A lot of new guitarists have been asking what dominant chords are, and in its simplest manner, I will walk you through the very basic fundamentals of this.
In music theory, a dominant seventh chord, or major minor seventh chord, is a chord composed of a root, major third, perfect fifth, and minor seventh. It can also be viewed as a major triad with an additional minor seventh.
The shortcut? Dominant 7th chords are built like this: 1-3-5-b7
The reason behind its name “dominant seventh chord” is because, in a C7 chord, the B flat is the 7th note of the C dominant scale (also known as the Mixolydian scale). This contrast with the regular major 7th found on a Cmaj7 (which is the note B natural).
The 5th chord found in a scale is known as the dominant, because it is the “most important” interval (among other things, it’s the first harmonic other than the octave). The dominant is also spelled in roman numeral, like this: V.
A dominant seventh chord is a chord built upon the dominant of a major diatonic scale. It contains a major triad and a minor seventh of the root of the triad.
Let’s go back and use the C major scale as an example. We get the G7 chord: G-B-D-F, with G being both the dominant of C major and the root of the major triad G-B-D, and F being the minor seventh of the root.
The dominant chord provides movement in tonal music: its tendency to resolve or in a more popular term – “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 fake books, 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.
Identify dominant chords like this: chord with “just a number”. For instance, G9, G13, G7#11. There’s no mention of major or minor in the symbol.
The term dominant chord actually refers to 2 facets that are related to each other. First is the chord type, and the second is the harmonic function. Let’s dig in …
Theory Review for Dominant Chords
Let’s get started with a little theory refresher. In classical terms, the dominant chord is built on the fifth degree of the scale. In C major, count …1, 2, 3, 4, 5 … it’s the G chord!
The G chord (dominant) leads naturally to the C chord (tonic). It’s a movement up a fourth (or down a fifth). This “V – I” chord progression is called cadence. The urge to resolve the “V to the I” is greatly enhanced by the presence of a seventh on the dominant chord. Instead of being simply G-B-D, the added seventh gives us G-B-D-F:
In jazz, the dominant is not only a “tension – release” workhorse, it also serves the composer and improviser as a coloristic tool. The dominant is, nowadays, just another musical way of expressing human emotions.
That is how I approached writing these dominant scales / chords articles: by color (jazz), not just by proper resolution (classical). You can (and should), of course, try resolving everything to the tonic. But you should first and foremost hear the different personalities of the dominant “colors” on their own.
The major scale and the mixolydian mode (built on the fifth degree of major) have completely different personalities (even if they contain the same exact notes). It’s a matter of what function they fulfill in the music. While it is important for you to understand the relationship (i.e. where the mode is coming from), it’s a very bad idea to improvise on F7 mixo the same way you would on Bb major.
The Basic Sound – Mixolydian
Let’s start with the most basic sound of all dominant scales / chords: the mixolydian mode. As we already know, the dominant is usually built on the fifth degree of a scale. Here, we’re using the “plain old” major scale. C major scale contains the same notes as G mixolydian scale :
In brief: By playing the C major scale (C D E F G A B) but starting on G (G A B C D E F)… we get that infamous G mixolydian sound !
A Few Basic Dominant (Mixolydian) Chord Shapes
We can apply this scale pretty much any time we see a plain “7th” on a chart (not “maj7” or “min7” though!) Because it’s such a basic sound, most tunes and progressions contain a “plain old” dominant chord or two. The blues progression is a good starting point. It has huge potential mixolydian applications: on a traditional bebop blues, you can use the mixolydian scale in up to 4 different keys! (the I, IV, VI and V chords).
Also check out the “bird blues” type of progression (ie “Blues for Alice” or “Chi chi”). You could go up and play mixo in as much as 7 or 8 different keys on that progression alone! Now you’re really going to town with that kind of stuff.
Slightly Altered – Mixolydian b13
This spicier dominant color is slightly altered when compared to the straight-ahead mixo: the 6th degree (aka 13th) is flat. As we already know, the dominant is usually built on the fifth degree of a scale. Here, we’re using the melodic minor scale as our starting point.
