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Ed Lucie Answers Your Questions: Chord Substitutions



Our reader question this month comes from bassist Jeremy King:

“When soloing on bass, I want to be able to incorporate chord substitutions, but don’t really understand the concept. How do I learn what chords I can use as substitutes, and where to use them?”
This is a good, relevant question that does not have an easy, overall answer, so I’ll try to answer simply in three parts.

First is to understand a chord’s function and then use similar functioning chords in their stead, ie: in a major key, the I, III-, and VI- are tonic chords. So in the key of C: Cmaj7, E-7 and A-7 are tonic thus you could substitute an E-7 for the Cmaj for example (assuming your are speaking of applying this while soloing). Likewise, II-7 and IVmaj7 are sub-dominant, so D-7 and Fmaj7 could be substitutes for each other. This can go much deeper with modal interchange, but that’s another story.

Secondly is what is called the tri-tone substitution. This is done only with dominant 7th chords. So you could use a Db7 instead of a G7. The G7 would usually resolve up a 4th to a C chord, whereas the tri-tone sub would resolve down by a 1/2 step (chromatically).

Third is to use alternate scales over existing chords. This has vast possibilities. For instance, you can use a symmetric diminished scale (1/2-whole) on a dominant 7th chord starting on the root, or a whole-1/2 starting on the 3rd, 5th, 7th or b9th. You can use melodic minor and lydian b7 over a II-V vamp. So you would play A melodic minor and D lydian b7 over an A-7 / D7 vamp.

We could go on and on, but I hope this at least gets you started. 

PS: Listen to Herbie Hancock or Keith Jarrett or…..

About Ed Lucie: in addition to being a Berklee professor (and Berklee graduate), Ed has a Masters from the New England Conservatory Of Music. As a pro bassist, he has performed with Stevie Wonder, Buddy Rich, Warren Haynes & Gov’t Mule, Leo Nocentelli, and has performed both on Broadway and TV. You’ve heard him as a sideman on numerous albums, and perhaps have read his columns when he was a contributing writer for Bass Player Magazine. For more info about Ed you can visit his Berklee profile page: