Jazz Blues Chord Substitutions and Harmonic Alterations
The blues is one of the most, if not the most, common chord progression and forms found in the traditional jazz literature.
Since it has been used for decades by every major figure in jazz as a vehicle for composition and improvisation, it is one of the most important forms to work on in the practice room when learning how to play jazz guitar.
Though many of us have checked out the basic blues progression, in a traditional and/or jazz context, we often get to a point where we can navigate the basic chords and don’t know how to elevate our blues playing to the heights of the masters that we’ve heard on recordings and in concert.
One of the best and most common ways to take our blues playing to the next level, as both a comper and soloist, is to expand the harmony of the blues using harmonic alterations and jazz blues chord substitutions.
In the following article I’ll lay out many of the common ways to expand the harmony of the blues, ones that I like to use in my own playing and that I’ve taken from the playing of great players such as Tadd Dameron, John Coltrane, Jake Langley, Joe Pass, Benny Golson and others.
These subs can be used over any blues in both your comping and soloing.
But, which chords you use and where you take the harmony depends on your ears, musical tastes and the situation at hand.
The best approach is to learn as many of these subs as possible, slowly over time, and begin to try them out in musical situations to see how they fit.
The goal is to be able to have enough subs under your fingers and in your ears to naturally insert them into a playing situation, rather than force them in because they are the only ones that you have worked out.
Using subs in a blues can be a very powerful harmonic and melodic tool, so check these chords out and start to experiment with them to see which ones grab your attention and draw you to using them in your own playing.
Having a strong understanding of substitutions can allow you to raise your blues playing to the next level, while at the same time allowing you to react to these common progressions the next time you hear them being played by a fellow bandmate on a gig or in the rehearsal room.
This is not meant to be a complete list of all possible subs over a blues, but more of a harmonic primer to some of the more common progressions used by jazz players over the major blues progression.
Check out my article “10 Must Know Jazz Blues Tunes for Guitar” to learn about the jazz blues repertoire.
If you have a favorite sub that I left out and want to have it included, leave a note in the comment section below.
First Four Bars
The first four bars of the blues is used to cement the sound of the tonic key, in this case F7, in the listener’s mind.
The basic chord progression for these bars is simply a tonic, I7, chord for the entire length of the phrase.
Here is how this would look in the key of F7. It’s as basic as it gets, only using one chord, but this allows us to be very creative when applying substitutions and harmonic alterations to this section of the blues.
The first, and I would say most common, alteration to the first four bars of the blues is called the “quick change” progression.
Here, you add a Bb7, IV7, to bar two of the progression, and then immediately return to the tonic chord on the downbeat of beat three.
This “quick change” doesn’t modulate or sound as if it has moved into the key of IV7, it simply adds some movement to the long I7 chord that was originally there, while keeping the tonic sound firmly rooted in the progression.
The next progression uses a common substitution technique called the tri-tone sub chord, the B7 found in bar four.
Here, the B7 is labelled as a tri-tone sub for two reasons, one because it is a tri-tone away from F7, the tonic chord which it is replacing, and both chords share a tri-tone interval, A-Eb, within their structure.
This chord is used to arrive smoothly to the Bb7 chord found in bar 5, as it resolves down by a half-step into that next harmonic area.
As is the case in any situation, when you have a 7th chord all alone in a bar, if possible, you can pair it up with its companion iim7 chord, as is the case in the next progression.
We’ve simply taken the B7 in bar four and added its relative iim7 chord before it, making it a iim7-V7 progression leading by half-step into the IV7 chord in bar 5.
We’ll now add in a Gospel sounding pair of chords to the second half of bar two, Bbm7 Eb7 or ivm7-bVII7.
Because these chords move so quickly, one beat each, this sub only works well on blues tunes that have a relatively slow tempo, say 80 BPM or slower.
You can try them at a faster tempo but they tend to lose their effect since they go by before the listener has a chance to digest them, but on a slow blues they can have a very cool harmonic effect in your playing.
In the next group of subs we’ll take a chapter from the Joe Pass school of harmonization and approach each chord by a half-step above.
