Dominant Chords

Making up a third of one of the most important jazz chord progressions (the ii-V-I), dominant 7th chords are essential tools for any jazz guitarist to have under their fingers. In this lesson, you will learn how dominant 7th chords work, how they are formed and why dominant chords are called dominant. You will also learn how to play dominant chords on the guitar and how they are used in jazz and other styles of music.

The term ‘dominant chord’ can refer to two facets that are related to each other:

  1. It can refer to a chord type.
  2. It can refer to a harmonic function.

The symbol of a dominant seventh chord is “7” added to the root of the chord.

For example: G dominant 7 = G7

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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 ScaleCDEFGAB
1234567

 

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, do our Chord Theory Lesson first):

 

G7GBDF
135b7

 

The dominant chord of C major is G7 and consists of the notes G B D and F.

Dominant chord = major triad + b7

 

Dominant 7th Chords On The Guitar

Let’s have a look at some dominant chord shapes on the guitar.

 

Basic Dominant 7th Chords

Here are 5 basic dominant 7 shapes that you should memorize.

Learn to apply them to chord progressions and jazz standards as soon as possible.

 

C dominant 7 jazz guitar chords

 

Drop 3 Dominant 7 Inversions – E-string Bass Note

To begin our studies of drop 3 dominant chords for jazz guitar, here is the formula for building each inversion.

Once you have these interval patterns memorized you will be ready to apply them to the fretboard by learning the shapes in the chord charts below.

 

Drop 3 7 Root Position1b735
Drop 3 7 1st Inversion315b7
Drop 3 7 2nd Inversion53b71
Drop 3 7 3rd Inversionb7513

 

Here are four inversions of C7 drop 3 chords that you can apply to your jazz guitar studies:

 

C dominant 7 drop 3 chord chart

 

Drop 3 Dominant 7 Inversions – A-string Bass Note

When moving on to the next string set for drop 3 7th chords (with the lowest note on the 5th string), you don’t need to learn a new intervallic formula as those intervals remain the same on any string set.

Here are four inversions of that chord for you to learn, practice in 12 keys and apply to your favorite jazz standards.

 

C7 drop 3 inversions 2

 

Drop 2 Dominant 7 Inversions – A-string Bass Note

You can now move on to exploring drop 2 chords by learning how to build the intervals for each inversion.

 

Drop 2 7 Root Position15b73
Drop 2 7 1st Inversion3b715
Drop 2 7 2nd Inversion513b7
Drop 2 7 3rd Inversionb7351

 

Here are four inversions of a drop 2 C7 chord on the middle four strings that you can work in the practice room, as well as take to other keys as you move these shapes around the fretboard.

 

C7 drop 2 inversions

 

Drop 2 Dominant 7 Inversions – D-string Bass Note

Here are four drop 2 C7 chord shapes on the top four strings/

 

C dominant 7 drop 2 chord chart

 

Dominant Chords With Extensions

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.

 

Dominant 9 Chords

Interval structure = 1 3 5 b7 9

 

C9 chord chart

 

Dominant 13 Chords

Interval structure = 1 3 5 b7 (9) 13

 

C dominant 13 chords

 

7Sus4 Chords

Interval structure = 1 4 5 b7

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

 

Here are three common examples of 7sus4 chords:

 

C7sus4 Chords

 

9Sus4 Chords

Interval structure = 1 4 5 b7 9

 

C9sus4 chords

 

13Sus4 Chords

Interval structure = 1 4 5 b7 (9) 13

 

C13sus4 chords

 

Altered Dominant Chords

To bring even more tension to dominant chords, we can “alter” these tension notes, that means lower or raise them by a half tone.

 

Dominant 7b9

C7b9 chord chart

 

7b9 Sus 4

C7sus4b9 chord chart

 

Dominant 13b9 / Dominant 13#9

C13b9 chord chart
C13#9 chord chart

 

Dominant 7#9

C7#9 chord chart

 

Dominant 7#11

C7#11 chord chart

 

Dominant 7b13

C7b13 chord chart

 

Dominant 7 (b9,b13)

C7b9b13 chord chart

 

Altered – 7b5(b9)

C7 altered chord chart (C7b5b9)

 

Altered – 7b5(#9)

C7 altered chord chart (C7b5#9)

 

Altered – 7#5(b9)

C7 altered chord chart (C7#5b9)

 

Altered – 7#5(#9)

C7 altered chord chart (C7#5#9)

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.

