Simple Chord Substitutions

I am not a jazz musician. I prefer to stick to rock or folk, and I see a lot of what modern jazz musicians do as showing off or needless complication of what should be simple. And so, for a long time, I resisted learning many ideas and techniques that I thought of as "jazz techniques," or "jazz theory," or even "jazz chords."

I was, of course, being silly. There is no such thing as a "jazz technique," just as there is no such thing as a "jazz chord." Jazz musicians (most of them, anyway) are trying to do the same thing the rest of us are trying to do: make music that sounds good. So, while you may not want to bust out the augmented seventh chords in your next Woody Guthrie cover, a lot of the tips and tricks that jazz musicians use can be applied in other contexts. One of these tricks is the concept of "chord substitutions."

Wait, don't run away!

Chord substitutions sound scary, because we hear people talk about things like "ah yes, the quintessential tritone substitution with the dominant seventh over a flat fifth blah blah blah." It really doesn't have to be that way. A substitution is just replacing one thing with another thing. In this case, it's replacing one chord with another chord.

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Slash Chords

This lesson builds directly on the Chord Inversions lesson, so I suggest re-reading that one, if you have not read it yet.

That lesson introduced the slash notation, for example, C/G, pronounced C over G. In that lesson, the slash notation was used to choose an alternate bass note from the notes that are in the chord. The notation can be expanded, though, and you can play any chord over any other bass note. Because of the way they are written, I call these types of chords slash chords. You might also see them called alternate bass chords or compound chords. All it means is you play a different note in the bass, but it opens up a whole bunch of possibilities, especially when songwriting.

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Chord Inversions

Last lesson, I covered interval inversions. You can re-read that now, if you want, though it's not a big deal if you don't. To summarize, inverting an interval just means measuring the distance between two notes starting on the second note instead of the first note, for example, instead of counting the distance from C to G (perfect fifth), you can start at G and count up to the C an octave above, giving you a perfect fourth.

A chord inversion is similar. It just means starting the chord on a note other than the tonic note.

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9th, 11th, and 13th Chords

Oooh, look at all those high numbers. Those must be really complicated, difficult chords! Probably sound craaaazy!

Ok, so maybe not.

These chord names may sound impressive, but they’re really just continuations of the same patterns we’ve already been using. A ninth chord is just a seventh chord with the added interval of the major ninth. An eleventh chord is just a ninth chord with the added interval of the perfect eleventh, and a thirteenth chord has the added interval of the major thirteenth.

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