Back to blog
December 6, 2019

Chord substitution | Greg Wells




A producer will often suggest changes to the chords, structure and arrangement of an artist’s songs, once they get into the pre-production stage. You’ll see that dynamic in action in this excerpt as Greg Wells sits down with singer/songwriter Bryce Drew to tweak her song that he’s about to record with her.

From the songwriting stage, which is shown here in episode 1, through the recording, mixing and mastering you can follow the entire production process in the Puremix video series, “Start to Finish, Greg Wells.”


Where this excerpt picks up, Bryce has just played her song idea for Greg. He’s clearly impressed but wants to experiment with some possible substitutions in the chord progression. The song has similar changes in the verses and choruses, both based around a catchy two-measure progression.

This progression is used in the verses and choruses of the song

Greg says he likes making subtle chord substitutions that, “Won’t make anyone spill their drink.” That’s an indication of his sensitivity as a producer. He’s trying to make improvements to the song without interfering with Bryce’s artistic vision.

He suggests making the C major into an Am at some point or points in the chorus. An Am chord is the relative minor of C, which makes it an easy substitution that will work fine with the melody.

For those unfamiliar, let’s briefly go over what a relative minor chord is. If you already understand the concept, you can skip this paragraph. The relative minor of a major chord is based around the sixth degree of the major scale in that key. For example, a C major triad consists of the notes C (I) E (major III) and G (V). The relative minor of the C chord is Am, which consists of A (I), C (minor III) and E (V). As you can see, a major chord and its relative minor are very similar in terms of the notes that make them up. Because of that, you can generally substitute them for each other under a melody

Back to the excerpt, Greg is discussing ideas for the chord progression. Perhaps, he thinks, the substitution should be on the chorus to distinguish it from the verse, since both have the same chords.

Greg asks Bryce to play the chorus. She does, starting with a brief but powerful one-bar pre-chorus

Bryce’s pre-chorus is only one measure long, but is quite effective

Greg plays the chords on the piano as Bryce sings the chorus. He tries different substitutions at different points of the chorus. He even tries using an F chord as the last chord in rather than the Dm that currently ends the chorus but decides that resolution to the major chord sounds too happy. Bryce agrees.

She suggests a line added at the end of a chorus, possibly leading into the bridge that’s just a measure of 2/4, where she sings: “Where I’m supposed to be”

Greg likes her idea and says that as a songwriter, when he comes up with a good idea, he wants to put it in right away, rather than waiting until later in the song. But it sounds as if he thinks waiting is a good idea in this case


As a songwriter, you have to strike a balance between the repetition of something catchy, such as Bryce’s Bb-F-C-Dm progression, and variety. In this case, examples of the latter were the chord substitutions Greg suggested, and the 1-bar pre-chorus or the 2/4 measure Bryce plays in the excerpt. Too much repetition can be monotonous, but not enough and the song may not be memorable

If you’re a songwriter, the cool thing about chord substitutions is that you can use them to inject subtle mood changes that can intensify the hooks in songs but yet leave the feel virtually the same, just more interesting.

Perhaps the all-time masters of chord substitutions in pop music were the Beatles. They wrote simple-sounding progressions that were full of substitutions that helped frame the melodies in incredibly compelling ways. Though it’s been many decades since they wrote those songs, their harmonic structures are still worthy of study.


As Greg did in the excerpt, you can start experimenting with simple chord substitution using the relative minor of various chords in the progression. 

EX. 1: Here’s the chorus of a song with an instrumental melody, which has a pretty vanilla chord progression. 

The chords for example 1a

EX. 2: Now, here’s the same melody with the chords reharmonized in places using the relative minor. It still feels like the same song, but the chords underneath are more compelling and “hooky” sounding.

The chords for Example 1b with substitutions in red


Later in the full video, which you can see if you’re a Puremix Pro Member, Greg ends up using another technique for chord substitution, which is to use inversions of the existing chords with different notes in the bass. Doing so allows you to create variation while keeping the essential flavor of the chord progression.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with simple chord progressions, and sometimes they’re just what you want. It all depends on the song and the genre. But if you find your song’s chords to be a little less exciting than you’d like, it’s worth experimenting with some strategic substitutions before you start recording