Mastering Sus Chords: Adding Options to Your Arsenal
A reader from Colorado writes:
I would love it if you wrote an article on what to play over a sus chord. I played at a jam last night and played Maiden Voyage and would like to get a few more ideas on how to tackle it.
I can recall the first time I saw a sus chord and being stumped as what to play. I remember thinking to myself: “Ok, this is not a normal dominant chord, I have to figure out a new scale to play over this…and what is up with the the third of the chord, am I allowed to play it or not?”
After studying and transcribing solos of some of my favorite players over tunes that include sus chords, I have come to realize that sus chords actually have a great number of harmonic possibilities, rather than a chord type that restricts what you can play.
A huge misconception about sus chords is the mentality of avoiding the 3rd of the chord. This is simply not true. Just because the fourth of the chord is included in the voicing of a sus chord, does not mean that the third is an avoid note or even a “wrong note.” In reality, many pianists and guitarists even include the third of the chord in their V7 sus voicings.
Shown below, are two examples of an F7 sus chord voicing that includes the 3rd of the chord above the 4th:
One thing to remember is that a sus chord is not a new type of chord on which you must find an entirely new vocabulary to use. A V7 sus chord, is basically a V7 chord without the third in the voicing, but the third is still a part of that tonality. You can actually use a lot of the same language that you would play over dominant, major or minor sounds.
Take a D7 sus for instance, over this one sound you can think in three different modalities; major, minor, or dominant. A D7 sus chord (D7 dominant) has the same sound as a C/D chord (C major #11) and also as an A-7/D (A minor), the difference only lies in the naming of the chord and how you are approaching it mentally. In all three cases, you can use the same harmonic material, which you are already familiar with, for improvisation:
Sus chords have a very open sound and as a result, create a wide variety of harmonic possibilities for the improviser. When you do see these chords come up, you want to be able to have more options than the misguided advice of avoiding the third or relying on some sort of pentatonic concept. You shouldn’t feel restricted when you hear a sus chord, rather, you should feel as though you have unlimited harmonic choices.
Some options over a V7 sus
Many times, how you play over a sus chord is determined by where the chord is resolving to, or if it is resolving at all. This is a great place to use different lines and language that you’ve transcribed over various progressions in a new way. Here are just a few harmonic options that are available, utilizing some of the language that you already have:
Major scale, diatonic material: A V7 sus chord has the same function as a V7 chord, leading to the tonic, but because the third isn’t present, the chord has a more static sound. Because of this, you can use diatonic material from the related tonic chord or even treat the V7sus as a normal V7 chord. (G7sus: CMaj, G7)
Major scale with flat 6th: Instead of using only diatonic material from the related I chord, include a b6 into the scale to incorporate chromaticism. (G7sus: CMaj w/Ab)
Bebop scale: Using a bebop scale or any altered dominant language that you have worked out works to resolve the V7 sus sound to a I chord or an implied resolution at the tonic. (G7sus: G7 bebop scale)
Triadic approach: Pick two diatonic or non-diatonic triads that don’t have a shared pitch (no notes in common). For more about this technique, check out this post on using triads in your solos. (G7sus: F Maj triads and G Maj triads)
Imply ii-V’s: Using the idea, once again, of utilizing diatonic material that you already have in your arsenal, you can insert a ii-V progression on top of a V7 sus chord. Refer to this post on using ii-V’s in static progressions. (G7sus: D-7, G7, CMaj7)
Imply major and minor simultaneously: Because of the absence of the third in the voicing of a sus chord, you can imply both major and minor tonalities. In the case of G7sus, alternating between a B natural and a Bb. (G7sus: G7 and G-7)
The list could keep going (pentatonic scales and patterns, chromaticism, substitutions, etc.), but the point is that there are many more options available than the common idea of just playing some sort of line that avoids the third. Keep in mind, however, that these are just a few theoretical examples, what you need to do is go to the records and listen to how your favorite players are tackling these chords. Nothing will make sus chords clearer than transcribing and internalizing what the masters are playing.
Examples on recordings
Herbie Hancock’s tune Maiden Voyage is probably the most recognizable example of sus chords. Throughout the composition, he covers D7sus, F7sus, Eb7sus, and F#7sus (C#-13). Listen to how George Coleman, Freddie Hubbard, and Herbie navigate these sus chords:
In Your Own Sweet Way
On this Dave Brubeck composition, the V7sus chord is used in a more traditional way as an interlude between soloists. Check out how Bill Evans plays over this sound at 1:15, 5:19, and as he ends the tune at 7:57 in this clip:
On this Ron Carter composition, an F blues is reharmonized completely with sus chords in the place of the conventional dominant 7th chords. The openness of the sus sound, taking away the expected pull of V7 to I, enables the possibility of harmonic experimentation. Study how Miles and Wayne deal with these sus chords:
No one exploits the quartal voicing inherent within a sus chord better than McCoy Tyner. Listen to how McCoy and Joe Henderson use pentatonic, triadic,and half-step motion to create excitement on sus chords:
Note how McCoy begins his solo (1:11 in the video) over the F7sus, quoting his melody, a prime example of using a triadic approach in your lines. In the line below, he alternates between material from an F major triad and an Eb major triad:
These are just a few of many examples of V7sus chords in recordings, also keep your ears open for them in tunes like Naima, Dear Old Stockholm and many others.
Using a sus b9 chord:
The difference in this chord compared to a normal V7 sus lies in the voicing. The chordal instrument is now including the b9 in the voicing which alters the sound slightly. Just as you can think of a V7 sus chord as different chords (shown at the top), you can think of a V7susb9 chord in a few different ways. Take an E7susb9 chord for example, you can think of a G7/E or simply an E phyrigian scale, all three are utilizing the same harmony.
Improvisers usually navigate this sound in one of two ways as a starting point:
- Phrygian (E7sus: E, F, G, A, B, C, D, E) [implies a minor 3rd]
- Harmonic minor (E7sus: A harmonic minor- E, F, G#, A, B, C, D, E) [implies a major 3rd]
The phyrigian mode is the straight sound of the E7sus b9 chord as shown above. However, if the E7sus b9 resolves to an A chord of some type, the G# found in the harmonic minor scale will give the chord an extra pull towards the tonic.
Here are two examples of songs that contain a V7sus b9 chord:
On this tune from Kind of Blue, the five tonalities are C Maj.7, Ab7, Bb Maj.7, D7sus.b9, and G-7. Here, the D7susb9 chord acts as an unstable point, compared to the other chords, that builds tension and resolves into the G-7. Take note of how Miles, Coltrane, Cannonball, and Bill Evans each treat this chord differently:
This is one of Chick Corea’s most famous compositions. The F#7susb9 is the second chord for the melody and solos:
Chick begins his solo (5:15 in the video) on the F#7susb9 sound and plays a line that utilizes the phyrgian mode, yet he also includes the G natural, hinting at the harmonic minor sound as well:
The next time the sus b9 chord appears (5:37 in the video), Chick becomes more harmonically daring. The example below shows how he utilizes patterns moving in a diminished sequence; starting an idea in F#7 moving to C-7, then to A-7, and finally to A Maj, all a minor third apart:
Create your own “sus” language
As you transcribe and absorb what your favorite players are improvising over sus chords, you will naturally begin to hear your own lines over these sounds. Use the language that you’ve already transcribed as a starting point to develop your own concept over sus chords and continue in your daily practice to search for new ideas. Hopefully, with some inspiration from these examples, you’ll be soloing with ease over this sound in no time.
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