Common Tone Substitutions of the Harmonized Major Scale

Bill Frisell Ghost town

Bill Frisell: Ghost town

Common tone substitution is a must have tool in your comping tool box. It is fairly straight forward and is easily incorporated, giving you exponentially more options of chord voicings to choose from. Every chord has other diatonic chords sharing notes, and while this is true, I will focus on the most usable relationships. I have included some backing track vamps that you can use to audition these sounds. Try to start using these ideas over tunes as soon as possible. You can also use single-note lines to outline these substitutions. Test out other voicings of the substitute chords. Always use a metronome or backing track.
While you are at it, check out some Bill Frisell. He is a master of texture and mood. He has great command of common tone relationships. I have listed some essential Bill Frisell recordings below.

The Raw Material

A Diatonic C major Scale harmonized in 3rds:

C Major Scale Harmonized

C Major Scale Harmonized

The I Chord, iii chord and vi chord

OK, Lets take a closer look at the 1 chord (C Major7) and see what the common tone substitutions are for it.

C Major Commontone Subs

So, if we see a CMajor 7 written, we can play a Eminor7 (which sounds like a CMajor9 against a C Root), or play an Aminor7 (which sounds like a Cmajor6 against a C Root). Got it? You can see that a Cmajor7 and a Eminor7 share 3 of the 4 notes in the chord….thus…..common tone substitution.

C Major Vamp 150bpm Swing.mp3

The ii Chord and the iv chord

ii Chord(D minor) Commontone Subs

ii Chord(D minor) Commontone Subs


You may wonder why I don’t include the vii chord which has a common tone relationship to the ii chord. The reason is that the vii chord is also common tone with the V7 chord when used, will imply this chord. It can be used freely in a modal situation, but in straight ahead tunes, you should be aware of this implication.

Dmin7 Vamp 140 bpm Bossa.mp3

The V Chord and the vii chord

V Chord (G7) Commontone Subs

V Chord (G7) Commontone Subs


Again, the iii chord can also be considered a substitution, but remember this also implies a Imaj7 chord. Just something to be aware of.

G7 Vamp 160 bpm Swing.mp3

251 Examples Using Common-Tone Subs

Example 1: 251 in C Major

Example 1: 251 in C Major

Example 2: 251 in C Major

Example 2: 251 in C Major

Example 3: 251 in C Major

Example 3: 251 in C Major

251 C major Swing Ballad 2 bars.mp3

Essential Bill Frisell Listening

Learn More

Mel Bay Mel Bay’s Complete Book of Harmony, Theory & Voicing for Guitar: I have had this book for a while now. Every time I open it I learn something new. 3 thumbs up

Mel Bay Complete Book of Harmonic Extensions for Guitar: This works in conjunction with the Complete Book of Harmony, Theory & Voicing. Great examples of the concepts. Wouldn’t think of having one without the other.

Chord Chemistry: The late great Ted Greene! His books full of information. I have had the Chord Chemistry book for at least 20 years. It is filled with treasures and I will probably be referring to it for another 20. A Classic.

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2 Responses to Common Tone Substitutions of the Harmonized Major Scale

  1. Gustaf Lissel Isaksson says:

    Hi Rob
    Thanks for another inspiring post. I just wish I had the time to practice half of what you write :).
    /Gustaf

  2. Hugo R. A. says:

    Very interesting, and clearly explained. Thanks a lot! :)

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