C melodic minor scale contains the same notes as G mixolydian b13 scale:
Applying Mixolydian b13
In jazz music, we hear this sound primarily when a dominant chord is resolving to a tonic minor chord. For example : G7(b13) to Cm6. That b13 (or b6) sound is often misspelled “#5” on lead sheets. Remember that the #5 and b6 are enharmonic equivalents (Eb = D#, the same exact note) but they have different functions:
On a dominant b13, there IS a 5th (and it’s natural)
…on a dominant #5, there IS NO natural 5th.
This was either by mistake (or ignorance) but it is widespread in fakebooks. Whenever you see a dom7(#5), ask yourself if the real intent of the composer was that mixolydian b13 scale. Sometimes, it easy to find out, sometimes not…
So, how to apply?
I would suggest that you try the same usual mixolydian stuff you’re used to play and emphasis the only different note: the b13! For instance, improvise on major or minor II-V-I’s using the right scales, arpeggios or guide-tone lines all the while making that b13 (b6) note really stand out on the V chord.
Slightly Altered – Mixolydian #11
This crunchier dominant color, often called Lydian Dominant, is slightly altered when compared to the straight-ahead mixo: the 4th degree (i.e. the 11th) is sharp. It sounds like it “tickles” a little bit… and it is definitely Thelonious Monk-ish.
As we already know, the dominant is usually built on the fifth degree of a scale. Here’s it’s simply not: the mixolydian #11 mode (scale) is built on the FOURTH degree of the melodic minor scale.
D melodic minor scale contains the same notes as G mixolydian #11 scale:
Some Dominant #11 Chord Shapes
Applying Mixolydian #11 (Contexts)
In jazz music, we hear this sound in many different context. On the top of my head, I’m thinking of a few examples…
1- When the harmony goes to IV7 … it’s a dominant chord built on the fourth and sounds like Mixo #11. You hear “I major” right before (I’m thinking of the tune “On a Clear Day”). Sometimes, it’s clearly Mixo #11 if you have a “I minor” chord followed by IV dominant.
2- When ending a tonic minor tune on IV. Often, the chord is dom7th(#11). You’re in the key of A minor throughout the song and suddenly the last chord is … D7(#11). Sounds super modern and cool.
3- As part of a “backdoor progression”. It’s more natural to play Bb7(#11) to C. Without the #11, you get an Eb note. See “What is a Backdoor?” in the “No non-sense guides …”
4- In general, when it’s a non-resolving dominant chord.
Misspelling #11 for b5
Our friend, the #11 (or #4) sound is often misspelled “b5” on lead sheets. Remember that the #4 and b5 are enharmonic equivalents (C# = Db, the same exact note) but they have different functions:
On a dominant #11, there IS a 5th (and it’s natural)
…on a dominant b5, there IS NO natural 5th. This is the “rule” of nomenclature.
This was either by mistake (or ignorance) but it is widespread in fakebooks. Whenever you see a dom7(b5), ask yourself if the real intent of the composer was to hear a Lydian Dominant. Sometimes, it easy to find out, sometimes not.
In fact the whole “fun” of the Mixo #11 lies in the crunch happening (a major second interval mind you) between the 3rd and the #11. It tickles your bones a little bit, you know?! It’s a “blue note” that’s already part of the chord instead of being added.
So, how to apply?
While keeping the practice suggestions (see below), I would suggest that you try to find instances where the music sort of dictates that type of sound. Start with my list above to find example. The improvise lots on it to get the sound in your ears.
Another suggestion is to learn a few Thelonious Monk tunes, he really made the dominant #11 sound stand out in his writing (see the tunes “Played Twice”, “Pannonica”, “Round Midnight”, “Straight no Chaser”, “I Mean You”)… In fact, a great thing to do is to get a bunch of Monk’s recording and get the Thelonious Monk Fakebook. Learn the tunes you like.
Altered – Mixolydian b13 b9
This heavy and dark dominant color has 2-note difference when compared to the straight-ahead mixo: the 6th (13) AND the 9th (2) degrees are flat. It sounds sort of “arabic” and middle-eastern or even oriental. It’s often called Harmonic Minor of Destination (HMD) or even Phrygian Dominant.
