Adapted from The Complete Singer-Songwriter
Let’s say you’re working on a song idea and playing some chords—you start on G, switch to C and back to G, go to D, and resolve to G. That chord progression sounds perfectly good but seems a little too familiar. You feel like you could be playing a thousand other songs, when your goal is to create something new. So how do you shake things up a bit to find a chord progression—and eventually a complete song—that feels and sounds like your own?
One great way is to use chord substitutions. Swapping out a chord or two can really liven up a progression and also help you discover new melodic ideas to sing on top. Particularly when you’re working within the family of diatonic chords, which have many notes in common, you can make substitutions that subtly change the sound and mood of a progression while leaving intact its basic movement. Here are some simple substitutions you can try in your songwriting.
Relative majors and minors
The easiest kind of substitution is to swap a major chord with its relative minor, or a minor chord with its relative major. These pairs of chords are, as the names suggest, related: they have two of their three notes in common. For instance, a G major chord is made up of the notes G, B, and D; while its relative minor, Em, has the notes E, G, and B. So you can substitute an Em chord for a G major chord, or vice versa, for a smooth but noticeable change in the sound of the progression—and usually you can sing the same melody over either chord.
Every major chord has a relative minor (and every minor chord has a relative major), and you can substitute one for the other no matter what key you’re in. Here is a list of these pairs (with the more common keys, at least for guitarists, in bold):
Memorize these relative major/minor pairs, and you’ll have a whole bunch of possible substitutions in your songwriting toolbox.
The iii for the I
Within the diatonic chord family (see this intro lesson on chord progressions), another good substitution to try is the iii for the I. In the key of G, that means substituting a Bm for a G. In C, the iii chord is an Em. The iii makes a nice transition chord between the I and IV and between the I and V.
Minors into majors
You can also substitute chords outside the diatonic family, sometimes called nondiatonic chords. These chords stand out more in a progression than diatonic chords do, because they include notes not in the scale of the song’s key, and can be used to great effect. Here are a few examples that involve substituting major chords for the ii, iii, and vi—the diatonic minor chords in a major key.
First, compare these two progressions. The first has a minor ii (Am), and the second has a major II (A). Notice the contrast in sound even though only one note changes.
I ii V
G Am D
I II V
G A D
Coming from the I, the II (often played as a II7, a seventh chord) pulls strongly toward the V, and so is most often followed by a V. You can hear this II–V–I sequence in lots of country and bluegrass tunes—like this classic:
“Hey, Good Lookin’,” Hank Williams:
I II V7 I V7
To hear this song and others in this lesson, check out the Spotify playlist below.
Using the major III (or III7) instead of the diatonic minor iii has a similar effect as substituting the major II for the minor ii. Here are some notable examples.
“Freight Train,” Elizabeth Cotten:
I V7 I
III IV I V I
“On the Road Again,” Willie Nelson:
I III7 ii IV V
Using a major VI creates a strong ragtimey sound, as heard in these songs.
“Alice’s Restaurant Massacre,” Arlo Guthrie:
I VI7 II7 V I
“Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out,” Eric Clapton (Jimmy Cox):
I III7 VI ii VI ii
IV I VI II7 V7
“(Sitting on) the Dock of the Bay,” Otis Redding:
chorus I VI I VI / I II I VI
Majors into minors
In addition to turning diatonic minor chords into majors, you can do the opposite and turn diatonic majors into minors—such as replacing a diatonic major IV with a minor iv, or a diatonic major V with a minor v. The Beatles made brilliant use of these chords to differentiate sections of songs. The verse and chorus of “I Want to Hold Your Hand” have the V, but then the bridge (“And when I touch you . . .”) kicks off with an arresting minor v. Similarly, “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window” uses I–IV in the verse and then I–iv in the bridge (“Didn’t anybody tell her?”).
“I Want to Hold Your Hand,” the Beatles:
chorus IV V I vi IV V I
bridge v I IV ii v I
IV V IV V IV V
“She Came in Through the Bathroom Window,” the Beatles:
verse I IV
bridge I iv 2x
bVII bIII bVII bIII
Radiohead’s “Creep” uses the major III as well as both the major IV and minor iv, to powerful effect.
I III IV iv
As you experiment with substitutions in your songwriting, let your ears guide you. If you find a substitution that sounds good, pay attention to where the progression wants to go next. Good chord progressions have a momentum and direction of their own, and often the best songs come when you follow their lead.
For more on understanding chord progressions, see The Complete Singer-Songwriter.