Substitutions Made Easy

Learn how to dress up simple chord patterns up so they sound fresh and vibrant.
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I like a lot of complicated music. It’s a challenge to play, and it’s a blast to hear it executed well. What I mostly get called on to do on gigs and recording sessions, however, is to make very simple progressions sound interesting. Just because a piece of music is simple doesn’t mean it’s easy, but many of my all-time favorite tunes are very simple. Think about it—the reason there are so many great songs that go D-G-C is because that progression rules! But unfortunately a bunch of great songwriters got there first, so we need to find ways to dress that and many other simple chord patterns up so they sound fresh and vibrant. We’ll accomplish this with new voicings, reharmonizations, and the acoustic guitarist’s best friend—open strings.

tab 1

There’s no better progression to start out with than our old pal D-G-C. But we’re going to get clever and voice the chords like you see in Ex. 1. The D is now a hip Dadd9/A. You’ll get bonus points for pulling the A on the fourth string off to an open G with your 1st finger as you land on the fifth string to create the next chord, a G all dressed up as some bizarre, beautiful Gmaj13/B. But don’t worry about the name. Just listen to the gorgeous voicing for a second before you go to our new-fangled C chord. All you have to do is slide your 1st finger up one fret on the A string and you’ll have a Cadd9#11. Try it—it works. And it’ll work just about any time you encounter these chords (which is all the time).

Here’s another cool variation on a common pattern. Next time you come across a tune that incorporates Dm, Bb, C, give Ex. 2 a try. We haven’t done much more than add an open high-E string, but we’ve given the chords a gloriously dissonant quality thanks to the minor second that occurs between the F and E notes that are present in each chord.

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Plenty of tunes revolve around some variation of Am, G, and F (like that “Stairway to Heaven” song you may have heard), but it’s pretty played out to just use run-of-the-mill voicings. Once again relying on our trusty open high-E string as well as the open A, Ex. 3 breathes all kinds of new life into this groove. Strum them, fingerpick them—it just doesn’t matter. You can’t screw up these great sounds.

The venerable I-VIm-IV-V progression crops up in a zillion great songs, including “Octopus’ Garden” and “Stand by Me.” Here’s a way to liven that sequence up with the ringy, clangorous sounds in Ex. 4. Again, open strings add life and sustain, and they make it easy to get from one chord to the next.

It would take more theory than we have room for here to explain exactly when you can get away with these voicings— and when they might clash—so the best thing you can do is just go for it. What’s the worst that will happen? And besides, what you really want to do with these chords is work them into your own songs, and no one can tell you that’s wrong!