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A Chord Substitution Primer

Darrin Koltow (383) · [archive]
Style: Theory/Reference · Level: Intermediate · Tempo: 120
Pages: 1



A Chord Substitution Primer

from the ebook Guitar Chords: a Beginner's Guide, at www.MaximumMusician.com

"What's wrong with a song's original chords? Why go through all the fuss to tamper with something that already works?"

Yes, what is the point of chord substitution? Chord substitution is a bit like spring cleaning for music. You get tired of looking at the same old junk that's been lying around the house for the past year or so. You're not sure what it will feel like to have a clean house, but you know the cleaning has to be done.

With chord substitution, the "junk" you're getting rid of is the boredom you feel in playing the same song the same way over and over. Replacing some chords with other chords adds new life to a tune. Let's look at some ways we can substitute chords in a simple but useful tune.

The tune we're using is one I call the Sam Cooke song, because it sounds like the tune "What a Wonderful World" by Sam Cooke.

Substitution One: "Musician's Math"


Here are the chord changes to the Sam Cooke song, together with the chord substitutions. These new changes will give us a fresh perspective on this golden oldie. They'll also help us understand some principles, or guidelines, really, for chord substitution.


Original changes


||: C


Amin


Fmaj


G7 :||


New changes


||: Emin


Amin


Dmin


G7 :||


Original changes


||: C


F :||


New changes


||: Emin


F :||


Original changes


Amin G7


C


New changes


Emin G7


C


Original changes


||: G7


C :||


New changes


||: Dmin Amin


C: ||


Original changes


D7


D7


F


G7


New changes


F


F


Dmin


G7


Here are some guidelines I used in creating this new set of changes:

  • One equals three equals six
  • Two equals four
  • and Five equals seven


Welcome to Musician's Math. Let's explain these.

Look at the figure "Chords in C Major." "One equals three equals six" means the C major chord (the One), the E minor chord (the Three), and the A minor chord (the Six) sound enough like each other to replace each other. They do sound different from one another, but compared to the other chords, they sound similar enough to serve as substitutes for one another.



Letter


C


d


e


F


G7


a


b*


Roman numerals


I


ii


iii


IV


V7


vi


vii*


Plain old English


One


Two


Three


Four


Five


Six


Seven
Chords in C Major.
*The b* means "b half-diminished," which is kind of like a minor chord, but really closer to a G7 in its overall sound.




That means when I see a C major chord on a song chart, I can try out an A minor or an E minor instead. The sound I get might or might not be an improvement. If it isn't, it probably won't sound bad.

"Two equals four" means I can substitute D minor for F major. "Five equals seven" means I can substitute G7 for b* and vice versa.



Substitution Two: All Minor Chords


Original changes


||: C


Am


Fmaj


G7 :||


New changes


||: Em


Am


Dm


B half dim :||


Original changes


||: C


F :||


New changes


||: Em


Am :||


Original changes


Am G7


C


New changes


Dm Em


Am


Original changes


||: G7


C :||


New changes


||: Em


Am :||


Original changes


D7


D7


F


G7


New changes


Dm Am


Dm Am


Dm


B half-dim


There's a chord in there you might not be sure how to play. It's a B half diminished. There's a diagram for it attached to this article.






How it works



I applied the "One equals three equals six," "Two equals four," "Five equals seven" talked about a little while ago to make these changes. For the first bar, I asked what I could swap out C major with, and came up with E minor. I could have chosen A minor, but E minor sounded better to me.



Substitution Three: V to I


This next "change on the changes" is called Five to One. Play these changes, then read How it Works to learn what gives this progression its distinctive sound.


Original changes


||: C


Amin


F


G7 :||


Five to One changes


||: C E7


Amin C7


F


D7 G7 :||


Original changes


||: C


F :||


Five to One changes


||: C C7


F E7 :||


Original changes


Amin G7


C


Five to One changes


Amin G7


C


Original changes


||: G7


C :||


Five to One changes


||: Dm G7


C A7 :||


Original changes


D7


D7


F


G7


Five to One changes


D7


D7


F Dmin


G7




How it works


The idea is to pretend certain chords are One chords, which is like starting a new key. When we do that, we can precede the One with its dominant 7 chord, (called its "Five" chord). A Five to One movement always sounds good.

We've just touched on the basics of chord substitution, which is a huge subject. This is another way of saying there are infinite ways of making a great tune sound even greater, and giving a crummy tune a chance to mend its ways. Taking the time to learn more about chord substitution will pay off in greater enjoyment and interest in your playing.

Article by Darrin Koltow, from the ebook Guitar Chords: a Beginner's Guide, at MaximumMusician.com

B half-dim