How To Play Jazz Piano: Chord Substitutions Lesson 1

In this jazz piano tutorial we’re going to learn a cool technique that you can use to decorate chords that are held for long periods of time.

This technique will work particularly well over dominant chords but you can eventually apply the technique to pretty much any type of jazz piano chord.

Start by watching the video below then scroll down for the sheet music and some very important tips to help you master this lesson.

Why Are You Using Dominant Chords?

The reason we’re choosing dominant chords here is that there are a ton of jazz tunes that feature dominant chords for extended periods of time.

For example, you’ll see extended dominants in tunes like:

  1. There Is No Greater Love
  2. I Got Rhythm
  3. Sweet Georgia Brown
  4. Cherokee,
  5. Donna Lee
  6. Confirmation
  7. Indiana
  8. Scrapple From The Apple
  9. It Might As Well Be Spring
  10. Passion Dance
  11. And many more

You can even apply this chord substitution technique to a jazz blues chord progression or even when you’re jamming modally on one chord. It’s really a versatile concept.

(By the way, the low 5th voicing I drop in the video is very much inspired by the great jazz pianist McCoy Tyner)  🙂

Now, scroll down and check out the extra tips and the notation for this lesson.

Jazz Piano Chords Notation

I know some of you learn best by reading sheet music. So, I’ve included a free sample of the jazz piano sheet music from this lesson.

This will give you an opportunity to study the jazz piano chord voicings I use in this lesson a little more closely.

online jazz piano lessons(The complete video lesson, the full sheet music, & hours of jazz piano arrangements are all inside The Premium Membership Course.)

how to play jazz piano chord substitutions

How I Discovered This Chord Substitution

I remember as a young musician I would sit at the piano and listen to people like Bill Evans, McCoy Tyner, and Kenny Barron play.

I’d find a recording of them playing a tune I was working on at that time and listen to how they’d interpret the tune.

I used to sit and do this for hours a day. I learned so much from doing this. It was a ton of fun and it was like watching a beautiful story unfold right in front of my face.

One of the things I found particularly interesting was how they played chords that were supposed to be held for several measures.

On the fake book it just said to hold the chord but they definitely weren’t doing that!

I rarely ever heard them play the same voicing for 2 whole bars. In fact it always appeared that there was this sense of harmonic motion when technically there shouldn’t have been.

I was fascinated by this concept. It sounded so cool!

Sus Voicings Are Great Chord Substitutions

As I began to transcribe what was going on there I noticed a ton of different techniques that players were using to create harmonic motion when technically the chord was supposed to be just sitting there.

One technique I heard that kept on coming up was this concept of turning dominant chords into sus7 chords.

how to play jazz pianoI first transcribed Wynton Kelly using it on the Miles Davis blues tune Phrancing.

Then I noticed Barry Harris used it while he was soloing over the bridge to Rhythm Changes.

I got more into Herbie’s playing I noticed he used it all the time too. He even wrote a whole tune that features this dominant sus voicings called Maiden Voyage.

(As we explore inside the Jazz Masters Method DVD, Herbie loves to superimpose and substitute chords.)

Eventually I started hearing it all over the place. I even heard it in the jazz rock music of Steely Dan and the modal jams of the Grateful Dead.

How To Apply This Chord Substitution

The basic concept behind this chord substitution is really easy. If you see a dominant chord being held for a long period of time you can substitute a sus7 chord in there for a little while.

So, instead of playing C7 for 2 full bars you could play C7sus4 for the 1st bar and then C7 for the next bar.

You could even apply this technique on a single bar of a dominant chord as well. You could play C7sus4 for 2 beats and then resolve to C7 for the next 2 beats.

3 Practice Tips To Help You Master This Chord Substitution

I’m going to share with you 3 tips that will help you practice today’s lesson.

1. Find a tune that features dominant chords for long periods of time and practicing throwing in a sus7 chord in there.

  • Applying a new piece of vocabulary or a new concept to tunes is one of the best ways to really start mastering the concept.

There Is No Greater Love is a great tune to start with. 

2. Put on a metronome or a drum loop and practice playing dominant 7 sus chords in several keys.

If you’re more of a beginner jazz piano player, transposing might feel a little overwhelming. No problem! 🙂

In that case just try playing some sus7 chords in 1-2 keys. The more you do it the easier it will get.

If you’re more of an advanced player though you should eventually practice this concept in as many keys as you can (preferably all 12).

The more keys you can play this substitution in the quicker you’ll be able to throw it into lots of tunes.

An eventual goal will be to be able to apply it instantly into a tune when you feel like it on the spot. It can take a while to get there though so take your time! 🙂

3. There are lots of cool piano voicings you can use for sus7 chords and dominant chords. If you need a place to start though I recommend using the voicings I notated above.

