Tag Archives: Jazz Chord Substitutions

Why Chord Substitutions Are Holding You Back!

To me, this is one of those things that can really open up how you work with chords and help you create some beautiful-sounding progressions without having to rely on systems and rules.

It also touches on one of the things I don’t like about a modal approach to harmony, but I will try not to rant too much about that in this video. Instead, I am going to show you a way to think about the chords that will free you from just using substitutions and will help you create some beautiful harmony that really flows through the piece.

This is closely related to the type of thinking behind the Coleman Hawkins quote: “I don’t play chords, I play movements” which is often associated with Barry Harris even though that is also not the approach that I will focus on in this video.

Like most others then I was introduced to chord substitutions pretty early in my study. This was when I was still living in Copenhagen and spent most of my time playing Jazz standards in the street when I wasn’t in school trying to get better at guitar.

I was just beginning to figure out how to harmonize melodies and turn them into chord melody arrangements but still only relying on the basic harmony (B-roll – Looking in the real book, pointing, and then trying to play a difficult chord looking baffled)

For this, I am going to start with a few basic substitutions and then we are going to expand that into something much more powerful and creative.

Chord Substitutions 101 – Tritone Subs

The first chord substitution you learn is usually the tritone substitution, which I sometimes get the impression is taught because theory teachers don’t know what to talk about in the lessons.

A tritone substitution is exchanging a dominant for the dominant a tritone away because the two chords share the same core notes: 3rd and 7th.

So in a II V I in C major EXAMPLE  the G7 is replaced with Db7. To give you this nice progression:

And you can see how the same tritone is in the two dominant chords which is why it is possible to switch them.

The best way to understand stuff like this is usually to hear it used in a song.

The basic version:

 

and with a tritone sub:

 

And this demonstrates two things: Tritone substitution(or any other chord substitution) doesn’t really make any sense if you don’t understand how it works with the chords around it. You are making the substitution to get the progression to sound different,  and you need to hear it in the context to really get what is going on, otherwise, you are in this case, just playing an E7 (b-roll: E7!) and  E7 sounds differently in a Blues in E compared to A Jazz ballad in Eb

The other thing you want to notice is that Tritone substitution usually works better when the dominant resolves, so a tritone substitute of a backdoor dominant is probably not going to sound fantastic.

Chord Substitution 102 – Major and Minor + Tritone 2.0

There are probably 3 more chord substitutions that are very common and that you want to know when you are at the stage of just swapping out chords and not really trying to think in harmony as a movement, which we will get to later.

#1 Tritone Dom instead of a II V in minor.

The first one is if you have a minor II V I like for example What Is This Thing Called Love

and you then replace the m7b5 chord with a tritone substitute resolving to the V, so in this case, Db7 moving down to C7:

The next two are about messing with how the ear expects to hear either major or minor in a II V I and then you do the opposite.

#2 a m7 instead of a IIø

If the ear expects to hear a dark-sounding m7(b5) chord EXample and instead you play a much brighter sounding chord that is a m7 with a 9th and or an 11th then that is a really nice surprise. Example

A good example could be Beautiful love. The first few bars usually sound like this:

And you can get a much brighter sound by using an Em7(11) like this:

This is pretty common and also something you can use in a solo, and there are actually even a few spots where Parker does this.

#3 a m7(b5) instead of a m7 chord

The other way around is also really nice! If you have a II V I in a song

and then make it darker by playing:

Beyond Chord Substitution

Jazz Harmony space B-roll (chord symbols flying in space?)

I guess it is sort of ironic that I started out the video by teaching chord substitutions when I actually don’t want you to think like that, so let’s go beyond that, first a bit further and then into Uncharted Jazz Harmony Space  (B-roll)

When you can only think in terms of chord substitutions then you can switch one chord out for another chord, but it actually becomes a lot better if you start to learn to work with entire progressions and come up with other ways of harmonizing that section of the melody.

This was something I first started to get into when I was studying at the conservatory and had lessons with Peter Nieuwerf and Eric Gieben who showed me some exciting ways to work much more freely with harmony, and as you will see, some of these don’t make any sense if you think of them as of chord substitutions.

