Creating Great Arrangements And Parts With Basic Chords: SUBSTITUTES

The ability to use the open position chords and their variations to create parts and arrangements that are interesting and musical will certainly and undoubtedly further your musical pursuits and give you a greater connection to your own style. I have often said that the lost art of guitar playing is playing in the open position. In our world of rock ‘n roll and power chords is often too easy for us to ignore the basic open string chords and their variations.We always seem to be preoccupied with sliding up and down the neck of the guitar and as a result we start to relate to chords and chord patterns in this way. One of the goals I had in mind when creating this course was to give anyone studying it a firm command and good grasp on just how important and powerful the open position can be.

If you have been studying the course diligently, and in sequential order you have learned quite a few new chords by now. Knowing a lot of chords is a good situation to be in, it will help you learn many new songs and adapt your playing to new styles. Developing your musical abilities, such as timekeeping intonation, blend, balance, tone and becoming the type of player that just always just plain old sounds good is also an excellent position to be in, because you really know how to use what you know to make yourself sound good. You have listened to enough music and been enough jam sessions to just have the knack of sounding good – playing nicely just seems natural to you. Of course the best position to be in is to know a lot of chords and also how to use those chords. In this lesson I have developed a three-point plan to give the student the ability to use the types of new chords presented in this course.

My three point plan, summed up by the graphic below, will be the focus of this lesson. The musical examples to follow will each employ the first one of the three methods: finding substitutes for basic chords in standard or common knowledge progressions. The next two lessons will expand your musical bag of tricks it, your creativity and inventiveness.


Substitutions Revisited

In lesson three I began to explain substitutions with the following familiar principle. The Quality of a chord is the general overall sound that it makes. In music there are three basic types of chord sounds, or three basic categories. They are:



Major Chords

6th, Ma7, Ma9, 6/9,

Ma 13, add 9, 6/7/9


Minor Chords

mi 6, mi 7, mi 9, mi 11

This sequence:

mi, mi (Ma7), mi 7, mi6

And this sequence:

mi, mi (#5), mi6, mi (#5),

Dominant 7 Chords

7, 9, 11, 13,

Also any 7, 9, 11or 13 with any of the following alterations:

7#5, 7b5, 7#9, 7b9,

7#5 #9, 7b5 b9, 7#5 b9,

7 b5#9


Remember, Major chords use the symbols M, Ma, or Maj and are generally followed by the mumbers 7, 9, or 13. The exception to this rule are 6th chords which are considered major chords and have their root note followed by the number 6 (e.g. C6).

Minor chords use the symbols m, mi, min or a minus sign (-) and are generally followed by the mumbers 7, 9, or 11.

Dominant chords do not use a symbol rather just the root note are followed by the numbers 7, 9, 11, 13 and also alterations (#5, #9. b5, b9).

Musical Example: Substitute Chords

The example below is meant to replace a very simple relatively uninspired and boring 8 bar vamp using the three primary chords from the key of C Major (C – F and G). This a very tired old progression which has been used countless times.


This 8 bar section can be turned into something original, interesting and creative with the use of substitute chords based on the chord sounds of the 3 primary chords.


Listen to, play and analyze the arrangements below as a study in basic chord substitution.

Musical Example: Substitute Chords


Once again, a garden variety 8 bar phrase has been transformed into something musical and special using substitutes for a basic I – IV cadence. The chord sequence Ma, Ma7, 6 is quite sweet and beautiful and has been in used in countless songs such as Something In The Way She Moves made popular by The Beatles.


Musical Example: Substitute Chords

Here I am using power chord voicings to give yet another tired cliche progression new life. These voicings do not contain the 3rd as a normal Major chord would. The result is hot sounding and kick ass.

Musical Example: Chords That Function The Same

As I have said before, this is not a course in the music theory. Hopefully you will study the music theory course that I have written as part of this website. This is a course in playing, naming and also using chords. I am sure anyone reading this lesson already knows about the basic chords resident in the key of C but just in case you don’t, review the diagram below and play those chords in a slow and rhythmic manner. Now play only the I (C Major) the III (E minor) and the VI (A minor) and notice how they are quite similar in their overall musical effect even though one of them is a major chord and two of them are minor chords. The point is they really don’t cause a strong sense of cadence and or chord-to-chord movement in your ear do they? This is because they contain similar individual notes in their chord spellings and for this reason they are all thought of as tonic chords that means that in the key of C, E minor and A minor are frequently thought of as tonic substitutes and can be used interchangeably to create interest and texture in place of a static tonic chord.


Musical Example: Half Step Rule

As in the previous examples my goal here is detailed in a fairly sophisticated musical concept and make it easy to understand and accessible for use in your everyday life as a guitarist. If you are studying my music theory course you will recognize this concept as the tritone substitution, but I like to call it the halfstep rule. The halfstep rule states that any dominant seventh chord can be preceded by a dominant seventh chord one halfstep about it. It sounds smooth, slick, sophisticated and professional. I call the court did you arrive at the target chord and the court which is one halfstep above the target chord I think of as the approach chord or the passing chord.

The example below uses Db 9 as an approach (passing) chord to the target of C 9 and Ab 9 as an approach (passing)chord to the target of G 9. The bass players part may or may not adress the passing chords, in this example the bass part walks a measure of C dominant and G dominant with no root notes dedicated to the passing chords. It is quite normal for this to be the case as the one beat of tension cause by the passing chord is quickly resolved and sounds very pleasing.

Musical Example: Half Step Rule

The example below is similar to the country rock standard Little Sister made famous by Elvis Presley and performed and recorded countless times by big time musicians like Dwight Yokem and Robin Ford. My version uses a I – IV – V progression in the key of E ( E7, A7 and B7) in a standard 12 bar form. The passing chords, (or the tritone substitutions) are shown in green. The C7 is the passing chord to B7 and the F7 in the final bar is the passing chord returning to the E7 at the top of the progression.

These chords are real attention getters and do an excellent job of adding and interest and harmonic motion. In this example, to heighten the effect, the bass line reflects the passing chords, when the guitar goes to C7 the bass guitar plays a C at the point of chord change. And naturally, when the guitar goes to F7 the bass guitar plays to the F at that point.

There are many songwriters and guitarists who have taken this concept and ran with it, applying the halfstep rule to all sorts ofchords, not just dominant chords. Quite often there will be two or three chords all moving by halfstep, and all being the same type of chord, before arriving at the target chord.

To write the example below I had a simple idea: use a G minor chord in a latin/ rock setting, sort of like Carlos Santana. Now, playing a one chord vamp is usually quite boring and uninteresting. This is where the half step rule can be a real lifesaver. There is really no collegiate or theoretical reason as to why this works, but approaching chords with one or two half steps, from above or below is a great way to add movement and dress a simple idea like the one I started with. In the following example the bass line plays the root notes of the chords, the bass linre reflects the passing chords.




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