It's Just Three Chords

Sep 01, 2019
On the surface, the blues seems simple – hey, it's just three chords! – as do other blues-based songs that may not be literally 12 bars long but still have that feel, like "St. James Infirmary" or "Trouble In Mind." And this is both the awesome thing, and the slightly frustrating thing, about it. If you're accompanying yourself singing, it's sort of ok, because the words keep changing (as long as you can remember them, something I'm just pointing out for a friend), but if you're more of an instrumentalist and just enjoy playing through the melody and maybe taking a bit of a solo, this can get problematic. If it's just twelve bars (or eight, or sixteen) and just three chords (maybe four), how do you keep things interesting?

That's where chord substitutions come in. "Substitutions" sounds very academic and self-important, but it's just the idea that you can add to and tweak the existing chords of a song. Which is hot stuff, because what if you could take, say, the first four bars of a blues and turn it into a constantly shifting parade of chords that changed every two beats until you reached the fifth bar? With moves like that, you would hardly even need to improvise a melody over it – just the sound of the chords alone would be cool enough to make things sound different, in a good way.

Chord substitutions can also help you get out of open position. Personally, I'm a big fan of open position, but there are times when you just want to see what all the fuss is about up there above the fifth fret. Knowing how to take chords like E7 or A7 and play them in different positions all the way up neck opens up all kinds of new possibilities, and again, just moving different versions of those chords around can create a lot of variety and excitement.

Open position has a lot of untapped potential as well. If you know how to play basic chords like C7 and G7 you are often just a finger or two away from something really colorful and exotic like a diminished or altered chord. Those kinds of chords may seem a bit useless when you just learn them out of a chord book, but once you know how to use them in context, they can make an ordinary I-IV-V chord progressions tug at your ear with something much more mysterious and suspenseful.

So chord substitutions are a serious route to expanding your blues playing, and using them really comes down to just three things:
  • knowing where you can change or add to the existing chords of a song
  • knowing how to play the chords you need to do that, and
  • understanding how to incorporate those chord changes into songs with a steady bass or alternating thumb groove.
My six-week online workshop, Blues Chord Substitutions, is all about those three things. I've talked a lot about chord substitutions on my Youtube channel, but this is the first time I'm offering an organized, step-by-step approach to this topic, in a small-group format that will allow for plenty of questions and interaction along with the prepared material. Each week, we'll take a fingerstyle tune, learn a new set of chord voicings, and look at how both how to use those chords to create variations on the tune and why they work. The goal of the workshop is to give you the tools and understanding to make your own playing more creative and expressive through the use of chord substitutions.

Because the class is limited to 12, registration is by request only. Click below to read more about the workshop, including schedule and pricing, then email me directly if you'd like to take part or if you have any questions.

Workshop Details

More soon,