Let me show you an example, that sort of goes against one of the things that makes reharmonization most effective. I am going to assume that you know what Blue Moon sounds like so that you can hear how these chords are different, and then I am going to explain what is going on.

You can hear how this still works, and still has a flow but also how far away you can go on a very simple turnaround. And actually, you can approach it in a much more open way but I’ll get to that in a bit.

The first thing I changed was turning the Am7 chord into a C#dim.

That is just a secondary dim chord and not something special.  In Bar 3, there is a lot more happening, because here the long G in the melody was original on Cmaj7 Am7, but now it is harmonized with Abmaj7 and Dbmaj7 leading into the Dm7 G7,

and Abmaj7 and Dbmaj7 are not exactly substitutions of Cmaj7 Am7, you could at most call them suspensions but since they don’t resolve back to C then that is also not really a description of what is going on.

The best way to see it is probably just to see it as something that

A/ sounds good with the melody

B/ fits in the key and the chord progression

Here they work because they are both minor subdominant chords in C major and of course sound great under the G in the melody.

In Bar 5 The Cmaj7 Am7 is turned into Bb7(#11) A7.

Again Bb7 is not really a substitution for Cmaj7 or related to Cmaj7. Instead, it is an example of choosing harmony that focuses on a different aspect of the turnaround: The chord that was there: Cmaj7 is just a tonic chord and it is a resolution when you land there, but the song keeps on moving, and the Bb7 only makes sense here because it keeps on moving to A7 and in that way is both a bit surprising but makes sense as the music continues. So you can look at the turnaround and think:

A- It is a tonic chord and then it moves on

or

B- It is a progression that needs to resolve in 2 bars.

And here I am using Bb7 because that works with the melody and really helps push towards the resolution in bar 7. In this last turnaround, I also changed the Dm7 to a D7, but that is just because I think that sounds a little better than the m7 chord with the melody.

So the big difference here is that I am much more free to use whatever chords I can get to work with the melody and the chord progression, not just looking at a chord and then thinking what chord fits instead of this.

This can give you A LOT of freedom, but before I get into that then let’s look at a way to set up a reharmonization so that it really stands out.

The Easiest Way To Make It Work

Timing is incredibly important for reharmonization and chord substitution. When you are playing a song and changing the harmony then what you are really working with is a way to go against the listener’s expectation. That is also what you hear in the Blue Moon example where I first play a turnaround in C to establish the song and then I start to change the chords.

If you start with changing the chords then there is less of an expectation and nothing for the listener to be surprised by:

And of course, that is possible but it is not nearly as strong. If you start listening for how people use reharmonziations then this is more common than you think, try to listen to Gilad Hekselman’s recording I Should Care where the 2nd half of the ABAC form starts with an F#ø Fm6 Em7 A7 because that is a new way to color the melody when it repeats in the 2nd half of the form.  This is by the way a very common reharmonization used on a ton of songs, but let’s get into some more uncommon progressions and different sounds.

Everything Is Allowed!

Until now, I was just showing you some things that were changing a chord here and there and creating some beautiful sounds, but you can also just leave out most of the chords and completely re-imagine the chord progression, using “atonal” ideas and Giant Steps.

To have a place to start check out the first few bars of You Don’t Know What Love Is:

Let’s say that you played that as the first A and now you can change things up in the 2nd A:

Here I am starting with a different chord that is essentially the same Fm6 with a Bb in the Bas and then I sculpt the rest of the chord progression around an ascending bass line ending with Gbmaj7 instead of Db7, but this would really work well moving on to Gø that would follow it.

This next example is borrowing some ideas from Coltrane’s Giant Steps circle:

Giant Steps don’t really exist in minor, and actually, you don’t want to be tied down by some sort of system when doing this, so I am being very liberal with how I incorporate the chords, and I still want to play the song.

The idea I use is to start on Fm6 and then through E7alt go to Amaj7 which is pretty far away from Fm, and to move on to Db major and finally take another route to end on Bmaj7(#11) instead of Db7.

You can probably tell how this is really more about using the Coltrane cycle as a source of inspiration and not at all a system, but like this, the melody is still intact and you get something different.

A great place to put this to use is to work on chord melody:

How Chord Melody Will Help You Master Important Skills

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How The Pros Think About Chord Progressions (and you probably don’t)

If you are trying to learn Jazz and especially the first time you are looking at how to learn a Jazz standard, then you probably know how it is to look at a piece of sheet music and then feel that the chords are flying by in an impossible tempo.

I started thinking about this because a few weeks ago I was playing a gig with a saxophone player that I know for a long time, and we were talking about what songs to play.  It was a gig in a cafe and we were just playing standards. One of the songs he suggested was Ellington’s “Sophisticated Lady”

Sophisticated Lady is a song that I first learned very early on when I was still living in Copenhagen and actually I never played it since. When I was talking to the saxophone player then we could both remember looking at that song for the first time and thinking what the “hell is going on and why are the SO many chords in this?!”

And that is of course how many jazz standards will come across,  with a lot of chords that are hard to remember and even harder to improvise over.

But there is a way to make that easier, both to solo over and to remember, and the way I do this also shows why I lean so heavily on functional harmony and just how powerful a concept that actually is, but also want to talk about Pat Martino’s and Barry Harris’ systems for this which can get a bit strange but are also often very practical as well.

Learning a Jazz Standard By Heart

There was one thing that really slowed me down when I was learning songs in the beginning.

The first time I set out to really start learning a Jazz standard, then I spent two months alone in a house learning Stella By Starlight and There’s no Greater Love. Just recording a simple chorus of the chords, practicing the melody, and improvising on them every day. I kept going until I could get a simple solo to sort of make sense over them, I could hear where I was and knew the chords by heart.

The problem is that I learned everything one chord at a time. I was not thinking in groups of chords that follow each other, or groups of chords that sound similar. Chunking the chords together will make it a lot easier to learn a song because you can reduce it to a few building blocks and you know how those blocks sound, so remembering and internalizing it becomes a lot easier.

Music is a language, so I will use that comparison to help you see just how powerful this is, but first you need to clean up the chords a bit.

Don’t get distracted by extensions

A problem that I get many questions about is ho to think extensions, and whether you can use a C7(13) instead of a C7(9) and so on. And that is not really how you want to think about chords if you play Jazz. A chord is a lot of options and what notes you play, or extensions you add are more about what you want and what is going on around you in the band and in the song.

It is not thinking “now I want to play a C7(13)” Because that is not really a music thing it is a symbol that you can maybe turn into music, but you need to know how and often that means ignoring the extensions.

In the beginning, you are probably learning songs from a lead sheet like in a real book, and first you really just want to get rid of the extensions,

because what is important is the type of chord and the context, so just focus on the basic 7th chord, forget about 9ths and 11ths. You want to understand that from the other chords around it and the melody not a chord symbol, after all, a piece of music is not a row of letters in iReal.

Of course, you don’t have to literally change the sheet music, just how you think about it. Now we can get to work!

A song is a sentence

 

It is difficult to memorize and make sense of long rows of letters,

but if you start grouping the letters into words then you are attaching meaning to them and that is a lot easier to remember.

And this, of course, also works for Jazz songs, so if you can sum up 32 bar song as a bunch of smaller progressions then you have to remember a lot less, and if you are used to improvising over those smaller progressions then soloing on the song is also going to be a lot simpler.

But there are actually quite a few more advantages!

The Basic Vocabulary and where to get it

For this to work then you need to get used to thinking and recognizing the words or building blocks in the chord progressions, and you use the songs you know and the songs you are learning to spot chord sequences that you see more often. Essentially this is also why it is beneficial to analyze chord progressions.

Some of the common things you certainly want to start recognizing are things like:

Of course, the II V I as you see here in Perdido, and take the A-train

I VI II V turnaround in Rhythm Changes or Blue Moon

The V of V which you also want to notice very often is placed in certain parts of the form, so at the end of the first half as it is here in There Will Never Be or at the end of the bridge as you see in Satin Doll

The same can be said about the II V to IV, it is also very often placed in the bridge or positioned so the IV chord is at the beginning of the 2nd 8 bars of the form what you see in There Will Never Be Another You. – There Will Never Be and Satin Doll

Another useful block is IV IVm I progression which is also very common and something you want to recognize. Here it is in There Will Never Be Another You and you also have it in All The Things You Are.

The next thing will make it even more clear why you want to learn this from songs, and then we need to get into the Barry Harris and Pat Martino thing.

