Chord Substitutions – Part 1

In case you’re wondering, I am not going “soft” and getting away from talking about Ear Training and Improvisation. Not even close! As it turns out, this is an area where we want to spend a little time, as there’s an interesting intersect point from these topics with Chord Substitutions.

Now, in case you aren’t aware, I would like to point you to a good resource from Jamey Aebersold — his little pamphlet called the Jazz Handbook. If you buy something from them, you get a copy of this on newsprint paper for free. I like the booklet a lot. There’s a number of interesting things in there for players interested in expanding their mind a bit.

One of the things that I discovered recently is that they provide an electronic version of it online for free. You can get it here. It’s roughly the same order in the print copy that it is online. The only challenging part to it is that it isn’t presented on the site in that way and there’s no option for  downloading the whole thing in one shot. You have to get it piece-by-piece. Still, better to have it than not.

Having  a digital version is very handy for those of us who spill liquds on stuff or wear their food (especially Indian food – yummy!)  on a regular basis. It’s not that I’m messy, I’m just passionate about what I eat! Whoa, I digress…

One of the fundamental things that all of us players should be able to do is sit in with a band and play through jazz blues. After all, it’s practically foolproof. Just about everyone who can play understands the structure of 12-bar blues. Indeed, many of the great players used blues changes extensively and effectively. If you look at the instructional materials that Joe Pass created, he liked using jazz blues as a starting point for discussions regarding soloing, substitutions and chord melody (yes, we’ll get to this to, because it’s related).

With that said, using the blues to investigate chord substitutions (and strategies for the same) is a pretty good idea. On page 35 of the handbook, they’ve provided an article called “Variations on Blues“. There are 17 variations listed, but this is merely the tip of a very large iceberg. By the time you start getting halfway down the list, if you look at it purely from a chord name perspective, it starts looking like something other than jazz blues!

When you get down to it, that’s my whole point here. There’s something to discover about substitution principles and the sound that’s important to bake into our ears.We’ll start talking about this as well… as it’s on our way back towards Ear Training and Improvisation. I think another important point worth mentioning here is that improvisation is more than single string technique or use of double stops. You can effectively use chords (base chords, extensions and alterations) in this context too.

With this as a foundation, I recommend using your favorite fingerings, play through the list and familiarize yourself with the sounds. Hear the qualities of the chords and start listening for the fit. Record the progressions and play lines over the top of them. There are two interesting variations on this:

  1. Play the same melodies over all of the different progressions. Listen to how the underlying chords and your melodies interact.
  2. Starting with your base melody (as in #1 above), change the melody to fit the new changes. Again, listening for how the underlying chords and melody interact.

In doing this, you’re working three important muscles:

  • Continuing your Ear Training
  • Developing chord skills (vocabulary, construction)
  • While actually making music!

We can’t go wrong there! As you’re working this, consider some questions:

  • What is your experience of playing through the example progressions?
  • Can you still hear the “blues” in there, as more elements are substituted?
  • How might one apply these techniques to common repertoire?

By necessity, we need to start listening more. We don’t want to be jumping all over the fretboard to get the work done, unless you have some valid musical, practice or technical reason for doing so. As a result, we’re going to want to consider the specific voicings that are relevant for where you are playing on the neck, as we are trying to make music. If we just use the “standard chord name”, we will likely find that our playing doesn’t have the oomph that we really want it to have.

This means that we need to start paying attention to how the voices inside of progressions are moving and what that means from different perspectives. In an upcoming blog entry, I’ll use a few of the variations from Variations on Blues to explore alternate fingerings, extensions and inversions and how they tie into voice leading. This is important because we want to get to the point where we stop worrying about the names of the chords and start worrying about economy of movement and voice leading.

Take a few minutes and post a reply or drop me a line re: your thoughts on the questions posed above. Look forward to receiving your feedback and engaging on this topic.


November 28, 2009 · kengon · No Comments
Tags: , , , , , , ,  · Posted in: Music

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