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Turnarounds: How to Turn One Chord into Four

In this article we will look at turnarounds (aka turnbacks) and their various permutations as applied to major keys, minor keys, suspended resolutions and “other” progressions.

A turnaround is a chord progression that helps bring a chord progression back to the tonic key.

So in the case of the following examples our turnarounds are being used to bring us back to the tonic keys of C major and C minor.

The practice of turning around a tune started when jazz players began becoming bored with chords that lasted for 2 bars or more, most of which were found in the last two bars of the tunes they were playing. So these players thought up new ways to take a long tonic chord and play other chords on top of it to take the harmony to a different place before bringing it back to the tonic chord.

Turnarounds are most commonly used during the last two bars of a piece, but they can be used in many situations. The first three bars of the blues and rhythm changes for example are turnarounds.

  • In the blues the I7 chord goes to IV7 and back to I7, so any of the progressions below will work in that situation, just change the tonic from a maj7 to a dom7 and plug it in.
  • The first two bars of Rhythm Changes start on Imaj7, go to VI7 then iim7, V7 and back to Imaj7 in bar three. So any or all of the progressions below will work in that situation as well.


Chapter 1: Basic Chord Subs

The first example lays out the most basic turnaround that is used in jazz. Here the V7 chord (G7) is being added to the second bar, replacing the Cmaj7 that was being used for both bars in the original progression. This additional chord produces tension that is now resolved at the top of the tune when we return to the Imaj7 chord.


Basic chord subs example 1


In the next example we will add the iim7 chord (Dm7) to the second bar along with the G7 chord. In jazz theory one can always add a iim7 chord to a bar that has a V7 in it or vice versa and one can choose to solo over either or both of those chords in the measure that they occur.

So in this instance one could play:

  • a Dm7 arpeggio for the whole second bar
  • a G7 arpeggio for the whole second bar
  • a D Dorian scale
  • a G Mixolydian scale

or all of the above and it would all sound great...


Basic Chord Subs Example 2


Now that we have filled up the second bar we can add a second chord to the first bar. The Am7 chord is the vim7 chord in the key of C major and is the most common chord found between a Imaj7 and iim7 chord in the jazz idiom.

Again one could choose to focus on outlining the Cmaj7 or the Am7 in their soloing for the whole first bar as these two chords, Imaj7 and vim7, are interchangeable in jazz theory. Also listen to how the bass movement is much more interesting now that we have four chords within a two bar phrase. Even though we are still only technically playing C major for two bars, the added bass notes really create energy and movement within those bars.


Basic chord subs example 3


The next example contains what is commonly referred to as the VI dominant chord. We are adding it in place of the Am7 chord (the vim7) which leads into the Dm7 chord. The reason this works is that A7b13 is the V chord of Dm7.

So we are using “secondary dominant” chords (like Bach would do). This is where you momentarily make a secondary chord, like iim7, a Im7 chord by playing a V7/ii before it. Think of it as a mini cadence within the context of a larger progression. This substitution can be used at anytime and on any chord, which we will see in later examples.

The secondary dominant is the dominant of the dominant of the tonic.

Also note that the b13 on the A7 chord (F) helps keep it related to the key of C major as the F is the 4th degree of the C major scale.



Now we will add another secondary dominant, this time the Dm7, iim7, will become D7 which is the V of G7. This produces what is referred to as a chain of dominants as we now have the progression Imaj7 followed by a cycle of fifths movement for three chords producing a V of V of V7 progression.

This progression is quite common in jazz. The B section of rhythm changes uses this concept where the progression is D7/G7/C7/F7 or V of V of V of V7.


Basic chord subs example 4



Chapter 2: Tritone Subs

The following examples will cover turnarounds that use tritone substitutions. For those of us who are new to this concept of tritone substitution:

Any dominant 7th chord can be substituted by a dominant 7th chord a tritone away.

A tritone is an interval of 3 whole tones = #4 = b5

The reason that tritone substitution works is that both chords share the same 3rd and 7th notes.