 

Cmaj7Dm7Em7Fmaj7G7Am7Bm7b5
IIIIIIIVVVIVII
TonicSubdominant
(Supertonic)
Tonic
(Mediant)
SubdominantDominantTonic
(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 relaxation” 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 Along

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 neighbor 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 chords: 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?

 

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 that in jazz blues chord progressions, 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 eBooks.

 

Jazz Blues Guitar eBook Bundle

 

  • Lucas says:

    That answers perfectly my question. Thank you very much ! Would it be ok if I ask another question?

    • Dirk Laukens says:

      Sure Lucas, go ahead…

      • Lucas says:

        To which major scale does E phrygian dominant correspond to?

        • Dirk Laukens says:

          It doesn’t correspond to a major scale, but to a minor scale (the A minor harmonic scale).

          E Mixolydian corresponds to A major. So on a V I in A major (E7 to Amaj7), you play the E Mixolydian scale (which has the same notes as the A major scale, so you might as well think A major over the 2 chords instead of E Mixolydian over E7 and A major of Amaj7, to simplify things).

          E Phrygian dominant corresponds to A (harmonic) minor. So on a V i in A minor (E7 to Am7), you play the E Phrygian dominant scale.

  • Lucas says:

    Hi, does the sclae presented in the audio file towards the end of the audio track before reseolving to cmaj have a name by any chances?

    • Dirk Laukens says:

      Hey Lucas, it’s the C harmonic minor scale, aka G Phrygian dominant scale (http://www.jazzguitar.be/minor_blues_scales.html)

      • Lucas says:

        Thank you so much!

      • Lucas says:

        Out of curiosity, what does the “dominant” mean when talking about a mode? Is it the same as a dominant chord? (sorry if this is a silly question)

        • Dirk Laukens says:

          The reason a scale is called dominant is the same reason a chord is called dominant. It’s because both the scale and the chord have a tritone between the 3 and the b7. A tritone is an interval of 3 whole tones (B-F for example) and is the most unstable interval, an interval that wants to resolve.

          The Mixolydian scale is the dominant mode from the major scale. The Phrygian dominant scale is the dominant mode from the minor scale. Both scales are the 5th degree of their tonic scale: G Phrygian Dominant is the 5th degree of C harmonic minor, G Mixolydian is the 5th degree of the C major scale.

          I hope that answers your question.

      • Christian says:

        Thank you very much! Can i ask, why is the scale c harmonic minor, and not c mixolydian? Isn’t the rest in c major? Why is it that you can play c harmonic minor in c major?

        • Dirk Laukens says:

          Hi Christian, a dominant chord can resolve to a major chord or to a minor chord. When a dominant chord goes to a major chord, the most obvious scale to use is the Mixolydian scale. When a dominant chord goes to a minor chord, the most obvious scale to use is the Phrygian dominant scale, which is the 5th degree of C harmonic minor. In that instance, the harmonic minor scale is the starting point because we are in a minor key.

          • Christian says:

            Thank you very much for the help!

  • saanu michael says:

    This is so good. I have been playing for 17 years now. I must confessed this is incredible.

  • Al Brussich says:

    Dirk,
    In the first audio example, at the 5th measure G7(alt.)is shown. What is that? I see this called out in several other lessons but cannot find an explanation of what that chord should be. The one place I did find it showed several variations but nothing actually written as noted. Sorry, it’s a simple thing but I can’t find a simple explanation.
    Thanks. Al B.

    • Dirk Laukens says:

      Hi Al,

      Alt is the abbreviation of altered and can relate to a scale or a chord.
      The altered scale is a dominant scale with lowered (by half step) tensions.

      Altered scale = 1 b9 #9 3 b5 b13 b7

      An altered chord is a dominant chord that uses tensions out of the altered scale.

  • chordtone says:

    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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