Tritone Substitution

Stevie Wonder Tritone Substitution

In the last couple of blogs I’ve been talking about triad substitution and chord substitution, it’s now time for the king of substitutions; the tritone substitution!

And who better to learn from about this than Stevie Wonder and his massive hit Sir Duke, a benchmark for many musicians.

Sir Duke is definitely on my “must record for electric guitar list”, but I’m so excited I thought I’d reveal a few tricks all ready now.

Who knows, one of you guys might record it before me!

Sir Duke Tritone Substitution

Let’s dive in to the wonderful world of Stevie Wonders chord progression and analyze a master piece, Sir Duke, a song with tritone substitutions used in three out of four parts of the song!

Sir Duke Intro/Verse

B (I) G#m (VI) G (bVIx) F# (V)

This progression tells us we are in the key of B, the tritone substitution is the bVIx which if switched back would spell C#m, this would have been chord II.

Try this out by playing: B (I) G#m (VI) C#m (II) F# (V) instead.

The melody takes advantage of the substituted chord by hitting the note D, the 5th of the G chord, but more importantly, the m3rd of B.

Listen to the melody of the verse (0:23) as it goes “language we all” Stevie hits that D and makes us feel as we go into B minor for a while.

Sir Duke Bridge

As the bridge enters with its chromatic dom9 chords, we get a classic tritone substitution trick!

Compare E9 Eb9 D9 Db9 with E9 A7 D9 G7, which would have been a classic cycle of 4th movement starting on chord IV.

Following the roman numeral system of the Guitar Conspiracy I would simply name this: IV9 – IIIx9 – bIIIx9 – IIx9 since we are basically building tension over the IV chord.

Other theory resources might want to explain the tritone substitution in the numbers, personally I feel this takes it too far.

Anyway, Iet’s go to the chorus!

Sir Duke Chorus

The final tritone substitution trick of Sir Duke we find in the Chorus.

Here the Fm7 is a tritone substitution from chord I in order to lead more heavily towards chord IV:

B (I) Fm7 (bVm7) Emaj7 (IV) C#m7 (II) F#7 (V)

What’s interesting with this substitution is that it is only the root, the F, that is out of the scale, the melody hits an A# and G#, both notes from the B major scale.

If you play your Fm7 as an Am shape you’ll find the melody on the second string as you switch between the two chords F7sus4 and Fm7, he’s clever Stevie…

Sir Duke Instrumental section

The dreaded instrumental section is almost only B major pentatonic, there is one little chromatic note in there.

Who will record a video example of Sir Duke first, you or me?


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6 thoughts on “Tritone Substitution

  1. steveo

    Great Song.
    Play it more on an Acoustic these days.
    I would think I am playing more B major than the pentatonic.
    On the solo anyway.
    All I know is I travel up the scale in 3rds and return in 4ths.
    Start on B and as long as I end on B seems I have the groove.
    Not able to upload but I was filmed playing this in a music store last week.
    Just a great song I also do not always play the same chords in the chorus as you have wrote but feel you have them right.
    It would not be a bad song to just play the melody on the guitar, as generally I sing the arpeggio’s at the start.
    Really is a winning song so many people like it.
    Baby want you please come home, another great tune Ray Charles plays it a little slower.
    It is very good practice to play the 1 6 2 5 progression as often as soon as you are able.


  2. Steveo

    Seem I like to play G#7 E shape chord and remove the F# from the D string.
    I then add the A# on the little E string.
    This replaces the F minor and it seem to fit my vocals better in a solo arrangement of this song..

    From the E major 7th, I play F# sus 4 in place of the C minor 7 as well .


  3. Steveo

    Thanks for the easiest way of explaining the way the Bridge works so well.

    For the E9 ,A7 D9, G7 would this be consider the key of G major? ,
    While G major is not part of the song I think the comparison, of how you say these note where chosen it is from the G major scale .

    1. Guru Post author

      Well, I think it’s still a very strong IV chord feel over this chromatic section, especially when it ends on F#. it really feels like IV – V, the IV being “extended” with the chromatic 9 chords.

      So I’d say it is all easiest viewed as in B major, with tritone substitution all over it :)

      1. Steveo

        Yes indeed.
        I see and I hear what you are say I am of course taking away form the song.
        I do understand that form the E9 the other chromatic chords are from the tri-tone of the A7 or G.
        I also do see you did explain it as being the 4 3M b3M and the 2M.
        this was good and in no way does the song go with a G major scale.
        Over Coffee this mourning I saw you had said compare these chromatic to the A D and G and they all come from G,I will always see the major scale, it jumps out and I can’t help it LOL.

        Being able to use this, may be easier than the full understand.
        But you were clear in your writings for the song.
        With the last few Blogs, I can say I would really like to fully get this stuff.
        Theory did not create this great song but you explanation is very good.
        Thanks again


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