Chord Substitutions For Beginners
By Joshua LeBlanc
Understanding The Basics
Before we go into how to substitute chords lets go over a few quick concepts. First a chord is a group of at least three different notes that are played together. In Western music we use tertian harmony meaning that the distance between each chord tone will be some type of third. The most basic of these chords is the triad. An example would be a C major triad which would consist of the notes C, E, and G. The way we would derive a triad would be to first pick our root note and what type of triad we are playing (there are four main types: major, minor, diminished, and augmented). So for this example we will make an E minor triad. The “formula” for a minor triad would be the root note, a flat third (which is a minor third or 3 frets above the root note) and a perfect fifth (which is a major third or 4 frets above the flat third). So the notes I end up with will be E, G, and B. There is another way to find these triads but it will be restrictive to the key that you are in so in C major the notes are C, D, E, F, G, A, and B. We can see that C is our root. the third note of the scale is E, and the fifth note is G. The same idea applies if we were to start from E (the third note after E is G, and the fifth note after E is B). However using the scale alone will not tell you the quality of the third and fifth.
Once you have a grasp on triads, it's important to understand what seventh chords are. A seventh chord is a tertian chord meaning that it has four different notes in it. The first three notes will be our triad and the last note will be some type of third above the last note in our triad. There are several different types of seventh chords but in major keys the only ones you will run into are Major 7th, Dominant 7th, Minor 7th , and Half-Diminished. So if I wanted to make a C Major 7 chord, I will start with my C major triad, find the highest note of the triad (which is a G) and then go the appropriate third above that, which in this case is a major third. So I end up with the notes C, E, G, and B. Another way we can find these chords is again by using the scale so we see that as before C is our root, E is the third note above C, G is the fifth note above C, and B is the seventh note above C.
Diatonic Chord Substitutions
Now that we have all that theory presented we can talk about the easiest type of chord substitution which is Diatonic Chord Substitution. So for example let's say that our chord progression is just one bar of C and one bar of G and it loops over and over. ||: C / / / | G / / / :|| While there is nothing wrong with that progression if you are just strumming those two chords, after a while it will get a bit boring. So we can easily start to substitute chords in this progression. We know that the notes in C major are C, E, and G. If we look at E minor (which is E, G, and B) we can see that there are two notes in common with C major. In fact if we revisit our C Major 7th chord, we can see that E minor is the same as that chord just with out the root. So try playing the next example. ||: C / Em / | G / / / :|| Depending on how you voice the chords, you can create a subtle change between the chords which flows very nicely or you can play just open chords and still have a smooth transition. You can easily go through the key and find which chords will fit together in this manner.
Joshua LeBlanc is the owner and lead instructor at Lafayette School of Guitar specializing in guitar lessons in Lafayette, LA.