Tritone Substitutions

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Tritone substitution is not difficult to understand and once you begin to use this harmonic device it adds a lot of options to your musical pallet.

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I was using tritone substitutions long before I ever heard the term or understood what they were.

Playing general business gigs for a lot of years I read a lot of chord charts and we had  to come up with interesting endings to songs on the fly.

I quickly learned that at the end of a song to make things interesting I could land on the bII7 chord for a bit before resolving to the Tonic or 1 chord.

In the key of C, I would play a Db7 (C#7)  chord before playing the final C chord.

Quite often in a C blues jam a Db7 or Ab7 chord would be used for a measure to resolve to the 1 or V7 chord.

If you have ever done either of those things, congratulations! you are a hip jazz musician using tritone substitutions!

What is a Tritone?

Play any note and the note three whole steps away and you will be playing a tritone,( tri= 3).

The interval created by these two notes is a flatted 5th or b5 interval.

You may often hear this interval refered to as a "diminished" (to make smaller) 5th as well as an augmented 4th.

C major:

    C D E F G A B C
    1 2 3 4 5 6 7

    In C major, that’s C + Gb (G is the fifth… simply lower it to Gb).

Every dominant 7th chord has a tritone!

But here’s the thing with tritones. Unlike other chords, you really only have to learn 6 of them.

The reason why is that tritones are symmetric.

 In other words, they are the same if you take the bottom note and move it to the top. It doesn’t matter.

Take that “C + Gb,” flip it, and you’ll get “Gb + C” (it’s still a tritone).

Tritones are basically equal when you transpose them.

And get this…

They cut the octave perfectly in half.

Yes, believe it or not, the “b5″ (flatted fifth) marks the MIDDLE POINT of the octave.

So if you go from C to Gb and then from Gb to C, you would have encompassed an octave.

    Octave = 12 half steps
    Tritone = 6 half steps (or 3 whole steps, thus the name “tri”)

Because of all this, there are really only 6 of them. Gb + C is basically the same as C + Gb (at least for the purposes in which we’ll use them).

That means, all you have to do is learn these (and I’m going to use informal spellings just to keep thing simple):

    C + Gb
    Db + G
    D + Ab
    Eb + A
    E + Bb
    F + B

…And you’ll automatically know these, the “flipped” versions:

    Gb + C
    G + Db
    Ab + D
    A + Eb
    Bb + E
    B + F

So the key is to master not only these tritones played as chords (or dyads) but to master, for example, what a tritone up from C is. In other words, you should be able to know that the other “tritone” side of D is Ab. Or the other side of G is Db. Or the other side of E is Bb, and vise versa.

Because once you understand this, tritone substitution is easy.

It basically says that you can substitute the chord a tritone away for the chord you’re currently on. It works best with dominant chords but you can mess around with it on major and minor seventh chords as well.

But basically, let’s see how this works in a 2-5-1 chord progression…

Normally, in a 2-5-1, the “5″ tone is a dominant chord.

    2-minor7 >>> 5-dominant7 >>> 1-major7

In C major, this plays out as:

    D minor7 >>> G dominant7 >>> C major7

        D minor7 = D + F + A + C
        G dominant7 = G + B + D + F
        C major7 = C + E + G + B

See the “G dominant 7?” The rules behind “tritone substitution” say that you can replace this G dominant7 with the dominant chord that is 3 whole steps away (or a “tritone” away).

Tritone Substitution:

The use of a chord three whole steps away to replace (or follow) the original chord.

I said “follow” because, in my experience, you can usually play your original chord and then follow-up with the dominant chord a tritone away. And other times, you can substitute the original chord altogether.

And like I said, if you know your tritone relationships very well, it won’t take long to know that you can use Db dominant 7 in the place of G dominant 7 (“G7″ for short).

    D minor 7 >>> Db dominant 7 >>> C major 7

        D minor7 = D + F + A + C
        Db dominant7 = Db + F + Ab + Cb
        C major7 = C + E + G + B

    *Cb is basically the same as playing “B” — just spelled differently.

Why does the Db7 work so well as a substitute for the G7 chord?

Well, let’s look at their notes:

    G7:
    G + B + D + F

    Db7:
    Db + F + Ab + B


Do you see the two common notes that these two chords share? In fact the notes they share (“B + F”) form a tritone, themselves! There are just tritones everywhere!


For a visual explanation for how to use these tritone substitutions in you playing you may find it helpful to watch the video below.


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