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Tritone Chord Substitution

The tritone substitution is one of the most commonly used chord substitutions in jazz, and fairly straightforward to understand, but learning how to add these cool-sounding chords to your comping ideas can be tougher than it sounds.

 

 

 

 

In this lesson you will learn why tritone subs function as they do, how to apply them to various common chord progressions, and how to take this fundamental chord sub to other areas of your jazz guitar comping output.

 

What is a Tritone Sub?

To begin, lets looks into exactly what a tritone sub is and how you can apply it in a basic way to any dominant 7th chord you are comping over.

The basic application of a tritone sub is to take any 7th chord you see and play another 7th chord that occurs a tritone (#4 aka b5), away from that initial chord, such as playing Db7 over G7. The reason that this sub works is that 7th chords with a bass note a tritone apart share the same 3rd and 7th.

Here are the notes of those two chords for comparison:

G7 G B D F
Db7 Db F Ab B

 

 

As you can see:

  • The 3rd of G (B) is the same as the b7 of Db7 (B)
  • The b7 of G7 (F) is the same note as the 3rd of Db7 (F)

This is glue that holds the two tritone sub chords together.

 

Here is how a tritone sub looks on those two chords (G7 and Db7). Notice that the 3rd and 7th of G7 are the same notes as the 7th and 3rd of Db7 on the fretboard.

 

Listen & Play

Tritone Subs 1

 

Now that you know how tritone subs function and how to apply them to Dominant 7th chords, let’s take a look at some common applications of this jazz guitar chord sub.

 

Tritone Blues Chords

The first practical application of tritone subs we will look at is the fourth bar in a jazz blues chord progression.

When playing on a common blues progression, you normally play I7-IV7-I7-I7 in the first four bars of the tune. But, you can apply a tritone sub in bar four, so in the key of F blues it would be a B7 chord, that then resolves down by a half step to the IV7 chord, Bb7 in this key, in bar five.

Here is how that sub looks over a jazz blues chord progression in F.

 

Listen & Play

Tritone Subs 2

 

 

To help you get started with this tritone blues sub, here is an example of how you can play through this pattern in the key of C major.

 

Listen & Play

Tritone Subs 3

 

When you have these examples under your fingers, try putting on a jazz blues chord progression in F, or Bb or C, and adding this tritone sub to bar four of your comping lines over these changes.

 

Tritone ii V I Chords

Probably the most popular choice for a tritone substitution is over the V7 chord in a major key ii-V-I progression. When doing so, you are creating the chord progression ii-bII-I, which you can see in the chord progression below and hear in the accompanying audio example.

 

Listen & Play

Tritone Subs 4

 

 

To help you get started with this tritone ii-V-I progression, here is an example of how you can play through this pattern in the key of C major.

 

Listen & Play

Tritone Subs 5

 

Once you have these tritone sub examples under your fingers, try applying them to tunes which contain a number of ii-V-I progressions, such as “Tune Up” or “All The Things You Are” to take them further in your practice routine.

 

Tritone Turnarounds

Another popular progression that you can use to practice and apply tritone subs is the turnaround, which usually occurs at the end of a tune or section of a tune. The standard major key turnaround uses the chords I-VI-ii-V, as you can see in the top changes of the example below.

The first place to apply a tritone sub is with the V7 chord, as you can see with the chord changes in the lower staff, as well as hear in the audio.

When replacing the V7 chord with a tritone sub, you are creating the chord progression I-VI-ii-bII.

 

Listen & Play

Tritone Subs 6

 

 

To help you get started with this tritone turnaround, here is an example of how you can play through this pattern in the key of C major.

 

Listen & Play

Tritone Subs 7

 

 

You can also apply a tritone sub to the VI chord in a turnaround, which you can see in the following progression. When doing so, you create the chord progression I-bIII-ii-V, which you can hear in the audio example.

 

Listen & Play

Tritone Subs 8

 

 

To help you get started with this tritone turnaround, here is an example of how you can play through this pattern in the key of C major.

 

Listen & Play

Tritone Subs 9

 

 

Lastly, you can apply a tritone sub to both the VI and V chords in a turnaround to produce the chord progression I-bIII-ii-bII, which you can see and here in the next example.

 

Listen & Play

Tritone Subs 10

 

 

To help you get started with this combimed tritone turnaround, here is an example of how you can play through this pattern in the key of C major.

 

Listen & Play

Tritone Subs 11

 

Once you have explored the various applications and examples of tritone subs in this lesson, try playing over your favorite jazz standard and adding in tritone subs wherever you can to hear and feel how they sound in a practical situation.

Learning how to confidently apply tritone subs to your jazz guitar comping phrases is an essential tool for any jazz guitarist to have, and so working on it in your daily routine until you can apply it smoothly will help take your comping to the next level of creativity.

 

 


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