Hear the Harmony

A problem when you look at a lead sheet for the first time, or even just the chords in iReal, is that it is hard to have any idea about how those chords sound, but if you are used to thinking in turnarounds, II V Is, V of V etc then you are actually working towards being able to hear the harmony just from looking at the chart, and that is incredibly useful and makes it a lot easier to play a song for the first time.

It is similar to how you probably find it really easy to play a song if you are told it is a blues, something that you just already are very familiar with the sound of.

But for that to happen the words or building blocks should not be only theoretical things, they need to be something that you know the sound of, and that is the easiest to achieve by recognizing them in the songs you know really well. At the same time then you can probably also see how this will help you pick up songs faster by ear since you can rely on hearing groups of chords and not each chord in the song, and there is a good chance you are already doing this with things like turnarounds.

Chord Progressions Are All The Same (sometimes)

A danger with trying to learn building blocks is that you get stuck on the details, which is similar to getting stuck with the extensions that I talked about earlier. With stuff like this it makes the most sense to focus on how chord progressions are similar more than how they are different.

So it is a turnaround if it resembles that and all of these progressions are essentially the same thing, but maybe for this song or this arrangement one of them fits better than the others, but it is more important to also realize that it is a turnaround.

Cmaj7 Am7 Dm7 G7

Cmaj7 A7 Dm7 G7

Em7 A7 Dm7 G7

Cmaj7 C#dim Dm7 G7

Cmaj7 A7 D7 G7

E7 A7 Dm7 G7

Em7 Ebdim Dm7 G7

Bb7 A7 Dm7 G7

The reason why I consider these the same is that they will often be interchangeable and will work in the same way in a song. If you want to take this into the language analogy then these would be synonyms, words with essentially the same meaning, give or take a nuance.

You can expand this to other things as well like IV IVm I progressions which are essentially subdominant – minor subdominant to tonic.

Fmaj7 Fm6 Cmaj7

Fmaj7 Bb7 Cmaj7

Dm7 Bb7 Cmaj7

F#ø Fm6 Cmaj7

And here a big part of why that is important to know is that these progressions sound similar, and have the same important notes and voice-leading, which means that you can approach soloing over them in very similar ways.

The Opposite Methods

One thing that is often very practical when looking at chord progressions that you want to solo over is to reduce the amount of chords in there, and this is where Pat Martino and Barry Harris sort of have opposite approaches.

The reason that you can leave chords out is that a lot of chords are really just embellishments and can be ignored without the solo losing the connection to the song, and it is easier to play strong melodies if you are not tied down by having to spell out a lot of changes.

A very useful example of this is the A part of Rhythm changes where there are a lot of chords but you can really reduce it to just one chord per bar.

The reduced version of the chords still contains the basic movement of the song and this will work great for solos.

As I mentioned, both Pat Martino and Barry Harris have systems for this, and they are both very simple rules.

For Pat Martino, everything is a II chord, so a II V becomes just a II chord.

Barry Harris goes the other way and throws away the II chord and says it is all V

Both of these can be useful, I think it really depends on the song. I think that Barry Harris’ approach gives you more natural chord progression when you have thrown away all the II chords, where Pat Martino becomes a bit strange giving you a Blues in F that looks like this:

At the same time, for guitar players connecting everything to minor seems to make it easier, maybe because we are all stuck in the minor pentatonic box 1 for eternity?

But to be fair then applying Barry’s rule to a song like I Should Care or Wes’ Four on Six also becomes a bit strange, so maybe you want to be aware of both systems and be flexible enough to use the one that works the best for you in whatever song you are playing. At least, that is what I have taken away from that. In music, context is everything.

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10 Levels of Turnarounds – Unlock Amazing Jazz Chord Progressions

Jazz harmony is a huge topic, and learning to understand and analyze chord progressions can seem like an impossible task, but if you understand a few of the techniques involved you can both create beautiful chord progressions and have an easier time figuring out how to solo over them, and you can see these techniques in action on a very simple progression that you already know.

Level 1 – The Basic Turnaround

For this video, I will use this turnaround and show you how you can create some nice surprising sounds using that.

What is important to understand with the basic turnaround is that it is just an embellished version of a I V progression, which you might know if you have followed some Barry Harris videos.

