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A 9-Second Method to Chord Substitutions
by Jermaine Griggs · 5 comments
in Chords & Progressions,Piano

I touched on primary chords and chord substitutions in this post last week, but
today, I want to take it a step further.
(I recommend you go check out that post on primary chords as a primer to this le
sson.)
In short, every key has primary chords built off the 1st, 4th, and 5th tones of
the scale.
In C major:
C is 1
D is 2
E is 3
F is 4
G is 5
A is 6
B is 7
The primary chords are built off C, F, and G.
The 2nd, 3rd, 6th, and 7th tones create what we call secondary chords.
But don’t let the “secondary” fool ya because they are very important when it comes to
chord substitutions.
Recall in that past post how we paired certain primary chords with “brother-sister”
secondary chords.
C major (primary) pairs up with A minor7 (secondary)
F major (primary) pairs up with D minor7 (secondary)
G major (primary) pairs up with E minor7 ( secondary)
…And even D minor (secondary) pairs up with B half-diminished7 (secondary).
Quick Primary/Secondary Chord Substitutions

Because C major (C+E+G) and A minor7 (A+C+E+G) share most of the same notes (inc

luding the highest note/melody), this makes the “A minor” a perfect replacement when
it comes to chord substitutions.

For example, if you had a progression that went from C major to F major to G maj
or (aka – “1-4-5,” one of the most popular chord progressions ever), you could actuall
y swap out the C major for A minor 7.
Granted, you usually like to lay down the original progression by playing it the
natural way first. But when it repeats, you’ll find it also sounds good (or even
better) when you go to A minor (A+C+E+G) instead of C major (C+E+G).
But what’s really going on here?
If you look closely at the chord, we’re still playing a C major… we’ve just put “A” on the
bottom as the bass or root note. And when you do that, it changes the whole cho
rd to “A minor 7,” even though 75% of the notes belong to C major.
(That’s why C major and A minor7 have a really close relationship. In fact, they a
re relatives… but that’s another lesson).
So the progression could go something like this:
C major
F major
G major
(repeat with chord substitution)
A minor7
F major
G major

We’re not done though…
More Chord Substitutions
C major and A minor7 aren’t the only pair of the key.

F major and D minor7 link up just as good.
What if the third time around, you swapped in D minor7 (D+F+A+C) for the F major
(F+A+C)?

That would give you two more possible chord substitutions:
C major
D minor7
G major
Or you could keep the first substitution with the C major / A minor7:
A minor7
D minor7
G major
What other combinations do you see?
So far, I can see:
C major
F major
G major
C major
D minor7
G major
A minor7
F major
G major

A minor7
D minor7
G major
(This is another lesson but the G major can easily be extended to a G dominant 7
for even more flavor).
Even More Chord Substitutions
What about the G major / E minor7 pair? Can we throw that in?

This expands our potential chord substitutions:
C major
F major
E minor7
A minor7
F major
E minor7 (which leads smoothly back to Aminor7 to repeat… that’s “circle of fifths” move
ment)
A minor7
D minor7
E minor7
C major
D minor7
E minor7
So, really, this is a game of “mix n match” and preference.
Because each of these chord substitutions preserves the melody (or what Jason Wh
ite phrases, “never sacrifices the melody”) and pretty much has the same chord makeu
p, you get practically the same function.

Some chord substitutions will work brilliantly well, others you can pass on. But
it’s all up to you.
It’s very important when playing by ear that you understand your options. As I alw
ays say, playing by ear is all about having options. You don’t have sheet music in
front of you. You don’t have to copy someone else’s homework. You know countless wa
ys to play the same thing… and this kinda stuff is where it starts.
How many places do you play 1, 4, and 5 chords that you can substitute in their
relative minor partners (6, 2, and 3)? That’s your homework.
Well, that’s all I have for you on chord substitutions — see you next time.
Related posts:Here’s a method that’s helping musicians swap out dull chords for exci
ting ones!
Can tritone substitutions really revolutionize your playing?
How to add flavor and spice with the power of chord substitutions
Here’s a method that’s helping beginners play in minor keys overnight
How to take advantage of the power and versatility of primary chords
Here’s a method that’ll make your chords more powerful
Who else wants to know the secret behind primary and secondary chords?
Tagged as:
chord substitutions,
chord substutiton,
substituting chords,
swapping chords

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

1
Richard

This can be applied to all Chords? The 6th tone of any particular major chord, i
s the Minor Substitue for the Major Chord? Just take time to experment. Dick B

Reply

2
Jermaine Griggs

Yes Richard, that is correct. Whatever is the 6th tone of that major chord’s scale
can simply be played in the left hand bass without even changing the chord on r
ight hand… Thus creating the minor7 chord of whatever the 6th tone is. Bb major ca
n be turned into Gmin7 by simply playing Bb major on right and G on left. Becaus
e melody and 75% of chord doesn’t change, it is perfect candidate for substitution
and variety.
Reply

3
val

This is amazing and very helpful at the same time. Thank you and God bless you.
sincerely Val
Reply

4
graham

hi gaham here ur chords on substition is great
just want to know the all the chords i seen can i play
the first tonic note on the bass let me know
Reply

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