One of the most commonly used chord subs in jazz guitar, the tritone sub, is a concept that comes up time and again when studying soloing and comping, but sometimes its meaning and usage isn’t clear.
To help clear the air with this important and cool-sounding chord sub, we’ll be using the next few lessons to dissect, apply and practice various chords, scales and arpeggios you can use in order to bring this chord sub concept into your jazz guitar playing.
In this first lesson, you’ll learn how to use 7th and 7#11 arpeggios to outline the tritone sub in a ii V I chord progression, allowing you to take your soloing chops up a notch and begin to create lines in the same vibe as your favorite jazz guitarists at the same time.
So, let’s dig into tritone sub arpeggios for jazz guitar!
What Is a Tritone Sub?
To begin, let’s take a look at what a tritone sub is on paper, and then we will be ready to transfer this knowledge to the fretboard. Simply put, a tritone sub is when you have a V7 chord, such as the D7 in the example below, and you sub that chord out with a bII7 chord, such as the Ab7 in the same example.
This chord sub works out because both chords share a 3rd and 7th. This means the 3rd and 7th of D7, F# and C, are the same notes as the 7th and 3rd of Ab7, Gb(F#) and C. This connection is what allows these chords to be so easily swapped out for each other in comping and soloing situations.
Play through the following example and hear how both chord progressions, ii V I and ii bII I, sound similar but have a different feel to them as well that is created from the bass note movement in each progression.
Tritone Sub Arpeggio 1 – 7th Arp
Now that you have an idea of what a tritone sub is, let’s take this concept to the fretboard as you begin to apply the theory to your jazz guitar solos and improvised phrases. The first place to start is by learning an arpeggio for the bII7 chord that you can then use to solo over the V7 chord in a ii V I chord progression, as you can see in this first example.
Start by learning these arpeggio shapes in this position, taking them to all 12 keys across the neck if possible, and then put on a ii V I backing track and start to solo over those chords using the ii bII I arpeggios from the example below. When you have a handle on these arpeggio shapes, try applying any 7th arpeggio you know to this chord progression, so that you will be able to apply this concept to any area of the fretboard as you take this idea further in your practice routine and jam/gigging situations.
To help you get started with this sound, here is a sample lick written over a ii V I in G major, where the bII7 arpeggio is used over the V7 chord in bar 2 of the phrase. Start by learning this lick in G, then taking it to as many other keys as you can in order to get an idea of how it fits and sounds across the fretboard.
When you have worked this lick across the neck, you can try writing out 4 to 5 licks of your own that use the same concept, the bII7 arpeggio over V7, and then begin to solo over a ii V I backing track as you make up similar licks on the spot with these same arpeggios.
Tritone Sub Arpeggio 2 – 7#11 Arp
You can take this approach one step further by applying a 7#11 sound to your tritone sub chord in bar 2 of a ii V I chord progression, as you can see in the example below. This chord, bII7#11, sits nicely over the V7 harmony as the #11 of a bII shape is the same note as the root of a V7 shape, as you can see with the note D in the example below, which is the #11 of Ab7 and the root of D7.
Start by learning the arpeggio fingering below and solo over a ii V I backing track using these shapes in order to begin to hear how the 7#11 chord sounds when superimposed over the V7 chord in this progression.
In order to take this idea further in your practicing, you can take any 7th arpeggio you know, on any string set as well, and simply lower the 3rd note, the 5th, to turn that 7th arpeggio into a 7#11 arpeggio.
This will allow you to learn new sounds, based on the 7#11 arpeggio, without having to learn a bunch of new shapes on the neck. Instead, you will be creating new sounds from previous knowledge as you transform 7th arpeggios into 7#11 arpeggios with a one-note adjustment.
Here's a sample lick that uses the bII7#11 arpeggio over the V7 chord in bar 2 of a ii V I progression in the key of G major. Once you have this lick under your fingers in G, take it to other keys across the fretboard, and then begin to write out and improvise lines of your own that use the tritone bII7#11 arpeggio in this context.
As you can see, learning how to play 7th and 7#11 arpeggios will allow you to comfortably outline a Tritone Sub ii V I chord progression the next time your want to bring this sound to your jazz guitar improvisational ideas and phrases.
Check out these shapes in the woodshed this week and see what you can come up with on your own as you explore tritone arpeggios for jazz guitar in the practice room.
Matt Warnock is the owner of mattwarnockguitar.com, a free website that provides hundreds of lessons and resources designed to help guitarists of all experience levels meet their practice and performance goals. Matt lives in the UK, where he is a lecturer in Popular Music Performance at the University of Chester and an examiner for the London College of Music (Registry of Guitar Tutors).