Jazz Blues Chords – Turnarounds and Substitutions

By: Jamie Holroyd

No doubt about it, the jazz blues form and jazz blues chords are a favourite for almost every guitarist to blow and comp over.

One of the reasons the jazz-blues is such a great progression to work on, is the freedom the form provides in being as complex or as simple as you want it to be.

Whether it’s superimposing cool changes, taking chord solos, or combing different chord types, almost every jazz musician likes to showcase their chops over a good old blues chord progression.

While it would take numerous lessons to explore all the various comping possibilities over a blues, this lesson is going to focus on some of the common jazz-blues comping techniques used by legendary jazz guitarists throughout the years that you can also use to better your jazz guitar playing.

If you are new to the Jazz Blues form, check out this list of “10 Jazz Blues Tunes Every Jazz Guitarist Needs to Know.”

Do you have a question or comment about this lesson? Visit the Jazz Blues Turnarounds and Subs thread at the MWG Forum.


Chromatic Passing Notes and Chords


Adding chromatic passing notes to a standard blues progression creates interesting movement at static points within the progression and provides an effective form of tension and release, especially when resolving into chords by a step or half-step.

Chromatic passing chords are most often added between chords I (Bb7) and IV (Eb7) of the 12 bar blues.

Check out the example below for some of the most frequently used passing notes applied to the Bb dominant 7th chord.

This type of chord movement mostly happens in bars 1-2 and 4-6 within a 12-bar blues.


Click to hear the audio for this example.


Jazz Blues Chords 1


Notice how the F# on the Bb7#5 chord moves up to the G natural of the Eb7 on the same string in the first example.

This type of movement is referred to as voice leading and is very effective to use in your jazz guitar comping.

As well as using ascending voice leading to move to the next chord, you can also use descending voice leading.

Check out the next example to see descending voice-leading in action where I’ve used an Eb9 chord in place of the Eb7.

This time the F# descends to the F natural in the Eb9 chord.

Stepwise movement in either direction is a very effective way to voice lead when comping the blues and is often used by many of the great jazz guitarists in their playing.


Click to hear the audio for this example.


Jazz Blues Chords 2


The following example shows how you can use the chromatic passing notes and chords techniques discussed earlier, with certain bars of a 12 bar jazz blues in Bb.

Practice the progression in all 12 keys, then when you have memorized, try adding your own passing chords to the jazz-blues chord progression.


Click to hear the audio for this example.


Passing Jazz Blues Chords


Jazz Blues Chords 3




The Jazz Blues Chords Turnaround


Now that you have some passing chord vocabulary under your fingers and in your ears over the first 8 bars of a jazz blues progression, let’s check out what we can do to add some crunch to the turnaround.

The turnaround in a blues occurs in the last two bars of the 12 bar progression and is the point where the progression turns round and starts over.


Jazz Blues Chords in Bb


Jazz Blues Chords 4


Although the turnaround is simply a I VI ii V progression that resolves back to the I chord (Bb7) in bar 1 of the tune, it is sometimes twisted and turned by jazz musicians to provide greater harmonic interest during these important two bars of the tune.

A simple and easy way to add flavour to these chords is to slide into each chord from a fret above or below.

Chromatically sliding into chords is a common device used by jazz guitarists that’s also effective in jazz guitar chord solos and chord melody arrangements.


Click to hear the audio for this example.


Sliding From Above


Jazz Blues Chords 5


Sliding From Below

Click to hear the audio for this example.


Jazz Blues Chords 6


Mixed Sliding From Above and Below

Click to hear the audio for this example.


Jazz Blues Chords 7


Practice these examples in all 12 keys and when you feel comfortable, start to try out some combinations of your own.


The Wes Montgomery Turnaround


A cool turnaround that you can use in the jazz blues progression in bars 11 and 12 of jazz blues progression is the Wes Montgomery turnaround.

This turnaround is a cool I7 VI7b9 iim7 V7 substitute used by Wes that jazz players sometimes superimpose over the simple turnaround at the end of the progression.

This substitute turnaround is created by using the tritone substitution on the VI7b9, iim7, and V7 chords, while the I7 stays the same to provide a strong harmonic grounding.


Click to hear the audio for this example.


Jazz Blues Chords 8


Wes Montgomery liked to change the tritone substitute of the iim7 chord (C-7) to a major 7th chord, F#maj7 in this case, which you can see in the next example.

As well, you can take this approach one step further changing the B9 to a B9#11 and adding an F pedal note can be used as a common tone throughout the progression.


Click to hear the audio for this example.


Jazz Blues Chords 9


The most famous example of this tritone turnaround can be heard in one of Wes Montgomery’s most famous compositions, “West Coast Blues.”

Check out the example below of Wes’ intro on the tune and notice the different changes that Wes brings to the traditional blues turnaround to make it sound unique and harmonically interesting.

Also note that Wes’ also added the preceding iim7 chords to each of the dominant 7ths, and changed the I7 chord to a maj7 chord, further altering the turnaround and making it his own along the way.


Click to hear the audio for this example.


Jazz Blues Chords 10


Tritone substitutions are a distinctive feature of the Bebop genre of jazz and so this Wes Montgomery turnaround can be used to add a bop flavour to the 12 bar jazz blues progression.

Check out the following example with a Bebop style jazz blues progression that uses tritone substitutions throughout the progression.

As you work through these chords, notice the use of the Wes Montgomery turnaround in the last two bars.


Bebop Blues Progression


Jazz Blues Chords 11


Learning to add substitutions to the blues progression, and in particular the turnaround, can be a fun way to spice up your jazz-blues comping.

Check out these approaches in your practicing this week and see where these ideas can take you in the woodshed.

You might be surprised at just how cool these ideas can sound, and that they aren’t too difficult to bring into your playing in a short amount of time.


About the Author

Jamie Holroyd is a UK based jazz educator and author who runs http://www.jamieholroydguitar.com, a free website with countless lessons and resources to help students across the globe play jazz guitar.


  1. David Shore, December 1, 2012:

    I certainly got a whole bunch out of this post ~ Thank you for it

  2. Jamie, December 3, 2012:

    No problem Dave, glad you liked it!

  3. Ronald, December 9, 2012:

    Wow, that’s some deep stuff right there! I’ve only just started learning jazz…Thanx Matt, really helpful, esp with the sound clips. But it’s gonna take quite long for me to get used to the shapes… Any tips or shortcuts. And could you please give suggestions of songs that you think could be helpful… Ronald

  4. Matthew Warnock, December 9, 2012:

    Hey Ronald

    I would say pick one and work it in different keys and over a few different tunes for a while until it’s really down, then go on to the next. Don’t try to tackle all of these at once or it’ll be too much info to get down.

    For tunes, check out this link.


  5. guitar tung, December 11, 2012:


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