How to Sound Jazzy with Altered Dominants

You know the drill: as jazz players, we’re always looking for ways to add nice chromatic notes and altered dominants into our solos. So this lesson is yet another way to solve one of the most typical issues for beginning and intermediate jazz players, which is …

How can I sound less inside when I solo?

In this blog + video lesson, we’ll do just that by using altered dominants. And we’ll do so in three steps. At first, we’ll simply add the b9 (flat 9) alteration on the V chord within the II-V-I progression. This gives you a taste of the many possibilities if you have been stuck using purely “inside” scales while soloing.

D dorian, G Mixolydian, C Major anyone?!?

Then the G Mixo scale will be tortured even further by having both the b9 and the #9 present at the same time. You’ll hear it: easy breezy.

And lastly, we’ll go all the way to building the complete half-whole diminished scale for that G7(b9). Scary? Not really! We’ll do everything step by step.

Oh, yes… and by the way: we’ll improvise together (with the aid of a backing) on the II-V-I progression in C major during this lesson. So relax, lay back, try to get some nice melodic ideas using the scales for altered dominants. Basically: just enjoy the ride for now! 🙂

Sounding Jazzy with Altered Dominants: Your PDF

 How to sound jazzy using altered dominants

Here are the PDF and backing track for the exercises in this lesson.


Let’s Do This!

Remember that in a previous lesson we discussed straightforward chromatic exercises to make you sound more out and jazzy. In this lesson we’re addressing the same issue, basically, but from a different perspective. We’ll use altered dominants while soloing (instead of just trying to practice very chromatic lines).

Please watch the video to trade 8 bars of solos with your instructor. This is a “take a chill pill” type of lesson and we’ll jam together. We’ll slowly work our way through the entire diminished scale for altered dominants. The result will be a somewhat jazzier version of your own improvised lines. This is really fascinating both from a melodic and harmonic point of view. I hope you’re ready to rumble. Let’s get going.

Basics: II-V-I and Modes, the Generic Approach

First for a little back to basics. Recall that the II-V-I (2, 5, 1) progression in the key of C major, is Dm7, to G7 to C major. Nothing new here. You can play it in any voicing. It doesn’t really matter so long as you get the basic progression right.

II-V-I progression in C major = Dm7 – G7 – Cmaj7

For improvisation purposes the simplest way to approach this is to play strictly within the C major scale, thus outlining what we could refer to the D Dorian mode, the G mixolydian mode, and the C Ionian mode, or C major. All arpeggio and notes for this scale are available during your improvisation. C, D, E, F, G, A, B.

In summary, this approach (a very generic one) says “Play on C major for the whole duration of the II-V-I progression”. The D Dorian mode, The G mixolydian mode and the C major scale all contain the exact same 7 notes: C, D, E, F, G, A and B. Pretty boring, right?

Step 1: G7 Mixolydian with a b9

Let’s start varying on the very generic approach where we hear some nice altered notes on the G7, the V chord.

The starting point is the basic G mixolydian scale: G, A, B, C, D, E and F. Play this in 2nd position on the guitar.



Now, let’s change the A natural to an A flat. This is the scale we want to use for our improvisation in this step. It gives us G7 flat 9 type of sound without too much of a headache.



All we want to do in this first step (and in fact for the whole lesson) is to improvise and remember to use that Ab note during that G7 chord. You can use the Ab anywhere, even during the II chord (the Dm7), but just make sure that you resolve your line to something nice, to something stable within the Cmaj7.

For instance, if you resolve on the fifth of C, which is the G note, or you resolve on C, itself, or on the third of C, which is the E note.

In the video, you’ll have the chance to try this together with your instructor.  You can download the backing track also to practice this on your own. And notice: I keep my hand around here, so around fret 2 and 3, and the improvised line we’ll stick to something within the range of an octave approximately.

Step 2: G Mixolydian with b9 AND #9

Let’s take it a little further in modifying G mixolydian again now. You’ll see why in a moment.

Simply take a look a the A natural note. We take it out completely. And we replace it by both an Ab and an A# note. Notice, that A# and Bb are actually the same note, and that Bb is preferred in the PDF and music notation below.


This gives an 8-note scale which is G, Ab, Bb, B, C, D, E, F.

Now we have a G7 chord with both b9 and a b9. The b9 is A flat, the #9 is Bb (or A#). Please watch the video to improvise using this scale along with your instructor.


