also check out another example of using non-functional harmony in this Black Orpheus chords reharmonization lesson.

Now it’s time for you to learn a very common chord substitution technique.

6. Why Tritone Substitution Is A Top-Notch Chord Substitution Technique

chord substitutionOne of the most common chord substitution techniques is called tritone substitution.

Tritone substitution means replacing the original chord with another chord a tritone or a flat 5th away.

For example, in a Dm7 – G7 – Cmaj7, you can replace G with any Db chord (Db7, Dbmaj7, Dbm7, etc.) and it will resolve nicely to Cmaj7.

Going back to “The Wheels On The Bus”, let’s look at another arrangement that uses tritone substitution.chord substitution

As you can see, we replaced C7 with F#m7(b5) on bars 4, 5, and 8. On bar 10, we replaced C7 with Gb7(b9).

In most cases, tritone substitution can hit the spot in a really satisfying way.

However, how do you make sure you’re handling tritone substitutions and other techniques the right way?

Why Your Harmonies Sound Atrocious (And What To Do About It)

chord substitutionDo you experience the pain of hitting the wrong notes during performances?

Have you experienced the horror of your mind going blank on stage?

For that moment in time, it can sound like a nightmare.

You may have played around with various chords. They may have sounded okay when you were experimenting with them.

The problem is that once you hit the stage, nothing you’ve played around with comes out of your fingers.

Nothing is more frightening than the look in your audience’s eyes whenever they become aware of your mistakes.

Fortunately, we have a program that will help you become stage ready.

Our Premium Jazz Lessons Elite Membership program provides a step-by-step regimen that will turn you from novice to awesome stage performer.

Even if you can’t read notation or you have limited jazz vocabulary, you can sign up for Premium Jazz Lessons Elite Membership and skyrocket your playing from there.

chord substitutionInside Premium Jazz Lessons, you’ll discover:

  • The most beautiful chords that top pros use to wow their listeners.
  • How to build powerful jazz theory skills and shortcuts that help you learn songs 10x faster.
  • Step by step formulas that you can plug in to build a BIG library of great sounding chords.

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Enjoy learning chord substitution techniques. If you’d like to leave a question, comment, or additional tips, feel free to leave a note in the comments section below.

We look forward to your success as an awesome jazz pianist. Until next time, keep practicing.

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Mark A. Galang, OTRP, MAM-MT(c)

Mark Galang is one of our contributors at He loves teaching all styles of music especially jazz, blues, rock, classical, and Christian music. Mark is also a licensed occupational therapist in the Philippines that combines music therapy intervention with occupational therapy.