I was having a conversation recently with someone who was having difficulty understanding what a tritone substitution was and how it can be used in improvisation. They had watched a number of videos on YouTube from someone who talked about the use of tritones in left-handed piano voicings. Unfortunately, they remained stuck thinking that was the only use of this “secret to tritones” as advertised on the video. Hopefully in today’s post we can uncover some of that secret for him and possibly others that may be stuck on the question: what is a tritone substitution?
About a year ago I made a post in my Outside-In series that covered this topic, but looked at it from a superimposition standpoint. Below is a portion from that post:
“Let’s first take a look at the often talked about tritone substitution. There’s been a lot of mystery associated with this term and I hope to clear some of that up to show that it’s not as complicated as some make it out. A lot of our recent examples have been in the key of C…so let’s switch it up this week and move to the key of Eb. Let’s start with the ii-V-I in Eb:
A tritone substitution is simply taking the V7 chord and replacing it with the same quality chord a tritone (sharp 4th or flatted 5th interval) away. Instead of having Fmin7-Bb7-Ebmaj7. You now have Fmin7-E7-Ebmaj7. Notice how the root movement descends chromatically. The reason why the tritone substitution works so well is that the Bb7 and the E7 (tritone away) share the same guide-tones (the 3rd and the flat 7th of the chord):
(Quick note: anytime you have a V7 chord that lasts a full measure…you can turn it into a one-bar ii-V. This holds true for tritone substitutions.)”
As an improviser, you can take a normal ii-7, V7, I and turn it into a tritone substitution whenever you would like. Below is a quick example of what you could play:
I wrote the line so you could see it as an E7. It definitely has a more outside sound to it (which is why I talked about it in the Outside-In series). Hopefully that clears up some of the mystery that has surrounded the tritone substitution! There are a number of jazz greats that use them. Who do you like that uses them?
Jason Klobnak is a versatile trumpet player that has been performing as an active musician, author, clinician, composer and educator. His band, J's Ruckus, is Denver's blend of Post-Bop, Soul, Gospel, and Hip-Hop. They perform infectious and up-lifting originals for audiences hungry for a memorable live experience. J's Ruckus released their latest album, Suck Less, in March of 2020 and their first EP, Sermons, in July of 2019. Both were recorded live in front of an audience. Suck Less was recorded to a packed auditorium at Arapahoe Community College's Waring Theater in Littleton, CO. Sermons was recorded in front of a sold out crowd at the Soiled Dove Underground. The JKQ (the Jason Klobnak Quintet/Quartet) is Mr. Klobnak's Hammond B-3 centered groups. The JKQ released their third full-length album in March of 2018 called Friends & Family. It has been very well reviewed, on numerous Top 10 lists for Jazz radio stations across the country (including Denver's KUVO 89.3FM which named it May 2018's CD of the month), and in Jazzweek's Top 100. Each composition was written for specific family and close friends (that might as well be family). Their second album, New Chapter, was recorded in part thanks to the Pathways to Jazz Grant from the Boulder County Arts Alliance. In 2015 and 2016, New Chapter was in the Top 75 on the Jazzweek charts and on the Top 10 playlists for over a dozen radio stations worldwide. Their first album, Mountain, Move made the Best Recordings of 2013 list from AllAboutJazz.com by C. Michael Bailey. His very well reviewed Christmas single, Hark the Herald, in 2016 as part of a creative project with musicians James Roberson and Nathaniel Kearney Jr. Besides the JKQ, Mr. Klobnak is a B.A.C. (Best American Craftsman-custom trumpet), Denis Wick (mouthpiece and mutes) and Westone Audio endorsed artist (ES20 and Tru Customs). Mr. Klobnak has played and recorded for numerous groups ranging from jazz, soul/R&B, indie-rock/pop and gospel. In addition to performing, he has also written two improvisation-based books called Targeting: Improvisation With Purpose and Breaking the Monotony and is currently an adjunct professor and brass instructor at Arapahoe Community College. Mr. Klobnak holds a bachelor degree from Drake University (Des Moines, IA) and a Master’s degree from the University of Denver, Lamont School of Music (Denver, CO).
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