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Guitar chords and substitution

The illustration below shows 3 popular progressions formed in the key of C major.

Guitar chord substitutions

Notice the first progression in the illustration above. You will find the chords C, Am, F and G. This type of progression
(I vi IV V) is one of the most popular progressions.

In this lesson we will learn a technique to substitute one chord for another. The chord that we substitute may not be diatonic to the C major scale. Recall that diatonic means belonging to the particular scale we are working with. In the examples above, each progression is formed within the key of C major. All three of the progressions above are said to be diatonic to the key of C major.

We know the chords in the key of C major are, C, Dm, Em, F, G, Am and B diminished. Lets say we wrote a progression using the chords, C, Am, F and G. Do you think it would be possible to use the same melody and different chords over that melody? There's a technique called chord substitution. I'm not going to explain the theory behind this right now, but I would like to show you a way to substitute one chord for another. To substitute one chord for another, each chord must share at least one note. This means that the chord we are substituting for must have at least 1 note that is natural to the chord we replace. 

Our first progression above is C, Am, F and G. We will now substitute another chord for the Am chord. First we must know the notes that make up the Am chord. This is easy enough, the notes of all minor chords are the 1, b3 and 5 notes. Minor triads and all chords are built upward in thirds. So the notes that make up the Am chord are A, C and E. We now need to find a chord that contains one of these notes. It may be easiest to find the chords that contain the A note. The easiest note that comes to mind is the A major chord. The notes that make up the A major chord are A, C# and E. This means that we can now convert our progression of 

C, Am, F and G to our new progression of C, A, F and G. 

This also tells me that any time we have a minor chord, we can substitute it for its Major chord. In this instance we have changed the Am chord to the A major chord.

So far we have taken the progression of C, Am, F and G and have changed it to C, A, F and G. You may notice when you look at a sheet of music, say in the key of C major that there have been sharps added. We know that in the key of C major there are no accidentals, (sharps or flats). Music may be signatured for the key of C major, but you will usually find non diatonic notes within the song. Chord substitution is one reason why. The key signature just lets you know what key the song is based in, but you will usually find other notes that are foreign to the key. 

Staying with the progression of C, Am, F and G what other chords share the notes of the Am chord? Recall the notes in the Am chord are, A, C and E. The F chord has the A note, but we can't use two of the same chords together in a progression. C, F, F, G. This would be redundant, a progression must continue to move or its not considered a progression. This does not mean we can't use it though. 

F#m contains the A note, right? F#, A and C#. So this will give us a new progression.

C, F#m, F and G.

The Dm chord has the A note. D, F and A. This will now give us, C, Dm, F and G. Look below at the illustration and notice the C, Dm, F and G progression.

The D major chord also has the A note. D, F# and A. This will now give us, C, D, F and G.

What we have done was took the progression, C, Am, F and G and found chords that contained the notes of the Am chord, A, C and E then substituted those chords in the original progression.

C

Am

F

G

C

A

F

G

C

F#m

F

G

C

Dm

F

G

C

D

F

G

We  will continue to find substitutions for the C, Am, F and G progression. We have used the (A) note in the Am chord, but we can now use the C note from this chord. The notes in the Am chord are A, C and E.

The original progression was C, Am, F and G. We will now find the chords with the (C) note. The easiest chord to figure out would be the Cm chord. The notes of this chord are C, Eb and G. We can now add this to our new progression. C, Cm, F and G. We know that the C chord also contains the C note, but once again this would be redundant. C, C, F and G, so we won't use that chord. 

What other chords contain the C note? How about the Ab chord. The notes of this chord are Ab, C and Eb.

The progression would now be, C, Ab, F and G. I like this progression, it sounds good.

The Fm chord contains the C note. F, Ab and C.

The progression would now be C, Fm, F and G. The list goes on.

Now lets look at the chords that contain the E note. Recall the notes of the Am chord. A, C and E. What chords could we use? The easiest would be the Em chord. E, G and B.

C, Em, F and G. Check that progression out below. 

Guitar Chords and progressions

We can also use the E major chord. E, G# and B.

C, E, F and G.

I hope you can see where were going and all the possibilities we have. We can substitute one chord for another if the chord shares at least one note with the original.

We will continue to work on this in the future.

Good luck,

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