Step 3: One Final Tweak to Get the Diminished Scale

Now, onto step 3 where we tweak the G mixolydian scale to the point where we get the half-whole diminished scale, which you might have already heard of.

Here’s a process:

  • Take the scale from the previous step
  • Use a C sharp instead of a C natural.
  • Voila!


The scale is thus G, Ab, Bb, B, C#, D, E, F.

Notice that this is a symmetrical scale containing 8 notes. Why do we call it the “half-whole” diminished scale? Because that’s how we build it! Start at G, go up and half-step. Then go up a whole-step. Then half, then whole. Half, whole, half, whole, etc.

Like for the previous steps, use the video to improve on this in real time. The G diminished half-whole is a different beast so to speak! See what comes out! Of course, if you’re interested in this and you have questions and you wonder what can come out of it, you should practice it on your own with the backing track.

Review + Wrap Up

For a quick review of the steps here, start with the basic G mixolydian scale, then

  1. Use a b9 (i.e. change the A to an Ab)
  2. Use a b9 and a #9 (i.e remove the A, replace with both Ab and Bb)
  3. From step 2, change the C to a C# (and you got the diminished half-whole scale)

Of course you can see all of this in the PDF.

For Theory Buffs: The Diminished Scale for G13b9

Now let’s jump to a little overview of the theory of the diminished scale. If you’re interested into how we got there, here’s a simple method.

The simplest route to understand the diminished scale is to start with the diminished chord, which is what we’ve done in the video on this blog post.

First, start with a G7 arpeggio containing the notes G, B, D, and F. Or, in degree, we say 1-3-5-b7:



Then start from the B note, the third but go up to a flat 9. So for G7b9 (without the root), we have the notes B, D, F, Ab. In degrees, we have 3-5-b7-b9. So yes, we ignore the root for now:


Examine this closer for a moment. The notes 3-5-b7-b9 of that G7b9 chord (no root) are exactly the same as a B diminished 7th chord (or arpeggio):



To build the diminished scale, simply add a half-steps approach to each of the four notes in the diminished 7th arpeggio

Then if we have a half step before each of those four notes we have the scale as follows. We can call this one the “B diminished whole-half” scale, more about this in a moment.


In other words, you get that scale by basically superimposing a Bdim7 arpeggio to the same four notes a half-step down (so in fact Bbdim7 arpeggio).

Relating the Diminished Scale to G13b9

What we get by building the scale like this:

  • the foundation is 3-5-b7-b9 of a G7 chord (so G7b9)
  • We get an approach note for each of the four above
  • In addition the #9 is present (it approaches the 3)
  • The the #11 (or b5) is present (it approaches the 5)
  • The natural 13 is present (it approaches the b7)



You get a staple of the jazz sound really. That’s what it is! 🙂

Fingerings + Resolution

To finish off, I want to discuss is the fingerings for the diminished scale. Obviously I think you noticed the goal of the entire lesson, the ultimate aim, is for you to learn the the diminished scale and that’s what we got to in the end. The other steps are only intermediary.

The good fingerings are outlined in the PDF. What I like to do, personally, if we’re thinking of a G7, I like to think of it around the 3rd position.  My favorite fingerings are outlined in the PDFs but they’re just my own favorite. You can experiment outside of it.

Last word of advice. I told you today it was going to be a take a chill pill, just jam with me, we’ll try some stuff, but you should be practicing with this lesson as really resolving. It’s all about tension and release so aim for the principle 1, 3, 5, and 7 notes within the C major chord or within your I chord.

A Blast from the Past

Side note: this video was published as part of a five-lesson series published on TrueFire in November 2014 in the context of #TNTGI2014. These lessons have been re-published on this blog for your viewing pleasure. and TrueFire's TNTGI2014

The fifth lesson 5 Chord Melody Tips for Jazz Guitarists here …

3 thoughts on “How to Sound Jazzy with Altered Dominants

  1. Fabulous lesson need more like it you are the best teacher I have ever known. I would like go see those jazzy chord you use on 2-5-1 they sound soooo good please do a lesson on them if possible . Marc its always a pleasure to get to see how it should be done .

  2. Awesome lesson. I was just thinking the other day what I could use over a 13th chord to make it sound well… jazzy. What an apropos lesson for me. Once again Marc, thanks a whole bunch.

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