The first thing to add is to turn the V into a II V which is really just a glorified version of a G7sus4 to G7

Then to add some extra movement then Am is added to have a little variation in the bar with the I chord.

This is the basic progression, now you can start making variations to it. Along the way you also want to realize that I don’t really think in substitutions that much, simply because that is not a very useful way to use or understand harmony.

Level 2 – A Secondary Dominant

The first variation that you want to add to the progression is a secondary dominant. In this case, a way to get the progression to flow a bit more towards the Dm7 chord:

 

The turnaround is in the key of C major, and the A7 is not the dominant in that key, that is G7. Like this, you are using the A7 to create a pull towards the Dm7 and add movement to the chord progression. When the A7 appears like this then it is described as a secondary dominant, so a dominant resolving to something else than the tonic of the key. Since the A7 is resolving to Dm7 then you can treat it as an A7 in D minor and the logical scale choice is then D harmonic minor making it an A7(b9b13)

Written out Dm harmonic highlighting A7(b9b13) – D E F G A Bb C# D E F G A Bb C# D E F

You could also use the same principle to have a D7 resolving to G7.

Can you see why the D7 is not a D7(b9b13)?

Level 3 – The “Easy” Diminished Chord

You can also take the secondary dominant and turn it into the “easy” diminished chord:

Here the A7(b9) is turned into a diminished chord. Also sometimes referred to as a secondary dominant diminished. This is really just an A7(b9) with a C# in the bass, and you will solo on it using the same material that you use on the A7 chord, so D harmonic minor.

On-screen comparison of A7(b9) and C#dim: A C# E G Bb – C# E G Bb

The reason for using the diminished chord is usually just to have a different type of bass melody.

Later in the video, you will also see an example of the “difficult” diminished chord which is a great example of where thinking substitutions is going to make things more difficult.

Level 4 – Doesn’t Have To Be THE tonic chord

Of course, you can also start on a different chord than the Cmaj7, other chords in the key have a tonic function and the III chord is a beautiful option that also highlights that the progression is still moving not standing still:

You also want to notice that it sounds great to use a G7 that is borrowed from minor, so a G7(b9b13). The b9 and b13 become chromatic leading notes that help pull stronger towards the resolution to Cmaj7.

Let’s have a look at the difficult diminished chord.

Level 5 – The “Difficult” Diminished Chord

The basic progression was Cmaj7 Am7 Dm7 G7, and then you can add more momentum by playing an A7 or a C#dim chord in the second half of the first bar.

I already mentioned that this was not a substitution, what does that mean?

When you talk about substitutions then it is about taking one chord and replacing it with a related chord, but there is not really a connection between Am7 and A7(b9) in this progression, It makes more sense to just view that progression as a different route when moving from Cmaj7 to Dm7 and that is also what you have in this example:

The star of this example is the Ebdim chord. This diminished chord is an altered subdominant chord that resolves back to the more regular subdominant chord Dm7. I have some older videos on this type of diminished chord if you want to dig deeper into that. I often come across people trying to turn these dim chords into dominants that don’t resolve, personally, I don’t think that really helps me hear how the progression moves so I like this analysis a lot better.

Since it is a subdominant chord then it is usually written as derived from the IV in the scale, and in this case the #IVdim.

Let’s get rid of the tonic chord so that it doesn’t even sound like a turnaround in C.

Level 6 – Where Did The Tonic Chord Go?

As you can see then quite a few things have happened compared to the I VI II V that we started with.

There are two main things happening here: The first is extending how much is borrowed from C minor, so now you have the entire II V coming out of C minor, but probably the most curious one is the first chord which until now was reserved for a tonic chord like Cmaj7 or Em7, but now it is a secondary dominant, namely E7 resolving to another secondary dominant: A7 and then the minor II V before resolving to Cmaj7. The E7 is a secondary dominant that would resolve to Am in the key so you would use A harmonic minor when soloing over it and it has a b9 and a b13.

Choosing this as a turnaround is a way to emphasize movement, so it is not so important to have the tonic clear, but instead, it is important to keep the song going for example at the end of an A-part going to the next A-part. You will see an even more radical version of this later in the video.