For example:

  • The tritone substitution of G7 is Db7.
  • G7 shares the tones B (3rd) and F (7th)
  • with Db7: B (7th) and F (3rd).

Aurally speaking, the 3rd and 7th are the two most important notes of any chord in jazz because they tell us whether the chord is major or minor (the 3rd) and whether or not it is a maj7, min7 or 7th (the 7th).

In the first example we will substitute the last chord in the I/vi/ii/V progression (G7) with its tritone chord (Db7). Notice how the Db7 moves by a half step back to the tonic chord, Cmaj7. It is because of this movement that this sub is often referred to as the “Flat 2” chord, because it is the bII7 chord in the key of C major.


Tritone substitution example 1


Now we will sub the ii chord, D7 (this is the secondary dominant discussed earlier), with its tritone chord (Ab7). Here the Ab7 acts as a bII7 chord resolving to the G7 chord, the V7 in C major. Because of this the tritone of II is often referred to as the “Flat 6” sub.


Tritone substitution example 2


Here we are subbing the VI7 chord (A7b13) with its tritone chord (Eb7). Again notice that the Eb7 becomes a bII7 chord to the II, D7. Because of its relationship to the tonic, bIII7, this sub is often called a “Flat 3” chord.


Tritone substitution example 3


Now we can use multiple tritone subs in our turnarounds. In this example we use the Flat 3 and Flat 2 subs:

  • Eb7 for A7
  • Db7 for G7


Tritone substitution example 4


Here we use all three tritone subs, Flat 2, Flat 6 and Flat 2:

  • Eb7 for A7b13
  • Ab7 for D7
  • Db7 for G7

Notice how even though we are “stepping out” of the key of C major, the progression flows smoothly and resolves nicely when it comes back to the tonic Cmaj7 chord at the top of the form.


Tritone substitution example 5



Chapter 3: Subbing the Imaj7 Chord

So far we have looked at adding subs for the vi, ii and V chords in our turnarounds. Now we will look at adding subs to the Imaj7 chord at the start of our progression.

In this example we will play an iiim7 (Em7) in place of the Imaj7 (Cmaj7). Notice how this produces a iii/VI7/ii/V7 chord progression, or a chain of ii/V7s. The Em7 and A7b13 are the iim7/V7 chords of Dm7, which instead of being a im7 chord acts as a iim7 chord and continues the chain with a iim7/V7 back to the Imaj7 chord at the top of the form.


Imaj7 Substitution Example 1


Now we will make the iiim7 chord a 7 chord which will produce a chain of secondary dominants: V7 of V7 of V7 of V7 to Imaj7 at the top of the form.

Sometimes the E7 chord will have a b13 (C) in the voicing to help keep it connected to the original Cmaj7 chord that it is subbing for.


Imaj7 Substitution Example 2


In this next example we will use a tri-tone sub for the E7 chord, Bb7, which acts as a bII7 chord leading to A7b13. Because of this movement and its relationship to the original key of C major this sub is often referred to as the “Flat 7” chord.


Imaj7 Substitution Example 3



Chapter 4: Other Turnarounds

In this section we will look at turnarounds that are not necessarily based off of the I-vi-ii-V progression, but are common in the jazz idiom and can be used in the same context as the above examples.

The first example shows what is commonly known as a “back door” turnaround. This is where the tonic chord is stated in bar one, Cmaj7, then a ivm7 (Fm7) and bVII7 (Bb7) chord are used to bring the progression back to the tonic chord in bar one. This progression is found throughout the jazz standard repertoire in songs like Stella by Starlight and Lady Bird.


Back Door Turnaround


The next example adds a V7b9 of the ivm7 chord in the second half of the first bar. This produces a secondary dominant which resolves to the ivm7 chord at the start of the second bar.