Again, because these chords tend to move quickly, we have six chords in the first three bars, these subs work well at a slow tempo.
Try comping through these chords to get the feel for how the half-step resolutions sound and feel under your fingers. It was a technique that Pass used a lot, and one that is easy to pull off and sounds great when used in the right moment.
The next progression was shown to me by Jake Langley a number of years ago, and it’s one of my favorite subs to use on a blues.
Coltrane also liked to use these chords a lot in his blues playing, and they are a great way to build forward momentum in your solos and being another soloist as a comper.
The basic principal behind these chords is that you have the I7 chord in bar one, F7, and the tri-tone sub chord in bar four, B7, then in between you move up in whole-tones to connect these two chord, F7-G7-A7-B7.
It’s a symmetrical grouping of chords, as each is divided by a whole-tone, which allows you to use a similar motive for each chord, moving it up the progression to build forward motion and momentum in your solos and/or comping.
Here we are using the same approach as the previous example, moving in whole-tones between F7 and B7, I7 and it’s related tri-tone sub, but instead of moving up we’re moving down between those two chords.
The same principals apply when using this progression as the previous, motives work great and this harmonic movement can be used to create energy and build excitement in your solo or behind a soloist if you use it in a comping situation.
Second Four Bars
The second four bars of the blues progression is used to introduce the IV7 chord, moving to it for two bars in the basic progression, before returning to the tonic chord in bars seven and eight.
Because there is twice the harmony in this section than found in the first, it allows us to use subs that are geared towards arriving at the next chord in the progression, which we will see in the following musical examples.
The first sub that we’ll check out is probably the most popular addition to the second four bars of a blues, adding a #IVdim7 chord in bar six.
This chord is used to add a passing bass movement between Bb7 and F7, with F7 often having a C in the bass for bar seven to complete the Bb-B-C bass line.
The next sub is found in bar eight, the VI7b9 chord, in this case D7b9.
This chord is used to arrive at the iim7 chord in bar nine, Gm7, as it acts to form a mini V7alt-im7 cadence between these two chords, D7b9-Gm7.
This is an extremely common progression, especially in Bebop and Hardbop, and is used so often that it can be considered a part of the basic jazz-blues progression, making it worthwhile to check out in depth in the practice room.
This chord is also often turned into a ii-V progression by adding its relative iim7b5 in the first half of bar 8, forming an Am7b5-D7b9 progression that again resolves into the iim7 chord, Gm7, in bar 9.
The following progression takes the same Gospel sounding chords from the first four bars and adds them into bar six of the tune.
Since the harmonic movement is longer here, as compared to the first time we saw these chords, you can use them as subs in faster tempo blues tunes.
This movement, ivm7-bVII7-I is very common in the jazz world, such as the first four bars of “Lady Bird,” and is worth checking out as it will come up a lot as you explore more jazz standards, both with subs and their basic progressions.
Here is a very common turnaround that takes the harmony from the I7 chord and moves it to the iim7 chord in bar 9.
Using I7-IV7-iiim7b5-VI7b9 is a very cool way to move between these two chords, I and iim7, and can be found in other standard jazz tunes as well.
You can also use this progression in a major key, just replace I7 with Imaj7 and you can use the same subs to move from Imaj7 to iim7, which can sometimes be tricky to navigate since it is not a normal I-I turnaround, such as Imaj7-VI7b9-iim7-V7.
The following subs are very modal sounding, which can help move your blues comping and soloing in that direction if that’s where your ears and the moment is taking you.
These chords move in a harmonic sequence, down in half-steps, connecting IV7 to the iim7 chord in bar nine.
This is not a very common sub, as compared to the Bebop version found in the next example, but one that can add a bit of modal color to your blues playing if you find yourself drawn to a more modal sound compared to the traditional tonal structure of the blues.
The last group of subs that we’ll look at in the second four bars is based on Charlie Parker’s tune “Blues for Alice.”
Here, Bird used the same harmonic sequence as the last example, moving down in half-steps between IV and ii, Bb7-Bbm7-Am7-Abm7, but instead of keeping it as a modal sound, he just added a V7 chord to each minor chord in the progression to form a descending chain of iim7-V7’s.
