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David Mead

The Masterclasses

There's an awful lot of fuss made about chord substitution. In jazz circles, it's an an easy obsession to acquire - and a lot of players suppose that they've just got to knuckle down and aim for that elusive encyclopaedic knowledge of voicings and inversions that we pre-suppose was a prerequisite with our jazz ancestry.

I used to take a chord book with me on gigs as a sort of amulet against the ‘lost' or unknown chord suddenly springing out at me from a chart. I don't know what practical help I expected from the book; as you can imagine, there's hardly time to stop the band and look something up when you're charging through a piece on stage. I thought that having some sort of database available to me in some form was good enough - although, obviously it wasn't. There's no substitute for learning, as they tell us.

In the end, I systematised the fretboard, mainly thanks to learning the CAGED system from Joe Pass, and chords no longer held the same sort of fear for me. If I came across a chord that was unfamiliar, I merely substituted it for one I knew. Sounds clever, doesn't it? But rather than preserve some sort of mystique and carry on the pretence that I am, in fact, some sort of Jazz Jedi Knight, I'll let you into a little secret that has helped a lot of my students enormously. It's so simple, many miss it completely…

The 3 Chord Families

We're probably agreed that, as far as chords are concerned, we're talking about three distinct families or groups: major, minor and dominant chords. I follow Joe Pass's reasoning that diminished and augmented chords can easily be seen as belonging to a sort of dominant chord sub-group, seeing as they are usually diminished sevenths or augmented sevenths when we come across them in a chart. The most common voicings would include:

Major 7th
Major 9
Add 9 6/9
Major 6th

Minor 7th
Minor 9th
Minor 7b5
Minor 6th


…and so on. Obviously, the prospect of having an instant and satisfactory voicing for these and the many more alternatives available in every key is a pretty befuddling one and we've all experienced that moment of complete blankness when playing through even the most docile looking standard. So what's the easy answer? The best way to escape from these moments of mental encyclopaedia meltdown is to reduce all chords to their lowest common denominator and play something from the same family group, but missing out one or more of the extensions. Come into my laboratory and I'll show you what I mean…

How it works..

Let's look first at some formulae for major chords:

Maj - 1 3 5
Maj6 - 1 3 5 6
Maj 7 - 1 3 5 7
Maj 9 - 1 3 5 7 9

Immediately, you should be able to see that all these chord forms share between them the basic major triad and so, by deftly substituting, say, a straight major for a Maj 9 you can't possibly be playing a wrong chord - you're merely playing one that doesn't quite have the same harmonic ‘reach'. You've stopped short, that's all. Nobody is going to give you any dirty looks - if anything, they'll probably think you're being terrifically cool. 
The same trick works for minor chords, too:

Min - 1 b3 5
Min6 - 1 b3 5 6
Min7 - 1 b3 5 b7
Min9 - 1 b3 5 b7 9

Once again, the common denominator is the basic minor triad and so, if push comes to shove on the bandstand, a straight minor will do the job nicely. Of course, if you want to take it to the next stage, playing a minor seventh instead of a minor ninth is still playing it safe. Check the chart - we're just stopping short and definitely not making an error. 
Dominant chords are slightly more tricky, because, in general, they're far more colourful - and quite likely to appear extended - than their major and minor counterparts. Although, the maths still works:

7th - 1 3 5 b7
9th - 1 3 5 b7 9
13th - 1 3 5 b7 9 13
7b5 - 1 3 b5 b7
7b9 - 1 3 5 b7 b9

The proof is in the pudding...

You can see that most of the chords remain faithful to their origins and so substituting a straight dominant seventh for an extended variation will work most of the time. Obviously, if the chord contains a flat fifth, it's not going to be a perfect fit, but I opt for using a seventh voicing that omits the fifth much of the time anyway and this neatly solves the problem at a stroke. 
So, rather than worrying that you are chordally under-prepared next time you venture out in the dangerous wastes of a fake book, make the very basic chords that you're familiar with work for you and use a bit of reverse engineering. And remember, if you keep smiling, no one will ever suspect anything…

About David Mead

‘A fantastically analytical mind - and a wonderful player…' Martin Taylor 
‘The master of technique…' Total Guitar

Author of two best-selling guitar books, ‘Ten Minute Guitar Workout' and ‘100 Tips For Guitar' as well as numerous other titles, David has been involved in teaching guitar for over 20 years. In the intervening period, he edited two of Europe's most respected guitar magazines, Guitarist and Guitar Techniques. He also teamed up with guitar virtuoso Martin Taylor to write numerous articles on jazz guitar and two books, including the top-selling ‘Martin Taylor Guitar Method' for Mel Bay publications. David has played with some of the top names in jazz, including Dick Heckstall-Smith, Harry Beckett, Lol Coxhill and Pete King.

You can see his web site at

Buy David's books at
Ten Minute Guitar Workout
100 Tips For Guitar

P.S - [from Justin] - Davis has a fantastic CD out - go and have look at his web site and have a listen to some beautiful acoustic jazz guitar.


Lesson ID: MA-020