Harmony - Everything You Wanted to Know About Dominant Chords

Published December 17th, 2002. © Chris Juergensen/chrisjuergensen.com. All Rights Reserved.

This lesson has been revised and published in THE INFINITE GUITAR. Info >>>

Dominant 7th. chords - Dominant chords can be difficult to understand. It should help to remember that chords are derived from scales, so if you know what scale the chords come from, you will understand how the chords function and how to improvise over them. Basically dominant chords are derived from from four different scales: the mixolydian scale, the altered scale, the lydian dominant scale and the half/whole diminished scale. There are other scales in which dominant chords can be made, such as the whole tone scale or the phrygian scale. There are way to many chord voicings to include in one lesson so please try to make your own chords using the concepts you learn here.

Chords from the mixolydian scale

These chords are all derived from the G mixolydian scale (C major). The mixolydian scale contains the same notes as the major scale with the addition of the lowered seventh replacing the major seventh. The plain unaltered chords from this scale, although often resolving to a C major chord, can go anywhere without buggin' anyone. Chords derived from the mixolydian scale; G7, G7sus, G9, G9sus, G13, G13sus.

The mixolydian scale = 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, b7


Chords from the altered scale

The following dominant chords are all derived from the G altered scale (Ab melodic minor) The altered scale contains both the lowered and raised fifth plus both the lowered and raised ninth making it an easy scale to apply to dominant chords with altered 5ths. and/or 9ths. These chords generally resolve to a C major chord but they don't have to. With good voice leading they can go other places. