Solo skills can often get stuck on a certain level. Your improvisation sounds predictable and ordinary and elevating it to the next level seems like years of practice ahead of you. And while practice and continuous learning are important, there are several quick tricks to can use to elevate your solo skills in a matter of days rather than years. I’m going to teach you one of these tricks in this article.

Let’s talk about the tritone substitution: The tritone substitution (or augmented sixth chord for classical musicians) is a music theory concept that has quite some depth and I will go into it in a video course (still in the making => sign up for my mailinglist to be informed). But you don’t have to learn all the tricks before seeing the first results. Let’s start with one small trick here.

Although the tritone substitution can be used in many ways, one way is to use it as a superimposed scale on a dominant chord. That is not as scary as it may sound ;). We will go through the example of soloing over a typical ii V I progression:

Dm7 G7 Cmaj7

Which scales would you pick over this progression? Most people would use the C major scale – or more precisely: D dorian, G mixolydian and C ionion. In essence, you use all the white keys on a keyboard to solo over this progression. And it sounds … okay. But it doesn’t sound great or sophisticated or jazzy or like a seasoned musician. So here is the trick making a solo over this 251 progression sound way more sophisitcated.

Using a tritone substitution, you can replace the dominant chord G7 with Db7. Db7 is a tritone away from G7. But much easier to remember is: Db7 is a half step down from Dm7. Simply find the tritone substitution in a 251 progression by moving a half step down from the root of the ii chord and then play a dominant chord over that root: Dm => Db7.

That alone would create a plain and simple tritone substitution. But we want to get fancier here! So instead of replacing G7 with Db7, simply leave the G7 chord as it is! Only use the notes from the Db triad to solo over this G7 chord. Try it!

Notes for improv: db f ab
Chord: G7

Did you run a Db major chord up and down your instrument over the sound of a G7 chord? On its own this might not sound too good. So let’s put it into context. Solo over all three chords of the 251 using the following note material:

C major, Db chord tones, C major

This gives you a nice side-stepping sound. You move from C major briefly into Db7 (mixo-)lydian and back to C major. What you have done is to “superimpose” the Db7 scale over a G7 chord. In other words: you played pretending your sheet music read Db7 while it actually said G7.

Here is the recipe for soloing over a 251 progression:

  1. Move down a half step from the root of the ii chord, e.g. D => Db
  2. Build a major triad on that new note, e.g. Db major
  3. Play this triad up or down over the V chord of the 251

Remember to return to the original key for the I chord to provide resolution. The best results come from landing on a chord tone of the I chord after your little excursion to bII :).

So why does this sound so good? I will tell you in my course. You can do so much more with the tritone substitution! Sign up today to build on that first step you just took! Since the video course is still in production, just sign up for my mailinglist to be informed.