We often think that learning new scales will make us play better solos. For the longest time, I thought the same thing as well. And while this is important, I’ve come to realize that a great deal of focus should be on harmony and chord voicings. Learning and understanding new chord substitutions is an important key to making solos really change and evolve. Voice-leading is also an important way to give you different approach notes to begin a line or statement. In this lesson, I’ll demonstrate a few ways to use chord substitutions and voicings to help get you started in changing and improving your solos. Let’s look at some examples of how to approach the first five bars of a standard twelve-bar blues progression.

1. Pedal Tones

Ex. 1 illustrates a nice way to use a common tone on the top note of a chord voicing (usually the root of the I chord), while changing just the third and flatted seventh underneath the pedal tone for each chord change. Dominant seventh leading tones pull the two bottom notes down in half steps for the Bb7 (IV chord) where the pedal tone now is the fifth of Bb.

Monaco Ex1

2. Tritone Dominant Colors and the Half Step Approach

Ex. 2 starts with the answer to the question, “What is a tritone?” Tritones relate to dominant seventh chords where two roots share the same third and flatted seventh. For Example, a C7 chord has E and Bb as its third and flatted seventh. A Gb7 chordalso has E and Bb as third and flatted seventh, but in the latter case Bb is the third and E is the flatted seventh. Look closely and you’ll see that the two roots C and Gb are six semitones apart, or two minor thirds apart, or a flatted fifth apart. Looking even closer at the third and flatted seventh notes you’ll notice that those two notes have the same tritone relationship to each other as the roots do—they’re also six semitones apart.

Monaco Ex2

3. Tritone Turnarounds

Now that we understand the tritone relationship, Ex. 3 goes a step further in creating a richer harmonic movement so that our solos can have more note choices just based off of the new chord substitution notes. Early in our development, most of us learned about the ii–V-I chord progression, where the ii is a minor seventh chord and the V is a dominant seventh chord. These colors are diatonic, as the notes of each chord represent different positions of the I chord’s major scale. By simply making a ii -V progression as related to the tritone chord, we can further enrich our harmony. For example, if I were to add to the F7 its related ii min7, I know that F7 is the V7 chord of Bb major, and C would be the second note of the Bb major scale.

Monaco Ex3

4. Tritones and ii-V Madness

Ex. 4 takes or previous example to the next level. In bar 1, the Cmin9-F9 F#min9-B9 progression simply puts the two related dominant 7 chords of F7 and B7 into two separate ii-V movements. Note the minor ninth and dominant seventh (add9) voicings. Once again, adding diatonic colors allows more solo note choices based off of the notes of each chord. In bar 2, I turn the Bb7 into its own ii-V progression and then quickly turn it back around to the tritone ii-V to get back to the F7 (the I chord) in measure 3, which is again turned into a ii-V progression.

Monaco Ex4

5. The Charlie Parker Chromatic Approach

In his quest to re-harmonize the first five bars of the blues, jazz saxophone master Charlie Parker came up with the chord changes in Ex. 5. As in previous examples, you will notice that the chord changes here are moving down chromatically in roots. In bar 2, Eb9 is a tritone substitute of A7. In bar 3, Db9 is a tritone substitute of G7, and in bar 4, B9 is a tritone substitute of F7. I find this approach is a refreshing way to switch up on solo ideas.

Monaco Ex5