Tritone Substitution – The Complete Guide
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Have you noticed that many of your favorite jazz pianists seem to effortlessly add additional chords to familiar tunes? How do they do that? In today’s Quick Tip, we’ll unpack the most common jazz piano technique used by all the pros to play beautiful chord substitutions and add sweet passing chords—the tritone substitution. You’ll learn:
- What is a Tritone?
- How & Where to place Tritone Substitutions
- Applying Tritone Substitution to a Tune
- Beginner & Advanced Jazz Piano Voicings
This Complete Guide to Tritone Substitution will enable you to add rich passing chords to your favorite jazz tunes too!
Intro to Tritone Substitution
Properties of Tritone Intervals
If you are beginner piano student, you may have never heard of a tritone. However, you have certainly played a tritone many times. A tritone is simply the common name for an interval spanning three whole steps. Tritones can be written on the staff as an augmented 4th (ie: E to A♯) or a diminished 5th (E to B♭).
The tritone has several unique characteristics. First, it is one of the most dissonant sounding interval. Secondly, since an octave includes twelve ½ steps and a tritone includes six ½ steps, it divides an octave perfectly in half. Thirdly, a tritone is the only interval which results in an interval of the same exact size when inverted. Finally, a tritone occurs naturally in a dominant 7th chord between the 3rd and 7th of the chord.
Tritones in Dominant 7th Chords
In order to truly grasp the concept of tritone substitution, it is important that you understand the significance of the fact that the tritone is a symmetrical interval. The inversion of all other intervals give you the same notes with different intervalic distance. For example, a major 3rd, when inverted, becomes a minor 6th. Similarly, the inversion of a perfect fourth is a perfect 5th. However, the inversion of a tritone is still a tritone!
Now, let’s take a closer look at the tritones in the final measure of the example above. We mentioned that a tritone naturally occurs in a dominant 7th chord between the 3rd and 7th tones. However, since a tritone is a symmetrical interval, that means that each tritone belongs to two dominant chords. Ironically, the roots of the chords that share the same tritone are also a tritone apart!
Because these dominant chords share the same tritone, they can be used interchangeably and provide a pleasing resolution either way. In fact, in the next section, we’ll create a tritone substitution in a standard 2-5-1 progression using this pair of dominant chords.
Tritone Substitution in a 2-5-1 Progression
Let’s place the D7 from the previous section into a 2-5-1 progression. The resulting progression is Am7→D7→GMaj7.
Now, let’s play the same progression using the tritone substitution technique. Our progression becomes Am7→A♭7→GMaj7.
It’s important to observe that a tritone substitution always results in a dominant 7th chord that is a ½ above the target resolution. This is, in fact, the easiest way to recognize that a tritone substitution is in use on a lead sheet. It’s also the easiest way to insert tritone substitutions of your own.
This technique doesn’t always have to function as a chord substitution. It can also be used to place an additional passing chord. For example, you could use both D7 and A♭7 in a 2-5-1 progression.
In the next section, we’ll explore how to add passing chords to a jazz standard using the tritone substitution technique. However, if you need a refresher on your dominant 7th chords, check out our full-length course on Dominant 7th Chord Exercises (Level 2).
Add Passing Chords to a Jazz Tune with Tritone Substitution
Now, let’s see how jazz pianists use tritone substitutions in the context of a tune. In today’s Quick Tip video, Jonny demonstrates this technique on the popular jazz standard “Autumn Leaves.” This tune uses a cycle of fifths chord progression in G major. Your fake book most likely has the following chords for “Autumn Leaves.”
Now, let’s use tritone substitution to add a passing chord on beat 3 of each measure. Remember, the easiest way to do this is to lead into each chord from a ½ step above with a dominant 7th chord. Therefore, our modified cycle of fifths progression looks like this.
Jazz Piano Voicing Approaches for Tritone Substitutions
Now, let’s swap out the root position 7th chords of the previous section for some more jazzy piano voicings. In this section, we’ll cover two options. The first option is appropriate for beginners while the second approach is for more advanced piano students.
If you are a beginner, there’s nothing wrong with playing root position 7th chords. However, you can get a significantly stronger sound by playing with chord shells and guide tones. This approach omits the 5th from the chord. In addition, this approach also frequently places the 3rd of the chord above the 7th (aka inverted guide tones) when necessary to create smoother voicing leading from chord-to-chord. You can study this approach in detail in our course entitled Play Piano Lead Sheets with Shells & Guide Tones (Level 2). Here is an example of this approach on a cycle of fifths progression with added passing chords.
Fantastic! Now let’s consider some more advanced chord colorations for this progression.
If you are a more advanced piano student and you want to get a professional jazz piano sound, then this is the section you’ve been waiting for! In this following example, we’ve add beautiful chord extensions and crunchy chord alterations to create a rich harmonic texture.
Wow, what an incredible sound! If you want to learn how to create professional jazz piano chords like these, check out the following courses:
Congratulations, you’ve completed today’s lesson. To continue learning “Autumn Leaves,” check out our comprehensive Autumn Leaves Jazz Swing 1 course which includes the B section as well as bass lines, soloing techniques, intros and outros.
Thanks for learning with us today. We’ll see you next time.
Blog written by Michael LaDisa / Quick Tip by Jonny May
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