Since “Bird Blues” is a very common blues progression with Bebop players, this series of chords may seem tough to navigate at first, but if you are looking to play in the Bebop genre, they’re essential learning material along that journey.
Last Four Bars
The last four bars of a blues is used as a cadence progression, cementing the sound of the I7 chord in bar 11.
The basic changes to this progression are V7-I7, or C7-F7 in this key.
Traditional blues players will also play V7-IV7-I7 in this section, and some jazz guys will do this too such as the tune “Bessie’s Blues” by John Coltrane, though the iim7-V7-I7 cadence tends to be more popular in this situation.
With the iim7-V7 firmly in place in bars nine and ten, we can add a turnaround to bars eleven and twelve.
A turnaround is a progression that starts on one chord and finishes on that same chord, often at the top of the next chorus as is the case here between F7 in bar eleven and F7 in bar one.
The progression uses a very common I-VI-ii-V progression, and again, since it can be found in countless jazz tunes it is definitely worth spending a lot of time with these chords in the practice room as they will come up time and again in your jazz playing.
A common variation to any ii-V-I or ii-V progression is to switch out the V7 chord with a dominant 7th chord a tri-tone away, as we did with F7 and B7 in the fourth bar of the blues earlier.
We can do this in several places during the last four bars of the blues, starting with switching out Gb7 for C7 in bar 10.
Since you can use this technique with the C7 in bar ten, you can also use it with the C7 in bar 12.
The same motion is created, Gm7-Gb7-F7 between bars twelve and the tonic chord in bar one.
Since these chords move twice as fast as the previous example they can be tricky to navigate, so it’s worth working out some chord patterns when comping through this section, as well as some iim7-V7-I7 licks in the same way that you would work out iim7-V7-I7 licks in your soloing.
Since there is one more V7-i moment in the last four bars of the blues, between D7b9 and Gm7, we can also sub out the D7b9 for its relative tri-tone dominant chord, Ab7.
This creates a highly chromatic last four bars of the blues, G-Gb-F-Ab-G-Gb-F, between bar nine and the top of the next chorus. A lot of half-step movement, but a fun series of chords to solo or comp with in the right situation.
To finish off our look at tri-tone subs, we can also add in a tri-tone sub of Gm7, in this case using Db7 in its place, to create a series of tri-tone subs in the last two bars of the blues.
This progression, I7-bIII7-bVI7-bII7 is the same harmonic movement as is found in the last two bars of the tune “Ladybird,” only here we’re using all 7th chords to keep with the spirit of the blues sound, rather than the maj7 chords used in the standard tune.
The next set of subs comes from a tune called “Stablemates.”
That tune begins with a biiim7-bVI7-iim7-V7 progression leading to the key of Dbmaj7.
In this instance, we are using the same technique, playing a ii-V a half-step higher than the original chords, followed by the original chords, before resolving to the I7 chord in bar 11.
The next subs work in a similar fashion to the previous four bars except the first iim7-V7 is a half-step below the original changes, which comes from a John Coltrane tune called “Moment’s Notice.”
The last group of subs we’ll look at on the blues comes from John Coltrane’s tune “Countdown.”
Here, we’re using the Coltrane Matrix, which he used in “Giant Steps,” “Countdown” and other tunes, to reharmonize the last four bars of a blues.
These chords are very tricky to play through so work on them in the practice room for a while before trying them out on the bandstand.
If you are new to these changes you can check out my articles on Giant Steps for exercises on soloing through these tough chords.
Ted Greene Blues Chord Changes
As a little bonus I’ve written out one of my favorite blues progressions, that I took from the master guitarist and teacher Ted Greene.
This group of chords is played over a slow blues and uses a lot of the subs we talked about in the previous examples.
There are some new additions though, such as the iim7-V7 in bar three, the walk up progression in bars seven and eight and the turnaround in bars eleven and twelve.
Do you have a favorite jazz blues chord substitution? Share it in the Jazz Blues Subs thread at the MWG Forum.