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A Chord Substitution Primer

By Darrin Koltow

from the ebook Guitar Chords: a Beginner's Guide

"What's wrong with a song's original chords? Why go through all the fuss to tamper with something that already works?"

Yes, what is the point of chord substitution? Chord substitution is a bit like spring cleaning for music. You get tired of looking at the same old junk that's been lying around the house for the past year or so. You're not sure what it will feel like to have a clean house, but you know the cleaning has to be done.

With chord substitution, the "junk" you're getting rid of is the boredom you feel in playing the same song the same way over and over. Replacing some chords with other chords adds new life to a tune. Let's look at some ways we can substitute chords in a simple but useful tune.

The tune we're using to make changes is the same one in the article How Chord Progressions Work. I call it the Sam Cooke song.

Substitution One: "Musician's Math"

Here are the chord changes to the Sam Cooke song, together with the chord substitutions. These new changes will give us a fresh perspective on this golden oldie. They'll also help us understand some principles, or guidelines, really, for chord substitution. Here's the original progression:

||:

C

Am

F

G7

:||
 

C

F

C

F

 
 

Am G7

C

G7

C

 
 

G7

C

D7

D7

 
 

F

G7

D.C. al fine

 

And here are the new chords.

||:

Em

Am

Dm

G7

:||
 

Em

F

Em

F

 
 

Em G7

C

Dm Am

C

 
 

Dm Am

C

F

F

 
 

Dm

G7

D.C. al fine

 

A quick note on notation: The "Fine," referred to in the "D.C. al Fine" is the fifth bar in each of the chord progressions illustrated in this article. So for the first progression shown, end on the C major chord.

Here are some guidelines used in creating the new chord progression:

  • One equals three equals six
  • Two equals four
  • and Five equals seven

Welcome to Musician's Math. Let's explain these.

Look at the following figure, which shows the chords in C Major. "One equals three equals six" means the C major chord (the One), the E minor chord (the Three), and the A minor chord (the Six) sound enough like each other to replace each other. They do sound different from one another, but compared to the other chords, they sound similar enough to serve as substitutes for one another.

Letter

C

Dm

Em

F

G7

Am

Bhalf-dim*

Roman numerals

I

ii

iii

IV

V7

vi

vii*

Plain old English

One

Two

Three

four

Five

Six

Seven

*The b* means "b half-diminished," which is kind of like a minor chord, but really closer to a G7 in its overall sound.

That means when I see a C major chord on a song chart, I can try out an A minor or an E minor instead. The sound I get might or might not be an improvement. If it isn't, it probably won't sound bad.

"Two equals four" means I can substitute D minor for F major. "Five equals seven" means I can substitute G7 for b* and vice versa.

Substitution Two: All Minor Chords

First, here again are the original changes:
||:

C

Am

F

G7

:||
 

C

F

C

F

 
 

Am G7

C

G7

C

 
 

G7

C

D7

D7

 
 

F

G7

D.C. al fine

 

And here is the progression using just minor chords.

||:

Em

Am

Dm

B half dim

:||

 

Em

Am

Em

Am

 

 

Dm Em

Am

Em

Am

 

 

Em

Am

Dm Am

Dm Am

 

 

Dm

Bhalf dim

D.C. al fine

 

 

There's a chord in there you might not be sure how to play. It's a B half diminished. Here are some fingerings for it:


B half diminished

How it works

I applied the "One equals three equals six," "Two equals four," "Five equals seven" talked about a little while ago to make these changes. For the first bar, I asked what I could swap out C major with, and came up with E minor. I could have chosen A minor, but E minor sounded better to me.

Substitution Three: V to I

This next "change on the changes" is called Five to One. Play these changes, then read How it Works to learn what gives this progression its distinctive sound.

Here again are the original changes:
||:

C

Am

F

G7

:||
 

C

F

C

F

 
 

Am G7

C

G7

C

 
 

G7

C

D7

D7

 
 

F

G7

D.C. al fine

 

And here are the V7-I changes.

||:

C E7

Am C7

F

D7 G7

:||

 

C C7

F E7

C C7

F E7

 

 

Am G7

C

Dm G7

C A7

 

 

Dm G7

C A7

D7

D7

 

 

F Dm

G7

D.C. al fine

 

 

How it works

The idea is to pretend certain chords are One chords, which is like starting a new key. When we do that, we can precede the One with its dominant 7 chord, (called its "Five" chord). A Five to One movement always sounds good.

We've just touched on the basics of chord substitution, which is a huge subject. This is another way of saying there are infinite ways of making a great tune sound even greater, and giving a crummy tune a chance to mend its ways. Taking the time to learn more about chord substitution will pay off in greater enjoyment and interest in your playing.

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