The fourth chord substitution we will talk about is the Tri-tone.
TRI-TONES!!! The big girls of gospel music! Aha! Everybody is talking about tri-tones.
The question is, Can tri-tone substitutions really revolutionize your play?
The answer is YES
I know you’re thinking… “This is going to be very very complex"
Let me assure you that this concept is very easy to understand. Maybe you’ve heard of it. Perhaps you’ve seen these words thrown around forums.
Well, I’m finally going to demystify tri-tone substitutions for you.
As you know, a tri-tone is made up of the 1 and b5 interval.
C D E F G A B C
1 2 3 4 5 6 7
In C major, that will be C Gb (G is the 5th… so simply lower it to Gb).
It’s also known as a diminished 5th interval. (literally means to “make smaller”).
But here’s the thing with tri-tones. Unlike other chords, you really only have to learn 6 of them. Yes!
12 is the magic number in music.
There are 12 major chords,
12 minor chords,
12 diminished chords…
12 of everything! But with tri-tones, they 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 tri-tone).
On the other hand, if you take a perfect fifth like “C G” and flip it, you won’t get the same 5th but instead, you’ll get a 4th (“G C”). That’s because they aren’t symmetric.
Tri-tones 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
Tri-tone = 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 things simple):
…And you’ll automatically know that the “flipped” versions are:
So the key is to master not only these tri-tones played as chords (or dyads) but to master, for example, what a tri-tone up from C is. In other words, you should be able to know that the other “tri-tone” side of D is Ab. Or the other side of G is Db. Or the other side of E is Bb, and vice versa.
Once you understand this, tri-tone substitution is easy. It basically says that you can substitute the chord a tri-tone 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 5th tone is a dominant chord.
2 (minor 7) - 5 (dominant 7) - 1 (major 7)
In C major, this plays out as:
D minor 7 - G dominant 7 - C major 7
D minor 7 = D F A C
G dominant 7 = G B D F
C major 7 = C E G B
See the “G dominant 7”? The rules behind “tri-tone substitution” say that you can replace this G dominant 7 with the dominant chord that is 3 whole steps away
That is the golden rule!
You don't just use tritone anywhere unless you are an expert and you have a very quick hand.
This is the use of a chord, 3 whole steps away to replace (or follow) the original chord.
I use the word “follow” because, in my experience, you can usually play your original chord and then follow-up with the dominant chord a tri-tone away. And other times, you can substitute the original chord altogether.
And like I said, if you know your tri-tone 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 B
C major7 = C E G B
Why does the Db7 work so well as a substitute for the G7 chord?
Well, let’s look at their notes:
Regardless of what you call them, do you see the two common notes that these two chords share? In fact the notes they share (B F) form a tri-tone, themselves! There are just tri-tones everywhere!
Exercise: Come up with tri-tone substitutions for every 2 – 5 – 1 chord progression.
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