“What are dominant chords?” is a question I get a lot from beginning guitarists.
In this lesson you’ll learn how dominant 7th chords work, how they are formed and why dominant chords are called dominant. We’ll also have a look at how they look on the guitar and how they are used in jazz and other music.
The symbol of a dominant seventh chord is “7” added to the root of the chord.
For example: G dominant 7 = G7
The term ‘dominant chord’ can refer to 2 facets that are related to each other:
It can refer to a chord type
It can refer to an harmonic function
How To Construct a Dominant 7th chord
First we’ll have a look at dominant chords as a chord type. Let’s make a dominant chord and start from the C major scale:
C Major Scale
Something to remember:
The dominant chord is built on the 5th scale degree
The 5th scale degree of C major is G, so the dominant chord of C major is G7. We are going to construct a chord by stacking thirds on G (if this is Chinese to you, first do our Chord Theory Lesson):
The dominant chord of C major is G7 and consists of the notes G B D and F.
Dominant chord = major triad + b7
How Are Dominant Chords Used?
Let’s have a look at the function of the dominant chord family. Every note and chord in a scale has a diatonic function, a certain role they play in relation to the key.
The most important functions are Tonic, Subdominant and Dominant:
Tonic: the first chord in the C major scale (Cmaj7) is called tonic. It is the tonal center and final resolution chord and gives our ears a sense of “musical relaxtion” or “being home”.
Subdominant: the fourth chord (Fmaj7) is called subdominant. It gives our ears a sense of movement, of moving away from the tonic.
Dominant: the fifth chord (G7) is called dominant. The dominant chord creates tension and instability and wants to resolve to the tonic chord.
Here’s an audio example so you can hear what a dominant chord sounds like.
We start on Cmaj7, the tonal center.
The chords move to the subdominant (Fmaj7), moving away from the Tonic
The dominant starts on bar 4 (G13 has the same function as G7). I made the G7 part longer so you can feel the urge to resolve to Cmaj7, which it does in bar 9.
Listen & Play
How To Resolve a Dominant Chord?
As you learned in the previous example, a dominant chord resolves to its tonic chord. This is because of voice leading.
The 3 (b) and b7 (f) of G7 form a tritone interval (interval of 6 semi-tones). This is an unstable interval with a lot of dissonance and tension. This tension makes the unstable notes want to move to their nearest neighbour in the key of C major:
The b7 of G7 (f) wants to resolve to the 3 of C (e)
The 3 of G7 (b) wants to resolve to the 1 of C (c)
C isn’t the only chord G7 can resolve to, here are some other options:
G7 to Cmaj7: C and Cmaj7 are the same chord: C is a triad, while Cmaj7 is a seventh chord.
G7 to C6: C, Cmaj7 and C6 have the same function. Cmaj7 has the 7th (b) added to the major triad, C6 has the 6th (a) added to the major triad. C6 is a more stable chord than C maj7, which makes it a good chord to end tunes.
G7 to Cm7
G7 to Am7
G7 to F#m7
Dominant Chords On The Guitar
Let’s have a look at some dominant chord shapes on the guitar:
Here are the dominant drop 2 chords in root position. For a chord chart of all drop 2 chords and their inversions, take a look here: Drop 2 Chord Chart
A plain dominant chord sounds a bit vanilla, especially in jazz. That’s why we add other notes to dominant chords, to make them more interesting and colorful. The added notes are called tensions or extensions.
Here are 2 examples of dominant 9th chords (G B D F A)
Here are 2 examples of dominant 13th chords (G B D F (A) E)
Dominant sus4 chords are something different. In a sus4 chord, the 4th (usually) replaces the 3rd of the dominant chord: G C D F instead of G B D F. This creates a chord with an open sound. Sus4 chords can act as a delay for dominant chords, as in this example:
To bring even more tension to dominant chords, we can “alter” these tension notes, that means lower them by a half tone. Here are some examples of altered dominant chords:
Secondary Dominant Chords
A secondary dominant chord (called “double dominant chord” by some) is the dominant of the dominant chord (V of V).
For example: we now know that the dominant chord of Cmaj7 is G7 and that dominant chords are built on the 5th scale degree. So if we want to find the dominant chord of G7, we should count 5 scale steps starting from G and make that chord dominant. The result is a D7 chord, the secondary dominant.
You can go further by finding the dominant of the secondary dominant. Counting 5 steps from D brings us to A7. Going even further, we’ll find the dominant of A7, which is E7, and so on… Try to play these chords in sequence:
Dominant Chords In Blues
In blues music all main chords are of the dominant type. This means the tonic, subdominant and of course the dominant are all dominant type chords (1 3 5 b7).
This is a result of the blue notes, notes that are sung at a slightly lower pitch than those of the major scale. The b7 (b3 and b5 are the others) is such a blue note and that’s why dominant chords are so prevalent in blues music.