Turnaround Example


This next example is what is commonly referred to as the “Ladybird” turnaround as it comes from the last two bars of the tune written by Tad Dameron. The progression uses the tri-tone subs of the vi chord (Ebmaj7), the ii chord (Abmaj7) and the V chord (Dbmaj7). Though in this case all of the chords are voiced as maj7s instead of the dom7 chords we saw in earlier examples.


Ladybird turnaround


The next example comes from a Joe Henderson blues tune called Isotope. Here the first bar is a standard I7 VI7 progression, the I is a 7th chord because the tune is a C blues so the tonic chord is a 7th not a maj7th chord.

The second bar steps out a little more, but all four chords are related by the Cdim7 arpeggio. The notes of the Cdim7 chord are C, Eb, Gb and A, the roots of the four chords in the progression. So what Joe has done is harmonize the descending Cdim7 arpeggio with dominant 7th chord to produce a new and exciting way of turning a tune around.


Isotope turnaround


This last example is used when the chord at the top of the form is a iim7 chord, as in But Not For Me and other standards. Here the Em7b5 and A7b9 are the ii and V chords leading to the Dm7 at the top of the form and the F7 chord is a tritone sub that resolves to the Em7b5 chord.


But Not For Me turnaround



Chapter 5: Minor Key Turnarounds

In this section we will look at turnarounds that occur in minor keys, in this case the key of C minor.

The first example is of a standard turnaround in the key of C minor using a im6/vim7b5/iim7b5/V7alt chord progression. Notice that in minor keys the vi and ii chords are always m7b5 voicings, which is different from the vi and ii chords in major keys.


Minor turnaround example 1


Now we will apply a tritone sub to the vim7b5 chord making the second chord of the turnaround an Ebmaj7 chord. In this case we choose to use an Ebmaj7 and not an Eb7 chord because the maj7 voicing is the relative major chord in the key of C minor which makes it closely related to the tonic key.


Minor turnaround example 2


In the next example we apply the tritone substitution to the iim7b5 chord to produce an Ab7#11 chord. We specifically use a 7#11 voicing because the #11 (D) is both in the key of C major (the 9th) and the chord G7alt (the 5th). This helps link the chord to the key we are playing and gives a smooth resolution to the next chord, G7alt.


Minor turnaround example 3


In the last minor example we apply the tritone substitution to the V7alt chord resulting in a Db7#11 voicing. Again the 7#11 chord is specifically used because the #11 (G) relates it to the key of C minor (the 5th) and to the chord it is subbing, G7alt (the root)


Minor turnaround example 4



Chapter 6: One Chord Turnarounds & Suspended Resolutions

Sometimes the coolest and best sounding turnarounds are the ones that are the least complicated. In these next examples we have what I call “one chord turnarounds” or what some books called Suspended Resolutions.

In this concept we take chords from the flat keys, Db (bII), Ab (bVI), Gb (bV), Eb (bIII) and Bb (bVII), and sit on these chords for the whole two bars of the turnaround. This creates a suspended sound that lifts the listeners ears outside of the expected harmony, but brings them nicely back into the tonic key with the Imaj7 chord in bar one of the tune.

The next example works well because the tonic (C) is the 7th of the chord and the #11 (G) is the 5th note in the tonic key of C major.


One chord turnaround example 1


This example works well because the tonic (C) is the 3rd of the chord and the #11 (D) is the 2nd note in the tonic key of C major.


One chord turnaround example 2


This example works well because the tonic (C) is the #11 of the chord.


One chord turnaround example 3


This example works well because the tonic (C) is the 6th of the chord and the #11 (A) is the 6th note in the tonic key of C major.


One chord turnaround example 4


This example works well because the tonic (C) is the 9th of the chord and the #11 (E) is the 3rd note in the tonic key of C major.


One chord turnaround example 5


So now that you have seen what is possible as far as turnarounds are concerned, try and take the ones you like and punch them into your comping and soloing. Even with a few of these progressions under your fingers you'll be sure to turn a few heads at the jam session or on your next gig!


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