Jazz Chord Substitution Theory And Applications

Jazz Chord SubstitutionWe all get bored of the same thing if we have too much of it. If you were to eat vanilla ice cream every day for a year, not only would you gain weight –and considerably so– you would also quickly tire of the flavor.

Music is the same way. If every band and musician were to use the same exact chord progression in every single song they made we the listeners would quickly tire of music.

That being said, jazz is no exception; after we play the same chords a few hundred times, we want some variety too, right?

This is the beauty of chord substitution. Chord substitution helps us take all the guitar chords we know and love and change them before we become sick of them.

Jazz chord substitution gives us the tools to recreate our most beloved chords or even those we despise and build them into new shapes and sounds.

So How Does This Magic Process Work?

Quite simply; many of the chords we know share notes with chords we don’t yet know. As with all examples, the easiest place to start is by using a C Major chord. A root position C Major seventh chord built on the tonic consists of the notes C, E, G and B.

Before we substitute this chord, we need to consult the circle of fifths. While it may sound like a council from a movie such as Lord of the Rings, the circle of fifths is actually little more than a circle. That being said, this is the most useful circle you may ever find. The circle of fifths shows us each key, the number of accidentals in those keys, and –more importantly– each key’s relative minor.

Consulting the circle of fifths (you can find a picture of the circle of fifths using a Google search) we come to the conclusion that C Major’s relative minor is a minor. Now that we know this, we can find a substitute for our root position C Major tonic seventh chord.

Using the tonic of a minor we can now build a seventh chord that, according to the circle of fifths, should share nearly identical note usage with our C Major seventh chord. An A minor tonic seventh chord contains the notes A, C, E, and G.

Now let’s compare our two chords.


C, E, G, B.


A, C, E, G.

Notice The Similarity?

Both chords contain the notes C, E, and G. This means that our A minor seventh chord would make a perfect substitution for our C Major seventh chord. This also means that any chord sharing more than half of our C Major seventh chord’s notes would also be a suitable substitute. Using this method, we can also use an e minor seventh chord to substitute our C Major seventh chord, as it possesses the notes E, G, and B.


C, E, G, B


A, C, E, G


E, G, B, D

See? Once you get through the initial process, jazz chord substitution is actually a fairly easy process. It is also an extremely helpful guitar skill to possess, as you can use this concept to change your music in drastic ways whilst still matching the key of the other instrumentation.

Now that you know how to substitute, have fun and try substituting some of your overly used chords for some newer, fresher ones. You won’t be disappointed!

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