What Is a Dominant Chord?

“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:

  1. It can refer to a chord type
  2. 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 C D E F G A B
1 2 3 4 5 6 7

 

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):

 

G7 G B D F
1 3 5 b7

 

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.

 

Cmaj7 Dm7 Em7 Fmaj7 G7 Am7 Bm7b5
I II III IV V VI VII
Tonic Subdominant
(Supertonic)
Tonic
(Mediant)
Subdominant Dominant Tonic
(Submediant)
Dominant
(Leading Tone)

 

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

What is a dominant chord?

 

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)

 

How to resolve a dominant chord?

 

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.

How to resolve a dominant 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.

How to resolve a dominant chord?

 

G7 to Cm7

How to resolve a dominant chord?

 

G7 to Am7

How to resolve a dominant chord?

 

G7 to F#m7

How to resolve a dominant chord?

 

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

 

G dominant chords

 

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)

 

Dominant 9th chords

 

Here are 2 examples of dominant 13th chords (G B D F (A) E)

 

Dominant 13th chords

 

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:

 

Dominant sus4 chords

 

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:

 

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:

 

Secondary dominants

 

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.

To learn more about jazz blues guitar playing, have a look at our Introduction to Jazz Blues Guitar eBook:

Introduction to Jazz Blues Guitar v1

 




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  1. Earl AllenJun 13, 2014 at 9:02 pm

    As usual, your lessons are meaty. You do a great service to anyone wanting a better
    understanding of jazz guitar!!!

  2. Rob HarvyJun 13, 2014 at 10:58 pm

    Dirk you’re a legend!
    Fantastic work and a great site for unlocking the mysteries of jazz,

    Cheers,

    Rob

  3. Bob PlayerJun 13, 2014 at 11:04 pm

    I’ve been reading your stuff online for several years now, and I think it’s the best stuff out there. I’m closing in on 68, and have been playing since I was 12. Lots of moves, and changes in between, but I’m still taking lessons and trying to get better. My name is a tough one for a guitarist to live up to, but I’m trying. Your stuff has helped a lot with gaining an overall understanding of theory. I think it’s time that I sent you a check for some of this. Order coming soon!
    Bob Player

  4. robJun 14, 2014 at 2:00 am

    Dirk your lessons are great . I really enjoyed the drop 2 chord lesson. Now i can see how jazz players make such cool intro;s thanks Rob !

  5. Charly from Mex.Jun 14, 2014 at 5:11 am

    Hi Dirk i realy apreciate this little lessons, very clear and easy to understand, Thanks!!

  6. BogdanJun 14, 2014 at 5:55 am

    A little typo: a tritone is 6 semitones, not 5.

    • Matt WarnockJun 14, 2014 at 9:28 am

      Thanks, got it fixed!

  7. ArthurJun 14, 2014 at 9:32 am

    I’m a sax player, not even a guitar player and enjoy your concise lessons on chords and tunes. Thank you so much!
    I noticed the typo too;)

  8. ClaudioJun 14, 2014 at 10:36 am

    Thanks Dirk!,,
    I”d apreciate you very much if you explain how to construct Secondary Chords Scales, and Dominante of Secondary Chords Scales.
    Love from Spain!!!

  9. seunJun 14, 2014 at 11:06 am

    Playing guitar is boreing to me an sometime I feel like giving it out, but I love it. D sound and when I see people playing it, it make me feel happy. Pls what can I do

  10. AlexJun 14, 2014 at 11:08 am

    right on spot Dirk thanks!

  11. AlainJun 14, 2014 at 3:39 pm

    Excellent and so useful explanations…..
    Bravo

  12. jungleJun 14, 2014 at 3:41 pm

    Thanks for the refresher. Appreciated.

  13. LouJun 14, 2014 at 4:42 pm

    Nice sounder Dirk. Smooth and easy on the ears and that’s what I want to play. More like theses please.

  14. Daniel DayJun 14, 2014 at 5:15 pm

    Long time fan. Thanks for your service to the community.

  15. mo6Jun 14, 2014 at 9:13 pm

    its a nice work,find it very interesting. thanks alot

  16. Pin4sJun 14, 2014 at 9:25 pm

    Great respect””

  17. SilverfoxxJun 15, 2014 at 2:06 pm

    Am completely at a loss to understand the remarks above by
    Everyman Jazz. I have not seen any
    derogatory remarks of this nature on
    The Forum. Quite the reverse in fact?

  18. CemilJun 16, 2014 at 12:00 pm

    Thanks for the very nice lesson. It just dawned to me that the ‘Rhythm Changes’ sequence is just a series of cascading subdominants. I had only thought of them a 4th apart, doh :)

  19. YohannJun 17, 2014 at 8:48 am

    Hi! nice lesson, it’s always good learning more about harmony functions even if I already know something about it. Great job!!!

  20. JohnJun 17, 2014 at 11:48 am

    Dirk, The chords in this lesson are chords I’ve been playing for years but didn’t really know the theory behind them. Thanks for clearing up some things!

  21. Steve BhowaneeJun 25, 2014 at 7:33 am

    Thank Dirk,

    You are a great teacher and Jazz Guitar player. Sorry for not being able to always comment on all your excellent lessons.

  22. tonyJul 11, 2014 at 12:42 am

    Hey Dirk,
    First timer here, but it won’t be the last! Pushing 40 and playing for ten years and will be playing and learning til the end rolls round. Really enjoyed this lesson, thanks so much…

  23. chordtoneSep 21, 2014 at 6:59 pm

    LOVE this article!!! It brings together a lot of concepts that I had not quite grasped before and clarifies them very succinctly. I will especially be using this to study the secondary dominants. Beautiful lesson! Thank you for your effort in putting this together.

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