If the V-Chord Bores You, Try These Substitutes

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer, Senior Instructor, Dalhousie University, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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Guitar ChordsAs the Roman numeral implies, the V-chord is the chord built on the 5th degree of a scale. Traditionally, the V-chord has been the chord that moves easily back to the I-chord, also called the tonic chord. So in the key of C major, the G chord is the one that moves effortlessly back to C. And if you play G (or G7) and C in succession several times, you can hear this musical function clearly. But the predictability of this function might leave you feeling a bit bored. Why not try some of these catchy alternatives to the V-chord.

I’m going to use the key of C major to demonstrate these alternative chords, but of course they’ll work in any key.

The V-chord in C-major uses the notes G, B and D. If you’ve written a song that uses the V-chord, it’s likely that your melody note above that chord is one of those notes. That’s important to consider, because when you substitute the V-chord with something else, you need to be sure that the melody note at that point is going to fit into your alternate chord.

Also, when you replace the V-chord with something different, it may mean that your progression will sound better if you also replace the I-chord to which it is moving.

There are many ways to demonstrate chord substitution, but let’s try just a few examples, and you can extrapolate from there.

SAMPLE PROGRESSION:
C  Dm  G  C

If the melody note on the G chord is D, try these substitute progressions:

C  Dm  Em7  Am (Assumes the melody moves to an A, C or E)
C  Dm  Bb  C (Assumes the melody moves to a C, E or G)
C  Dm  Dm/F  C/E (Assumes the melody moves to a C, E or G)

If the melody note on the G chord is B, try these substitute progressions:

C  Dm  Em7  Am (Assumes the melody moves to an A, C or E)
C  Dm  Am9  Dm7 (Assumes the melody moves to a C, E, D or F)
C  Dm  Bdim  C (or Am) (Assumes the melody moves to a C, E or G)

If the melody note on the G chord is a G, try these substitute progressions:

C  Dm  Em7  Am (Assumes the melody moves to an A, C or E)
C  Dm  Em7 F (Assumes the melody moves to an F, A or C)
C  Dm  Gm7  C13 (Assumes the melody moves to an E, A or Bb)
C  Dm  Eb  Bbmaj7 (Assumes the melody moves to a Bb, D, F or A)

In actuality, the possibilities are almost endless, because it depends on where the progression is ultimately moving. As you can see, some of the samples above can be used to momentarily (or permanently) change key.

When making substitutions for the V-chord, you’ll want to consider genre, mood, and the song’s tonal direction.

Replacing a V-chord with something adventurous won’t necessarily work if it goes counter to the genre you’ve chosen. For example, throwing in a C13 will work well in songs that can accept that kind of jazz-based chord, but likely won’t work well in other pop-related styles.

The benefit of the V substitution, of course, is that you avoid the predictability that comes with the V-chord.

Do you have progressions that avoid the V-chord that you can share here? Click below to add your thoughts.

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3 Comments

    • Absolutely, and I’ve written about both those chords on this blog. The Ab chord in the key of C (esp. if you add a 7th: Ab7) is known as an augmented sixth chord, which I’ve mentioned here. Db’s ability to work in C major (the so-called tritone substitution) is described here.

      -Gary

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