When learning how to play jazz guitar, one of the concepts that comes up time and time again is the Tritone Substitution. Though many of us have heard of this concept, and may have an idea of what it is, this is one of those concepts that we know is important, but we don’t quite know exactly what it is or where we can use it in our jazz guitar comping.
In today’s lesson, we’ll be looking at a simple way to think about the tritone sub, as well as explore a few examples of how you can apply this cool concept to your jazz guitar comping over a major-key ii V I chord progression.
You can explore this concept further by checking out the article Tritone Chord Subs and the Lydian Dominant Scale.
Tritone Sub 3rds and 7ths
Before we look at how to apply the tritone sub concept to the guitar, let’s look at how the tritone sub concept works from a theoretical perspective.
A tritone sub is when you see one chord, G7 for example, and then you replace that chord in your comping with a chord that is a tritone interval away, Db7 in this example.
Though there are a few ways that you can think of this concept from a theory standpoint, I find that it’s easiest to look at the relationship between the 3rds and 7ths of these two chords, the root chord and the chord that is a tritone away from that root.
If you look at the 3rd and 7th of G7 you get the notes B and F, which are also the 7th and 3rd of Db7, Cb(B) and F. This relationship is why these shapes work so well together, though they have different root notes, they are bound together by their shared 3rds and 7ths.
Here is how that looks on the fretboard when comparing a G7 and Db7 on the guitar:
Tritone Sub ii V I Example 1
To get you started, here is an example of a ii V I in the key of C major, where you have the original chords in the first two bars of the example, and then the tritone Db7 chord has replaced the G7 in the second half of the example.
Try learning this progression in the key of C major first, and then take it to all 12 keys, and apply it to various other fingerings for these chords on the fretboard, as you explore this concept further in the practice room.
Tritone Sub ii V I Example 2
Here is another example of how you can apply the tritone sub to a major key ii-V-I chord progression, again in the key of C major.
While the first example used the tritone sub, Db7, to replace the V7 chord in this progression, G7, this example uses both the G7 and Db7 in one bar, combining the root and tritone sub chord to create a sense of tension that is released when landing on the Cmaj7 chord in bar 3 of the example.
Again, learn this example in the key of C major before taking it around to the other 11 keys, and to different fingerings for these chords as you explore this idea further in the woodshed.
Tritone Sub Practice Exercises
As you continue to develop the tritone concept in your jazz guitar practice routine, here are 5 exercises that you can use in the woodshed to further work out the tritone sub concept in your jazz guitar comping.
- Comp over a jazz blues chord progression and change the ii-V-I7 progression in bars 9-10-11 of the tune to ii-bII-I7 instead.
- Comp over the tune “Tune Up,” changing every ii-V-I in the tune to a ii-bII-I progression instead.
- Practice applying the tritone sub to any ii-V chord progression on a jazz standard you know or are working on, making every ii-V a ii-bII progression.
- Practice changing every ii-V-I chord progression in a jazz standard you know or are working on to a ii-bII-I chord progression.
As you can see, it might be a bit tricky to get your head around the tritone sub and how to apply it to a musical situation.
But, but breaking down this theory rule to the 3rd and 7th relationship between each chord, and then practice applying this idea to your ii-V-I progressions, you can ensure that you will be bringing this fun and important jazz sound to your chord work in no time.
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