As we already know, the dominant is usually built on the fifth degree of a scale. In the present case, the scale/chord must be built on the fifth degree of the harmonic minor scale.
C harmonic minor scale contains the same notes as G mixolydian b9 b13 scale:
In brief: By playing the C harmonic minor (C D Eb F G Ab B) but starting on G (G Ab B C D Eb F), we get that infamous G mixolydian b13 b9 (or “Harmonic minor of Destination”) sound ! See the “destination” is C harmonic minor because G7(b9 b13) is the dominant that creates tension and resolves back to it.
We sometimes call it “Phrygian Dominant” because it has the characteristic of a phrygian mode (the flat 9) and it’s a dominant chord / sound. Simple enough?
A Basic Dominant b13 b9 Chord Shapes
Applying Mixolydian b13 b9
In jazz music, the greatest opportunity to use that sound is when resolving to a minor chord. You can aim to use V(b13 b9) when playing on minor II-V’s. That’ll keep ya busy for a while!
Outside of the minor II-V’s, you could also learn to apply this Mixo b13 b9 sound on “regular” major II-V-I on the V chord. It’s a little dramatic, but oh-so-spicy for jazz. Everyone does it! The sound projected is almost like “minor to major”, because you’ll be “aiming” at the harmonic minor of destination then supllying a proper resolution to major. The flat 9 is your friend, that’s for sure.
And lastly, it’s a good idea to play on this dominant chord sound when vamping or over a drone. See how it sounds when it’s “static”. You can take your time and hear all the tensions within. One last note: I find that this Mixo b13 b9 sound is less specific and more “generic”. There’s not one person, one era or specific tunes that I can think of that are idiomatic of that sound: I simply find it everywhere I look for it!
The Altered Scale
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:
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.
Some Altered Dominant Chord Shapes
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!
Of course, all the dominants you will encounter should be practiced thoroughly. You want to have them ingrained in your ears and fingers.
Here are some points to keep in mind when internalizing the different dominant chord color : (or any type of chord for that matter)
- Keep the theoretical origin of this chord / scale in mind (but don’t always refer back to the “parent scale” so to speak… this shortcut will be a hindrance sooner or later, see below.)
- Play the scale up and down
- Play arpeggio up and down
- Play some scale and/or arpeggio pattern up and down
then… Improvise on that chord / scale!!
- Using a fermata or drone (recorded or by yourself)
- With tempo/metronome on one chord, vamp or riff
- In cycles (start with cycle of fifth), keep same chord quality
- Always, always: listen to what you’re playing.
Please Note: The little “shortcut” thing…
By all means, do not keep the reference the “theoretical origin” permanently (ie mixo is fifth mode of major)… It will slow you down in the long run; here’s what I mean:
It may be tempting to learn mixolydian by always referring to its “parent” scale. For example, you may see F7 and think “Bb major scale” or see A7 and think “D major scale”.
Piece of advice: don’t do that!
The major scale and the mixolydian mode (built on the fifth degree of major) have completely different personalities (even if they contain the same exact notes). It’s a matter of what function they fulfill in the music. While it is important for you to understand the relationship (i.e. where the mode is coming from), it’s a very bad idea to improvise on F7 mixo the same way you would on Bb major…
If you hear an orchestra, a band or an improviser play on a dominant chord you will hear stuff that is specific to that chord. (Not generic stuff that “fits” all the modes of the major scale!) Great musicians can see the relationship but will always treat the harmony as it is. That holds true for all modes that you may be using “in reference to a parent scale” all of the time… get rid of that habit if you fell into it! Learn mixolydian for what it is.
To learn more about Dominant Chords for Jazz Guitar, check out the free PDF below and get access to the dominant chord guide!
Marc-Andre Seguin is the webmaster, “brains behind” and teacher on JazzGuitarLessons.net, the #1 online resource for learning how to play jazz guitar. He draws from his experience both as a professional jazz guitarist and professional jazz teacher to help thousands of people from all around the world learn the craft of jazz guitar.