Dominant Chord - Jazz Harmony

Dominant Chord

Part 5: The Altered Scale

The dominant chord provides movement in tonal music: its tendency to resolve (aka “to go somewhere else”) is very strong. It has an even stronger harmonic pull when the seventh is added on top of it.

The dominant seventh is used most of the time in jazz music. If you look at sheet music or in fakebooks, dominant seventh chords have “just a number” so to speak : they’re identified with “7” (or “7th”), “9”, “7(b9)”, “13” or “13(b9)” and “dom7” and so on.

In this series we will look into the most common colors for the dominant chord. I like to approach them by their respective sound, starting with the most consonant and moving towards more alterations of the basic sound

Please note: All examples will use a G dominant chord throughout this article series. I chose this key because it resolves back to a C (which the basic key of reference … or “the people’s key” as a good friend likes to call it!) Good old C major.

Jump to a page:

Dominant Chords Introduction
Dominants Part 1: The Basic Sound – Mixolydian
Dominants Part 2: Mixolydian with a flat 13th
Dominants Part 3: Mixolydian with a sharp 11th
Dominants Part 4: Mixolydian with a flat 13th and a flat 9th
Dominants Part 5: Super Locrian (aka altered scale aka Dim Whole-Tone)

Altered what?!

This is the most “out” scale of this article series. It’s why I wanted to present it last. It’s dark and bright at the same time… you have to hear it! It’s a little monster where we find all the “bad notes” (b9, #9, b5, #5) and three good ones (1, 3, b7).

Notice that this scale is often referred to as the Super Locrian scale, or even sometimes as the Diminished Whole Tone scale. I don’t really like the latter, as we can get confused with the actual diminished scale.

As we already know, the dominant is usually built on the fifth degree of a scale. The present scale is not build this way: the altered scale is found on the seventh degree of the melodic minor scale. Ab melodic minor scale contains the same notes as G7 altered scale:

Dominant Chord

In brief: By playing the Ab melodic minor (Ab Bb Cb Db Eb F G) but starting on G (G Ab Bb Cb Db Eb F), we get that infamous G altered sound (or Super Locrian) ! See, it starts the same way as a diminished scale (G Ab Bb Cb) but then it’s all built in whole tones from there (Cb Db Eb F G), and that’s why some people say “Diminished-Whole-Tone” scale.

We sometimes call it “Super Locrian” because it’s only one note away from the normal Locrian. That note winds up being the third of the dominant chord created.

A Closer Look

If we go in a bit deeper and take the altered scale apart and build it back we’ll find:

The scales degrees 1 b2 b3 b4 b5 b6 b7

It’s like all the notes are altered from the major scale except the tonic. WHAT!? Say we’re in G altered, you could simply think in Gb major if it wasn’t for that darn tonic! (-:

BUT it’s not practical so see it like this, instead we’ll rename the b4 to 3 and the b3 to #2… and then we rename the b6 to #5. It’ll make sense later!

Revised degrees1 b2 #2 3 b5*#5 b7

Since we all know that the second note of the scale is the ninth note of the scale (an octave difference) here:

Revised degrees as extensions1 b9 #9 3 b5 #5 b7

Dominant Chord

Aaahhhh. Now we’re talking! Of course, it doesn’t look like a scale at all anymore. It’s more like an amalgamation of… stuff! My personal trick to remember the altered scale: think of the chord shell for a dominant chord 1-3-b7 (notes in red in the picture) and then add all four possible alterations b5 #5 b9 #9. So this sound is basically 4 alteration out of 7 notes. Crazy!

I’m saying this because I don’t find it practical to rely on the “melodic minor parent”. It weirds me out a little! More on that later…

Learning the Altered Scale

Use practice suggestions on the introduction page to learn the basic sound for Super Locrian / Diminished Whole Tone. And here’s some more stuff to think about…

Positions: you know the drill. Take the melodic minor positions you know and start on the 7th degree. That’s altered. Once again, arpeggios are yours to explore. There’s too many alterations, so you could just play the regular “1 3 5 b7” arp… and add notes on top (b9, #9, b5, #5) to outline the characteristic notes of the chord/scale.

Diagonally: Very subjective. Find your way through two octaves diagonally, three octaves diagonally (with finger slides when necessary). I would also find fingerings that are partly in position and partly in diagonal that work well for me. I won’t give any real demonstration here. Simply read this diagonal playing article and find your own way(s).

Applying the Altered Scale

Oh boy, that’s a biggie! I know some people who really abuse this scale. In jazz, lots of players tend to go straight for that scale in (virtually) any V-I situation. They find it makes them sound “jazzy” right away because of all the tension, chromaticism. (ouhh, watch out, the big aura of jazz mysticisim is around you!)

Personally, I find it ridiculous to always just go for that sound by default. It’s so dark and complex that it would be hard to discern if it has 3 or 4 alterations. You could be on Mixo b13 b9 and play similar lines… you know? Unless you really play the scale front-to-back many times, when it’s a dark dominant sound, it’s just a dark dominant sound! (-:

The main trick: I never think of altered. If I want that sound in my playing, I’ll think of it as a tritone sub.

Ok, keep that a secret, but here we go: on G7(altered) use Db7(#11). It comes from the same scale (Ab melodic minor) and it’s much easier to handle. I prefer to go Db7 to C than a HUGE G7(something’s up in the kitchen) to C.

This is very personal, but as long as I have that reference, I can play great altered lines without thinking too much. You should, of course, study the altered scale to be thorough with dominant chords and sounds, but in the application department… just my 2 cents!

That’s it for the dominant chord series folks, I hope you enjoyed. Let me know if you have any question!

Jump to a page:

Dominant Chords Introduction
Dominants Part 1: The Basic Sound – Mixolydian
Dominants Part 2: Mixolydian with a flat 13th
Dominants Part 3: Mixolydian with a sharp 11th
Dominants Part 4: Mixolydian with a flat 13th and a flat 9th
Dominants Part 5: Super Locrian (aka altered scale aka Dim Whole-Tone)

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