Tony Oreshko jazz and gypsy jazz guitar


by Tony Oreshko
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Lesson 3

Tritone Substitutes - Part 1

In this lesson I'm going to talk about tritone substitutes. I'll explain what tritones are, and then say how they can be used to enhance your jazz chord playing. This is not beginners' stuff, but I'll try and explain things in a way that involves as little background knowledge of music theory as possible. I'll assume that you can already play a few basic chords on the guitar, and that given enough time (or a chart to look at!) you can work out the names of the notes on the guitar fingerboard.

So hang on to your trousers, here we go!

Working out Tritones

Let's begin by explaining what a tritone is. Pick up your guitar and play one of the open strings - any one you like. Now play the note on the 6th fret of the same string. This 6 fret distance is a tritone. Simple enough, don't you think?

If you now play a note on the first fret it's tritone will be on the 7th fret of the same string, as everything has moved up one fret.

Tritone Equals Three Tones

If you know anything about tones and semitones you'll be aware that to go up a tone on the guitar you play 2 frets higher. A tritone is literally three tones, or three times two frets, so this is where the 6 frets comes from.

You're not obliged to play the two notes of the tritone on the same string - this is just the easiest way of working things out on the guitar.

Notes and their Matching Tritones

To save you working things out here's a list of notes (left column) and their matching tritones (right column). I'm assuming that you know about C# and Db being different names for the same note, and so on.

Starting note

C# (Db)
D# (Eb)
F# (Gb)
G# (Ab)
A# (Bb)

F# (Gb)
G# (Ab)
A# (Bb)
C# (Db)
D# (Eb)

So by now you should know that if you play one note, then play another note 6 frets higher on the same string you've gone up a distance of three tones or a tritone. The chart above gives you the corresponding tritone for every note. We'll now see how this works for chords as well as for single notes.

Using Tritones for Chord Substitution

This is where it gets more interesting. I'll now explain how we can use this knowledge of tritones to add extra chords to a basic chord progression in order to create some very jazzy sounds.

Let's start with a simple two chord progression:

         G7   /    /    /   |    C    /    /    /    |

So, four strums on a G7 chord and 4 strums on a C chord - about as simple as we can get. Here's how we make it more jazzy and interesting. First we take the dominant 7th chord, G7. We look at the root note of the chord - G - and then look up the matching tritone for G in the table above. This gives us Db (or C# if you prefer).

Adding in the Tritone Substitute Chord

So the tritone of G is Db (C#). Now watch closely - here's where the substitution bit comes in. Instead of having 4 strums on G7 I'm now going to play the sequence like this:

         G7   /    Db7    /   |    C    /    /    /    |

This time I played only 2 strums on the G7. For the second two strums I substituted in a Db7 chord. The root of the Db7 chord, Db, is a tritone from G. What you've just witnessed is a tritone substitution. The Db7 chord is a tritone substitute for G7.

I'll take you through another example to make sure you understand the basic idea, as we'll be using it quite a lot in future lessons.

Second Example of Tritone Substitution

Here's another basic chord sequence:

         E7   /    /    /   |    Am    /    /    /    |

1) Get the root of the dominant 7th chord, E7, which is E.
2) Look up the tritone for E in the chart, which is Bb
3) Keep the first two strums on E7 unchanged
4) For the second two strums add a tritone substitute chord, Bb7

The progression now looks like this:

         E7   /    Bb7    /   |    Am    /    /    /    |

Already it's starting to sound a little bit more jazzy, but this is only the start of what can be done with tritone substitution.


Well, that's the end of this lesson. I hope you've managed to follow everything so far as it's the basis for some very interesting things that we'll look at in future lessons.
If you have any questions or comments feel free to send them to me. I'll do my best to give a prompt reply.

What I recommend is that you now take my short Tritone Quiz to see how well you've understood this lesson. It should only take you a minute or so and will help you take on board these ideas.

Good luck!

Tony Oreshko

Go to lesson 4

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Click in the circle alongside the correct answer. When you've answered all five questions press the 'Mark the Test' button at the bottom to see how you've scored. Have fun!

Question 1.

A tritone is
  An inhabitant of the planet Triton
  Any two different notes on the guitar
  A distance of 2 frets between two notes on the guitar
  A distance of 6 frets between two notes on the guitar

Question 2.

How many tones are there in a tritone?
  none of the above

Question 3.

Which note is a tritone away from the note G?
  none of the above

Question 4.

Which chord can be used as a tritone substitute for D7?

Question 5.

Adding in a tritone substitute to a bar of B7 gives
  B7 / D7 /
  G7 / F7 /
  B7 / F7 /
  F7 / Bb7 /


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