The concept of superimposition in a musical context is often debated. The direct definition of superimpose is to place an object or idea on top of an existing object or idea. Seems simple enough…right?
The confusion occurs at the intersection of two similar concepts: superimposition vs. upper structure triads. Some would consider superimposition to be the placement of a C minor triad on top of an F7 harmony…while others would consider this as the extension of one singular harmonic identity. Personally, I agree with the latter, but I also find nitpicking arguments like this one to be a waste of time and completely subjective. F
For our purposes here, the best example of superimposition is the placement of a chord that retains its identity and has no obvious diatonic relationship to the harmony that it’s played against.
Triads are a foundational element that every jazz guitarist should be completely familiar with. If you can’t quickly find a triad voicing at any specific position on the fingerboard, it would be well worth taking the time to really get them down before you start using the applications in this lesson. Accessing a triad is a simple task, yet when carefully placed over a specific harmony they can result in some really sophisticated sounds. This lesson demonstrates one of my favorite triad superimpositions.
We’re going to look at a triad placed over a dominant chord in a ii – V – I. Take a look at this example:
Listen & Play Along
When we analyze what’s going on here, we can see that the line contains a B major triad in the second measure. If you were to rename each note in the triad based on its relationship to the D7, you’d end up with the 13th, b9th, and 3rd…
|B major triad||B||D#||F#|
|Played over D7||13||b9||3|
The reason this ends up working so well is because the B major triad serves two purposes simultaneously:
- It highlights some very tasteful chord tones and tensions.
- More importantly, we’re hearing it exist as a triad occurring separately from the D7 harmony.
Just like any other chord substitution device, it’s very important to have a quick way of accessing the triad while improvising. There are a few ways to memorize this technique:
- You can think of it as a major triad built a minor third below the root of the dominant 7 chord.
- Similarly, you can think of it as a major triad built upon the 13th of the dominant 7 chord.
- Lastly, you can think of it as a major III chord in the key of the ii – V – I.
Another interesting way to access this superimposition is in the following example:
Listen & Play Along
Note: I use the Wes Montgomery fingering for the major 7 chord arpeggio but some may prefer playing the 7th (B natural) on the 1st string at the 7th fret to avoid shifting.
In this line, we start out by playing a C major 7 arpeggio built on the b3rd of the ii chord. This is an upper structure arpeggio that ends up as the b3rd, 5th, b7th, and 9th…a really nice minor 9th chord sound. The interesting part of this line is the root movement of the implied chords. We start with a major 7 arpeggio that resolves a half step down into a major triad, which then maintains the same root but changes to a minor 7 arpeggio.
This series of substitutions is really easy to access and ends up highlighting some really nice upper structures and colorful tensions. Work this into your vocabulary by practicing ways to quickly locate the b3rd of the ii chord.
This superimposition is something that you’ll hear popping up all on recordings by just about every single well-known jazz musician. As with every new improvisational device, the most important part is getting your ear acclimated to this sound and internalizing the tonality. Once you make it part of your personal database of ideas, it’ll naturally work itself into your playing. If it sounds weird or “out there” to you right now…good!
Peter Andreev has been playing guitar for close to 20 years. He holds a bachelor’s degree from the Berklee College of Music and a master’s degree in jazz from the University of the Arts. He’s also an active performer and educator in the Philadelphia area.