In today’s article I will explain how to use jazz blues chord substitutions so that you can develop your harmonic pallet as a jazz or blues guitarist and expand your chordal and comping chops. The blues is an important ingredient of jazz music, and it’s one of the guitarist’s favorite forms to comp and blow on.

Besides being a great form for playing blues licks over, the blues also works great for more harmonically ambiguous techniques such as jazz blues chords substitutions and was a favorite progression of bebop musician Charlie Parker.

This lesson explains some of the different jazz blues chord substitutions that jazz musicians play, starting with a simple I IV V blues and moving right up to a harmonically dense Parker style blues. So, if you’re coming from a traditional blues background and want to add some jazz chords to your comping this might help you identify with the sounds of blues guitarists like Little Charley Batty who frequently uses bebop changes in the blues.

“Blues is to jazz what yeast is to bread. Without it, it’s flat.” –Carmen McRae


YouTube Preview Image



I IV V Blues


The I IV V blues chords should be familiar to those that have played traditional electric blues before because this sequence forms the back bone of countless blues tunes such as ‘Sweet Home Chicago’, ‘Dust My Broom’, ‘Woke Up This Morning’ and countless other blues tunes from the repertoire.

As the title suggests there are only 3 chords in this progression, the I, IV, and V. Believe it or not this progression would have actually been considered harmonically advanced in the 1920’s. Blues musicians such as Charlie Patton often recorded blues tunes with only one or two chords!

The I IV V blues progression is sometimes used by jazz musicians such as Grant Green on slow blues tunes, but hardly ever on medium – fast tunes. But is it still important to be aware of the movement and aesthetic quality of this progression before looking at the more harmonically advanced jazz blues chord substitutions.


i iv v blues


Jazz Blues


Now that we have an understanding of the classic I IV V blues, let’s check out the commonly accepted jazz blues form which uses some jazz blues chord substitutions. If you go to a jam session and call a blues head, this is the chord sequence that the other musicians will most likely be using, or at least it won’t be too far from this.

If you’re a blues player who is just getting into jazz this progression make seem a little daunting at first. Diminished chords, ii-V-I’s, what happened to that nice simple 3 chord thing?

Don’t worry most of these other chords are just there to create harmonic interest and root movement and I’ll be going through each of the changes so you don’t get lost.

There is now a ‘quick change’ in bar 2 which just means that the progression briefly visits the IV chord, Eb7, for a bar to create more movement. Plenty of traditional blues players use this movement, especially on slow blues tunes.

In bar 4 there is now a ii-V-I progression into Eb7 to add more harmonic and bass note movement. F-7 can also be seen as a Bb7sus chord, so the Bb7 tonality isn’t really changing which  much which means you can still use bluesy ideas or imply a V-I cadence into the Eb7 if you want to.


3 different blues forms_0001


A diminished 7 chord has been added in bar 5, but don’t worry, you don’t have to start worrying about using a bunch of diminished scales. It’s common jazz practice to add #I diminished chord in progressions. Check out my article on I VI II V’s substitutions to learn more about this technique.

You can think of the Eo7 as also been an Eb7b9 which makes it very similar to an Eb7 arpeggio.

Notice that a minor ii-V-I has been added in bar 8. This article I published explains a few different techniques on playing over minor ii-V’s, but again these two chords are really just hear to create harmonic movement.

Aside from the B natural, the minor ii-V scales contain many of the same notes as the Bb Mixolydian scale, so again not too much has changed.


bars 5-8


What was the F7 in bar 9 has now been changed to a C-7 so that have a more conventional ii-V-I in the key of Bb7. In the two bars, a full i-VI-II-V has been added. Jazz musicians don’t always outline this harmony in their improvisation but, it’s a good idea to practice outling these changes in at least 1 or 2 choruses of your solo.

Check out my rhythm changes soloing guide for more info about soloing over I-VI-II-V progressions.


last 4 bars


As mentioned earlier, most of the harmony in the jazz blues is added for movement and never strays too far away from the original tonalities, so we essentially have the same blues progression as what we started with. The advantage of been able to look at the blues progression with jazz blues chord substitutions is that it gives us more harmonic potential if we want it.



Jazz Blues Chord Substitutions Using Trione Subs


Now that we have the standard jazz blues under our fingers, we can start to look at applying some jazz substitutions and superimpositions. Jazz musicians frequently use substitutions to add more harmonic content and colour to a progression and this next example uses tritone substitution.

Over the first four bars of the progression I have applied a great jazz blues chord substitutions called tritone or b5 substitution in beat 4 of bar 1 and beat 3 of bar 4. I added a ii chord in bar 4 to fill out the space, but decided to only use the dominant chord in bar 1 because it only lasts one measure.


blues with b5


Tritone substitution is applied again at the beginning of bar 8. The chord here was D-7b5 which has now been replaced with Ab7.  I also added an A7 in the beat before so that we have chromatically descending dominant 7th chords.

There’s a bit of a tritone feast in the last couple of bars starting with the B7 in bar 9. In the last two bars of the progression the last 3 chords have all been tritone substituted too.


jazz blues chord substitutions


Using Chord III in a Jazz Blues


A common substitute in jazz is replacing the I chord (Bb in this case) with it’s iii (D-7). This is particular effective in a blues situation. A great part of the blues progression to apply this technique to is bar 7.

Besides acting as a substitution for the I chord, the iii chord also belongs to a ii-V. In the below example I have added the V chord which belongs to the iii chord to create cyclic movement.

To extend this harmony further I have added a ii-V a semi-tone below in bar 8 to create further cyclic and chromatic crunch which resolves well to C-7 in bar 9.

Another place that the iii chord can be used in place of the I chord is in the last 2 bars of the progression which provides us with a iii-VI-II-V substitution, a common i-VI-II-V substitution. I have extended this further in the example by using tritone substitution before the iii-VI-II-V to again create cyclic movement and greater harmonic potential.


jazz blues chord substitutions



The Bebop Cycle


Bebop jazz guitarists love to create as much cyclic movement and ii-V’s as possible and this last example shows the most harmonically adventerous version of how to apply jazz blues chord substitutions in this lesson. Although it’s highly unlikely that jazz musicians will be using these chords on the battlefield, they are fine to use in your single line improvisation because your lines will have strong internal logic and a sense of tension and resolution.

Bebop is typically played at fast tempos too, and these changes will certainly sound more effective at faster tempos than slower ones.

Standard bebop progressions such as the rhythm changes are based of such techniques which can also be applied to the blues. The next example uses everything discussed so far in full form so it’s important that you understand the techniques discussed before moving on.

In bars 5-8 of the jazz blues progression, the #1 diminished chord can be replaced with ii-V’s as shown in the example below. To extend this I have added a ii chord (Bb-7) to the Eb7 in bar 5 so that we have a prolonged turnaround.

In the first four bars of the progression I have added ii-V’s that desend in tones that eventually resolve in bar 5. This type of chord movement can be heard in Charlie Parker’s famouns bebop blues progression ‘Blues for Alice’. I have kept the Bb7 in bar the same so that for a very short time you feel like you’re playing a usual jazz blues.


jazz blues chord substitutions


I hope this guide to jazz blues chord substitutions has been useful. These sequences should really be practiced in a few different keys so that you can apply them to some of the different blues tunes that you are working on. What are your favorite jazz blues substitutions? Share your thoughts in the comment section below.


Be Sociable, Share!

Jamie Holroyd Guitar Frequently Asked Questions

Check out any link below for the answers to my top 10 most frequently asked questions that I am asked by students, teachers, readers, and subscribers.