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The Flat Five Substitution - part 1

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You have probably heard jazz musician talk about the flat five substitution many times. You can learn to know that you can alway substitute a dominant 7th chord or any extension of such chords with the dominiant 7th a flat five above or below. Instead of A7 you can play Eb7. But in my opinion, it is not enough to know. We should understand the concept.

The key to this substitution is that the two most important notes in a 7th chord is the 3rd and the 7th. The interval between these notes is tritone. If we start from the G7 chord, the 3rd is a B and the 7th is an F. From B to F is a diminished (or flat) fifth = six half steps = tritone. From F to B is an augmented fourth = six half steps = tritone. The tritone divides the scale into two equal parts, which makes it a symetric interval. Our ears will not distinguish between a diminished fifth and an augmented fourth. We just hear the tritone, for instance an F and a B. If you are not familiar with the tritone, you have to go back to some previous lessons.

We can substitute the other notes in a 7th chord, but not the two notes that make up the tritone. If you leave out one of these, the chord will loose it's character as a 7th chord.

If we go up one diminished fifth from G (six half steps), we end at Db. As the interval is symetric, we will also end on Db if we go down a diminished fifth. The Db7 chord has the notes Db-F-Ab-Cb. Cb and B are enharmonic, which means that they are the same note spelled in two different ways. In Db7, the correct spelling of the note is Cb, a diminished fifth up from F. If we spelled it B, it would be an augmented fourth, and the chord would be some kind of a sixth chord. But our ears do not distinguish between the two. And this is the key to the flat five substitution: The tritone in the Db7 is the same as the tritone in a G7. The other notes have changed, but we have kept the two important ones.

With this new knowledge, we shall go back to where we stopped in the 12-bars, Two Chord Shapes and a Touch of Jazz lesson, and play some blues with flat five substitution. We will still use only the two chord shapes from this lesson, and we will be in the key of A this time. The flat five substitution for A7 will be Eb7, for D7 it will be Ab7, and the flat five substitution for E7 will be Bb7. If you are like many of your fellow guitar players, you will look for another tune when you see chords like Eb7, Ab7 and Bb7. But they are very simple. We will use the same two chord shapes as we used in 12-bars, Two Chord Shapes and a Touch of Jazz






5 fr
 




5 fr
 


5 fr
A7     Eb7     A7/Eb7  

We play both shapes based on 5th fret. The first will then give us an A7 chord. Then we move the note on the 6th string up one fret, and we have a Eb7. You will have to change fingering of both the 6th and 4th string – this is at least how I prefer to play this change. In the shape to the right, I have combined the two, to show the relation. The black notes constitute the tritone, and we have to keep these notes in both chords. When we play at 5th fret on the 6th string, we get the notes A, G and C#, which is an A7 without the fifth. The tritone is the interval between G and C#. If we move up to the 6th fret on the 6th string, and keep the tritone, we get the notes Bb, G and Db. Db is enharmonic with C#, so we will not hear the difference. These notes constitute an Eb7 without root.

It would be more precise to say the the notes Bb, G and Db function as an Eb7. It is not really an Eb7 when there is no root note (Eb) in the chord. What we really have is a Gdim. In the next part we will apply this flat five substitution to introduce some passing chords in the 12-bar progression.

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