Level 7 – Altered Dominants & Tritone Substitution

I have of course talked a bit about why substitutions aren’t the best way to approach harmony, but this example has two clear examples of just substituting chords with similar functions.

Here you have the secondary dominant in bar 1, A7, being substituted with an Eb7, which is the dominant that shares the same tritone interval as the core notes: C# and G

The other substitution is using an altered dominant for the G7 which is a sound that is a bit further away than borrowing from minor, and actually also related to tritone substitutions. It is a great sound to create a lot of tension and movement toward the resolution to the I chord.

Level 8 – My Favorite Turnaround

This turnaround variation is a great way to incorporate Minor subdominants and Coltrane changes into a turnaround

Here you have the first 3 chords as being straight out of a Coltrane cycle in C: Cmaj7 Eb7 Abmaj7  B7 Emaj7 G7 Cmaj7

Another way to look at this, and probably the reason why it sounds so great is that it involves a beautiful minor subdominant chord: Abmaj7

The first two chords are similar to the previous example and sound similar to what we pretty much expect in a turnaround, but the Eb7 resolves as a V chord and not a tritone substitution which takes us to Abmaj7,  a nice but still satisfying detour.

Using the Db7, the tritone substitute of the G7 makes it easier to move from the Abmaj7 back to Cmaj7.

This turnaround is often referred to as a Ladybird or Tadd Dameron turnaround, but not everybody agrees on what that is, so it is a good idea to check. In emergencies, the Blues always works 🙂

Level 9 – Chromatic Passing Chords

Let’s step it up and add some chromatic chords. This one probably came from the diminished chord progression that I talked about earlier, just stepping out of the key and approaching the Dm7 from a half-step above:

Here you have the Ebm7 that just quickly jumps out of the key to slide back in on the Dm7. You will quite often hear people like Bill Evans, Jim Hall, and Keith Jarret reharmonize dim chords to parallel minor chords and even Parker does it sometimes so it may be coming from that. Again calling it a substitution for a dim chord is really a stretch though.

Level 10 – What?!

Having a turnaround where the first chord is not at all what you expect is great, and this example uses a chord that does that, but still really works in with the progression.

When the ear expects a Cmaj7 and gets a Bb7 then that still is acceptable because the Bb7 moves on to an A7 and then continues in the turnaround. The Bb7 is there as a tritone substitute for the E7, the secondary dominant for A7.

I don’t think this one is that common, but it does sound really great so you should give it a try in a Jazz standard as a reharmonization.

Put It To Use In Chord Melody

You can create amazing things by taking songs and adding chords to them while also exploring different sounds and options with the chord progression. If you want to explore how to make your own chord melodies then check out this video.

It is a great way to build your knowledge and skills with jazz chords and in the process get started making some beautiful Chord Melody arrangements.

An Amazing Exercise For Jazz Chords (And Your Playing In General)

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How many ways can you Reharmonize a II-V-I in C major?

The II-V-I is at the center of almost all jazz harmony. In this lesson, I set out to try and see a big set of the possibilities you have in reharmonizing a II V I and make a long list of possible chord substitutions. The Jazz Theory that I mostly apply to the II V I chord progression in this reharm lesson is classical or functional harmony. The approach I mostly use. In the later options, I also rely on some modal interchange and more freely associated jazz chord substitutions.

List of contents:

0:59 Different sounds on G7
6:09 Tritone substitution
7:59 IV minor chords
15:45 V minor chords
16:28 Diatonic substitution from the Altered Scale
17:45 Diatonic substitution with Tri-tone subs
18:59 Other Dominants from the Diminished scale
19:14 Dominant derived from the diminished scale
19:58 Combining substitutions and getting far out
22:30 Did I miss a good substitution?

Vlog: Re-harmonizing Standards – Modern Jazz Progressions and Jazz Chord Sounds

A few days ago I uploaded a Chord Melody Reharmonization of Night and Day. In this video I will go over the arrangement and some of the more unusual jazz guitar chords that I have used. Re-harmonizing jazz standards is fun and also a great way to add a personal touch to your interpretation of the song.

In my reharmonization I am using some more rich versions of the original chords and also in other places completely changing the harmony, using new less functional jazz progressions and colors.

If you want to check out the Chord Melody you can do so here: