“We’re Getting A Sub Tomorrow!”
Reflecting back on those early school days, I recall the attitude that permeated the classroom when we learned that a substitute teacher would be conducting class for a day or two. Most class members would seem to engage in a deep sigh of relief and celebrate… “Yippee! Something different for a change!”
Well, to a certain degree, that’s kind of the feeling experienced when a different chord than the usual “steps in” to be heard. A song suddenly seems to project a new “aura” for a split second or two. It stimulates a listener’s interest.
Tritone Chord Substitution: I Was Delightfully Baffled
When this takes place, we commonly refer to it a chord substitution. That said, tritone chord substitution is a specific type of chord substitution. Actually, it is the most well known kind and the most often talked about.
I remember learning about tritone chord substitution for the first time. I was in a jazz night club in Providence, RI. My saxophone teacher was appearing there every Thursday night with his group. Although saxophone was a priority with me during those high school years, at heart I was still more of a piano player.
My Curiosity Led To Insight
Well, during a break, I made my way over to the pianist of the group to spark a conversation. This guy was not only friendly but eager to learn that I was intrigued with jazz piano. He walked me over to the baby grand and started offering me a few ideas that spun my head.
This all took place within a period of about 4 minutes. I have to say… it’s during short moments like that when I learned some of the most valuable insights I could ever learn. That’s what propelled me to create “TV” Tips. Often, that little “morsel” is all one needs to take things up a notch. My desire to create this same type of scenario in longer, more concentrated sessions inspired my Sneak Peeks series.
So, after those few minutes, tritone chord substitution was part of my piano playing toolbox. The most basic form of tritone substitution applies to dominant 7th chords.
Tritone Chord Substitution Illustrated
When it comes to [most] 7th chords, the essential chord tones that define the chord (in addition to the root) are the 3 and 7 of the chord. Let focus on these…
Here we have a G7 chord:
Now, let’s take a look at a dominant 7th chord whose root is a tritone away from that root G (a tritone is equivalent to three whole steps).
This gives us a Db7 chord:
Notice that the most essential chord tones – the 3 and 7 – of each chord are the same (the 3 of G7 is B, which is the 7 of Db7 and the 7 of G7 is F, which is the 3 of Db7).
Since these most essential chord tones are the same, each of these chords can substitute for the other…
… at least theoretically. Does this work musically?
It largely depends on whether or not the melody is compatible with the substituted chord, the harmonic context in which is is placed, and the taste of the performer, of course. There are times when its use can greatly enhance a segment of an arrangement.
Tri It… You Might Like It
Tritone chord substitution is a wonderful concept to understand. There are other factors that can greatly enhance the impact of this technique, like the inclusion of chord extensions and how the chords are voiced.
I would highly encourage your to start “playing detective” as you play through those favorite standards of yours. Experiment by trying to use the dominant 7th chord whose root is a tritone away. Pay attention to how the melody reacts to the chord substitute. Whether or not you use it in a given musical context will be up to you. However, the more you explore, the more harmonic options you’ll discover.