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Understanding Tritone Substitution

Jazz Theory
For some reason the term Tritone Substitution makes some musicians
freeze up with terror. While tritone substitution sounds like a tricky concept
at first, its actually not that complicated. Lets start with a basic
understanding of tritone substitutions, and then well get more specific and
dig deeper throughout this article. For more on how to solo over a tritone
substitution, you can visit my other article.
What is a tritone substitution?
A tritone substitution occurs when you substitute one chord for
another chord with a root a tritone (6 half-steps up or down) away.
This is not a terribly complicated definition, and it allows for more
possibilities than the typical tritone sub.
You can change the quality between the two chords (for example, GbMaj7
as a sub for C7), or keep it the same (for example, substituting an Gb7
chord instead of a C7 chord, which occurs in Well You Neednt and The Girl
from Ipanema).
In practice tritone substitutions most often substitute
a DOMINANT chord for another DOMINANT chord a tritone away,
but this doesnt necessarily have to be the case. In general it doesnt
matter what the qualities of the two chords are, and the 3rd and 7ths dont
necessarily need to be inverse of each other, though they 3rds and 7ths
WILL be inverse when both the original chord and the tritone sub are
dominant. Ill cover the concept of inverse 3rds and 7ths more later in the
article. For now, just take note that inverse tritone 3rds and 7ths only occur
when both chords are dominant.
Lets start by examining the most common place where tritone substitutions
typically appears.
The most common example of a tritone sub is to substitute the
V7 chord in a major key (it can occur in a minor key also).
A DOMINANT bII7 chord is the most common tritone substitution for the V7
chord, although the tritone sub doesnt necessarily have to be dominant.
They are both dominant chords in this stereotypical example of a tritone
sub. (Its somewhat similar to the Neapolitan chord in classical music
theory, but with the addition of a 7th to the chord, most commonly a
dominant 7th (b7). The Neapolitan chord also normally appears in first
inversion, unlike the tritone sub). For an example of the standard tritone
sub, consider:
Standard Tritone Sub
Dmin7 G7alt Cmaj7

Dmin7 Db7 Cmaj7

The first ii-V-I (the first two measures) is a regular ii-V7-I, whereas the
second progression (the last two measures) contains a tritone substitution in
place of V7.

The 2nd chord in the 2nd example, the Db7, is the tritone substitution, a
tritone away from the G7 (V7), for which it is a substitute.
The numbers of each chord tone are written by each note to help make it
clear what is happening. Notice that the 3rd and the 7th actually switch
places between the ii and the V chords in the regular ii-V-I in the voice
leading (3, 7, 3 and 7, 3, 7) example because the root moves around in 4ths
and 5ths. In the 2nd example, the root movement moves chromatically, and
so the voice leading doesnt involve 3rds resolving to 7ths or 7ths resolving
to 3rds.
To further explain the concept of inverse 3rds and 7ths between the original
V7 chord and the tritone sub bII7 chord, notice the 3rd and 7th of the Db7 (F
and B, thought its technically a Cb. I wrote it as a B instead of a Cb to make
it easier to read and to demonstrate the similarity) are just inverse of the
7th and 3rd of the G7 (F and B). 3 becomes 7 and 7 becomes 3. The
concept of the inverse 3rds and 7ths between the original dominant chord
and the substituted dominant chord is often is the first thing people learn
about tritone substitution. Both chords must be dominant in order for
the 3rds and 7ths to be inverse of each other. Remember that the
most common tritone substitutions involve two dominant chords, BUT
neither the original chord nor the sub has to be dominant in order for a
tritone sub to be present.
The tritone substitution can change qualities from the chord it is
substituting. The Db7 in the example above can be changed to a Dbmaj7 or
a Dbmin7, as in the following examples:

The V7 is indisputably the most common chord for which you can substitute
a tritone sub. However, there are other chords that are regularly
substituted. The vi chord, ii chord, and iii chord are often replaced by tritone
subs, and other chords can be replaced by a tritone subs as well.
We have already considered the tritone substitution of the V7. Lets
consider the following some different chord progression examples that use
tritone substitutions in other various harmonic locations.
Tritone sub of vimin7 or VI7
FMaj7 Ab7 Gmin7 C7
You can find these changes in A Foggy Day. The Ab7 can best be
understood as the tritone substitution for the VI7 chord (D7).
Tritone Sub of ii
Ab7 G7 Cmin7
This progression (bVI V7 i) occurs in Softly As In a Morning Sunrise in bar 8
and bar 32 (although it can really be substituted for ANY of the Dmin7(b5) ii
chords in that minor tune.
AbMaj7 G7 CMaj7
This progression is one of the 3 main ways to approach the minor ii-V that
resolves to a MAJOR I chord (Dmin7(b5) G7 CMaj7) in Night and Day.
Clarification: you wont find this progression on our chart on LJS. Our chart
has Dmin7(b5) G7 CMaj7 because this is the function of the minor ii-V
resolving to the major I chord. There are three common sets changes that
occur in Night and Day:
Dmin7(b5) G7 CMaj7 (minor ii-V resolving to a Major I). In our view this set
of changes best represents the function of the chords.
AbMaj7 G7 CMaj7 (bVIMaj7 V7 IMaj7, with the bVIMaj7 as a sub for a halfdiminished ii).
Fm6 G7 CMaj7 (bvimin6 V7 CMaj7. The Fm6 has exactly the same notes
as the Dmin7(b5), just with a different root!
Night and Day is a unique tune because even the first chord of the piece has
no consensus! It is generally interpreted in those three ways by differently
players. The first chord can be a ii half-diminished chord, a ivmin6 chord, or
a bVIMaj7 chord. Its a good idea to clarify which changes you want to use
on that tune with the rest of musicians on the bandstand!

Tritone Sub of iii

Bb7 Ab7 G7
This progression occurs in the tune Doxy, and something similar occurs can
occur in There Is No Greater Love in the third bar as a tritone sub for the
Dmin7 (depending on which chart or recording you consult). The bVII chord,
Ab7, can be understood as the tritone sub of the iii chord, Dm7 or D7.
CMaj7 Bb7 A7
This progression is from bars 3 and 4 of Yardbird Suite. The Bb7 in bar 3 is a
sub for the iii chord, Em7. Incidentally, there is an Fmin7 Bb7 progression
in bar 2 of that tune, right before the CMaj7 Bb7 A7. However, the Fmin7
Bb7 progression in bar 2 is best understood as a backdoor ii-V progression,
not a tritone sub of iii.
Tritone Substitution Using Multiple Tritone Subs
CMaj7 EbMaj7 AbMaj7 DbMaj7 or CMaj7 Eb7 Ab7 Db7

These chord changes can be seen in the last two bars of the Tadd Dameron
composition Lady Bird. This set of changes uses a tritone sub for every
chord of the I vi ii V progression except for the I chord. The bIII is a sub fo
the vi chord, the bVI is a sub for the ii, and the bII is a sub for the V7 chord.
This set of changes is known as the Tadd Dameron turnaround.
Hopefully this helps shed some light upon the concept of tritone
substitution. Stay tuned tomorrow for the 2nd article in our tritone
substitution series. Tomorrows article considers which scales might be
helpful for soloing over a tritone substitution.
-Camden Hughes

Camden Hughes is a jazz pianist/organist and music educator from Boise, ID. He started in 2010, and updates the LJS blog three times a week, on Tuesdays,
Wednesdays, and Fridays. Check back often for more jazz articles and tips! Camdens first
album, Introspective, will be available on iTunes in the Summer of 2015.