Applying sweet sounding voicings makes every concept you learn much deeper and of course much more fun.

Questions?

The concept in today’s lesson is an easy one. Just by moving one note you can create a whole new harmonic palette.

So, go run to the piano right now for 10 minutes and try out this concept. You’ll have a lot  of fun with it.

By just investing a few minutes of practice you’ll reap huge benefits.  🙂

If you have any questions on today’s lesson I’m happy to answer them. How would you use sus chords? Do you have a favorite chord substitution?

Please feel free to leave a comment below. I read every comment.

  • Dave Bucher

    thanks, Steve, as always you are a big help, man.

  • Frederique

    NICE!I find it a big help to think two quarters on the rootnote.
    Great lessons, thanks Steve.

  • antony

    Hi Steve, How do you apply this technique on Maj 7 or Min 7 chords ? Thanks

  • George Lancaster

    Great lesson Steve. Yeah I have a substitution. I was playing the tune IT Happened In Monterey and something had to be done with bars 4 to 7 just to much F7 for 4 bars so I plugged in Cm7 F7 two bars and finished the last to bars with F#7 F7 E7 A7 to bar 8 Bb maj7 or 9 V7 sub F# to the F7 to V7 E7 of VII A7 To I Bb it provided great ammunition for improvising solo. Oh the tempo was a swing temp.

    • Love the chord substitutions you chose George. Great tip!

      • George Lancaster

        hanks Steve. I like to help all concerned.

  • Brian W

    Steve, I am blown away by your website. There is so much information. I really look forward to learning your material and tips (I will be translating all of this to pedal harp, as that is the instrument that I play) and joining your premium membership club. Thank you again,
    Christine

    • Thank you! Glad you’re enjoying the site. I look forward to sharing music with you inside the Premium Course too. Cheers!!

  • Doug B

    Just fell across this. Thanks for keeping music alive! I can’t wait to master his and show my kids.

  • Dezi DeSiervi

    Steve: Thanks so much for this site. I’m jazzed about picking up some jazz styling for my piano playing and compositions. I cannot find sheet music for Jamie Cullum’s fabulous and soulful interpretation of “Pure Imagination,” which I would like to master. Trying to notate it myself, but it’s taking forever. Any suggestions?

    • Thanks Dezi. Welcome to the site! Stick around here for awhile and you’ll start to learn more about building your own lead sheets and how train your ear so you won’t need sheet music. Eventually you’ll be able to grab everything by ear!

      • Dezi DeSiervi

        By ear — that’s how I did it when I was a child. 🙂 I do improvise now; that’s how I compose. Just need the jazz chording knowledge. Exciting possibilities. Jumping in.

  • vekii

    Hey Steve, great lesson! Can you please tell me the name of that intro song from your video?

  • Hey there,

    Good to hear from you! Yes, The Premium Membership course is very systematic and progressive. Each chords lesson and improv drill lesson leads into the next one. It’s systematic and very sequential. There’s a logical order to all the lessons.

    Additionally, the songs library contain 3 different arrangement levels for each song. So, players of all levels (including beginners) can learn tunes no matter what level they are at. Here’s a link where you can get access and jump in http://www.freejazzlessons.com/premium

    Thanks!

  • ron

    thank you so much for this lessonand all the others—

  • Ronald Hall

    Thx for so much info.

  • Steve,
    You present us with some pretty tasty stuff. My one complaint , however,(and it is a big one) is that all too frequently you do not give a reason. For example, in other places where you show us full chords ,you merely mention what you are doing and noting the new chord has a flat 5 or a sharp 11 etc. I took a few lessons with another Professional jazz pianist who graduated Berkley., and he offered a very clear explanation. It went something like this: The key notes in a chord are the third and the seventh… the former because it suggests whether we will have a major or minor chord and the latter because it hints where we will be going(resolving). Therefore, in playing shells for example one could play a Root and & 7 in the left hand and a 3 and the melody on top on the right. Of course, one can also add notes like the 9 and the sharp 11 etc. etc. Knowing this helps one to understand the WHY of a move, rather that merely hearing a nice chord formation and having it specifically analyzed instead of understanding the simple GENERAL reason why it was done as it was. Am I crazy , or does this make more sense. Thanks for all you do.

    • Hey Joseph,
      It’s a good question. Unfortunately, we don’t always get to go super in depth in the 5 minute free lessons. They are short and quick and not full courses. I do know that you are an owner of the Jazz Masters Method DVD (thank you for the purchase by the way!). Because all my courses are full length programs we get to really dig into the meat and potatoes of why we do things. They are step by step programs. So, I would recommend digging into the JMM. Plenty of stuff in there that goes deep in to the “why”. Thanks for the comment.

      *www.freejazzlessons.com *