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Play Guitar By Ear - Chord Substitution
As your ability to play guitar by ear improves, you will become
aware of certain chord qualities that can enhance your
Different versions of the same song may contain slight variations
of harmony. Being able to recognize the substitutions and
understand the theory behind these changes gives you an
professional edge over other guitarist who play by ear.
The key to understanding how chord progressions work is to
remember that all good chord progressions have a balance of
tension and release in the choice of chord qualities used by the
writer or arranger.
Keep this formula in mind when working on chord substitution:
Tension + Release = Motion
Too much tension or too much release in the choice of chords in
your chord progression will result in an unsatisfactory musical
composition, the piece will sound out of balance, the listener
will become confused and distracted and will quickly lose
interest in the song.
Each chord has a musical weight and density, the most basic and
essential chord substitution we need to learn is the dominant
When playing by ear it is important to know when to use chord
substitution to enhance the melody.
Chord qualities - the dominant seventh chord:
The dominant seventh chord is a chord that songwriters often use
to create more tension. The more tension, the more noticeable the
In all the two chord examples up to this point both chords are
For us to be able to understand chord substitution we must first
understand the various chord qualities, that way the musician
will know the effect a particular chord will have on the
composition before he or she actually hears the finished piece.
In the same way a painter blends colors for a particular 'visual'
effect, the musician must learn to work with musical textures to
create the audible effect and the desired emotional response for
An experienced visual artist will know what colors to use to
create the mood, e.g., if we asked an artist to paint a tree an
inexperienced artist would simply paint some generic 'tree' shape
and the job would be do. Mind you, this would most likely be
similar to most other generic tree shapes resulting in another
instantly forgettable picture.
On the other hand an experienced artist would have many visual
colors at his or her disposal, by understanding the 'effect' of
mixing the basic colors in their pallet (the same basic colors
every artist has) the artist could produce a work that is
much more visually appealing and interesting.
Just as a great movie producer can 'set the mood' and capture our
attention in the first three seconds of their movie. Our
experienced visual artist could take the task of painting a tree
to a whole new level.
By the creative use of color the artist could create the visual
experience of looking at our tree (let's say a palm tree) :
(a) at 3:00 a.m. with a full moon
(b) at dawn with gentle rain falling
(c) at 12:00 p.m. on a hot summer's day
As you can see the list could be almost endless and as you read
the various scenarios, try to visualize how the 'color' of the
leaves of the palm tree would change due to the effect of the
lightning etc., of each unique setting.
An experienced musician who can play guitar by ear understands
how to create the musical 'setting' or atmosphere by careful use
of chord substitution.
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