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3 Substitutions Every Jazz Musician Should Know

When you’re playing over a progression, you can stay inside—by playing the chord scales, or go outside—by playing chromatic material.

The secret to playing chromatically is to play cohesive lines. If you just plunk around and play chromatic notes, it likely won’t sound good. But if you play arpeggios or scales that highlight specific tensions and focus on the resolution, you can successfully pass the chromaticism without confusing your listener.

One great way to use chromatic material in a coherent way is to use substitutions. Substitutions are when we sub out one chord for another chord that has a similar function but contains chromatic notes.

If you want to look at more substitutions and work on playing outside, check out our 64 Inside Outside Phrases PDF package and see how Ryan takes these phrases in our accompanying YouTube video, 3 Substitutions Every Jazz Musician Should Know.

Now let’s check out these subs!


Tritone substitution

A tritone sub is one of the most common jazz substitutions. Using tritone substitutions will help you as a jazz musician, especially when you’re playing with a band.

The best place to use a tritone sub is over a ii - V - I. What we do is instead of playing our V chord, we play a dominant chord a tritone away from the V (which you can think of as six half steps or 3 ½ steps). You can also think of the tritone as a #4 or b5.

How to identify a tritone substitution in jazz

In our first example, we’re going to look at a ii - V - I in D major—so Em, A7, D. To find the tritone on the dominant, go to the b5—in the case of A7, we would go to Eb7.

The first thing you’ll notice is that this gives a smooth descending motion to the bass, from E to Eb to D—which is why this substitution is so popular for jazz.

Here’s what our exercise line looks like:

Using a tritone substitution in a 2 5 1 jazz phrase
Using a tritone substitution in a ii-V-I phrase

Interestingly, you can also substitute that same chord over the ii as well. Try playing Eb7 material over the ii, V, and then resolve to the tonic.

Major seven dominant chord substitution

This substitution also uses a dominant chord, but on a different scale degree.

Thinking of D minor, we have D, E, F, G, A, Bb, and C. We’re going to go a half step up from the seven to the major seven, which is C#.

Major 7 dominant chord substitution

From there, we’ll play the dominant scale against our minor tonic a half step up—so we’ll play C# mixolydian against D minor.

Major 7 dominant chord substitution in jazz

This will give us a bunch of color notes that aren’t in the D minor scale, like Ab (the tritone), Bb, C#, and Eb.

Now let’s check out this line using this sub:

Dominant 7 substitution in jazz

A good way to use this exercise is to keep one measure, improvise a measure, keep a measure, and improvise the next one. This way you’re able to work on connecting phrases and keeping voice leading top-of-mind. Also remember that resolution is an important part of playing outside—if you’re able to lead smoothly into resolution, you’ll find that your playing will sound intentional and professional.

We have more examples like this in our PDF package 64 Inside Outside Phrases, so if you like these, make sure to check that out! If you work on a few that you like, you’ll be able to add more color to your modal playing and playing over vamps.

Minor ii-V substitutions

This is a longer substitution, which can give some really interesting colors.

What we’re going to do is take our minor iiº - V- i and sub the entire ii-V with the b9 of the dominant chord, and we’ll play that scale.

Similar to what we talked about with tritone subs, where we played the tritone’s dominant scale, we’re now going to do the same thing with the b9 of the dominant chord.

For instance, if we have I - vi, and we insert a ii-V to get to vi, we’ll play a dominant scale a half step above the V chord over the ii-V.