Chord Substitution

Getting tired of the same old chords? Ready for something fresher than a penguin with a polo? That’s exactly what chord substitution can do for you.

Chord substitution can be one of two things: 

  1. You swap out one chord for another that is either very similar, e.g. it has
    many of the same notes and sounds similar, or
  2. You add a chord before the original is played, one that progresses naturally into it. 

It’s great for creating variety in chord progressions you know, or for embellishing songs. 

Here are some examples:

Chord Extensions

major chord substitution
minor chord substitution

You can swap out any triad, i.e. Major or Minor chord, with an extension, by adding notes onto the core notes of a chord. Because the original pattern of notes is still there, the harmony of that triad still exists in our extended chord. Some common chord extensions include:

6ths, 7ths, 9ths, 11ths, 13ths

As long as the extended chord contains the same triad that we added our notes onto, then this will work for any chord progression. This principle also works in reverse, where we can swap out an extended chord for a triad, simply by reducing notes to get to the original 3 note structure. 

Secondary Dominant Substitution

dominant chord substitution

This is where you target the chord you want to spice up, and add a dominant 7th chord either a 5th interval above or a 4th below. This adds a 2nd layer of dominant chords to the key, thus being called a secondary dominant. They’re played between your target chord, and the one just before. You can either move the chords around to take up more bar space, or you can fit all the chords within the same amount of bars it took for the original progression. 

The reason secondary dominants are interesting is because they use notes outside of the key, and it works because they resolve to notes inside the key. It’s like adding another colour to a drawing that blends well with the existing colours that are already there. 

An extended method of this is to stack dominants of the secondary dominant. You keep going until you reach your target chord, which can be any within they key you’re playing. This is also called an extended dominant, or back cycling. 

Chord Suspensions

suspended chord substitution

You replace any major or minor chord with a sus2 or a sus4. In chord suspensions, the third note in a triad with either a 2nd or a fourth, both of which creates tension that wants to resolve – the second wants to resolve down to the 1st, or up to the 3rd, and the fourth wants to move down a half step to the third.

This is based on Major scale tendencies, where the unstable notes of a major scale; the 2, 4, 6, 7, want to resolve to the stable notes of a major scale; the 1, 3, 5. 

In theory, you cannot substitute a dominant chord for a suspended chord, because the suspension contains only the triad 1, 2, 5 for sus2 and 1, 4, 5, for sus4. There is no b7 which creates the dominant quality. 

HOWEVER! Rules are meant to be broken and I encourage you to do just that. Don’t let theory dictate what you should and shouldn’t play; experiment with what sounds good to your ear, and use theory to help you link it to what you know. Use it to enhance your creativity, rather than diminish it.  

Here’s a table showcasing which chords to replace for which in a progression. I’ve referred to the key of C here, but you can use this for any type of chord, for example, replacing a major chord with a 6 chord in any key.

Chord Substitution Table

extension table

Example Chord Progressions

CMaj7 – BbMaj7 – CMaj7 – Dmin7

For dominant substitution:

C7 – BbMaj7 – C7 – Dmin7

Practise changing one chord at a time with the chosen chords.

And until next time… Happy playing fellow travellers.  

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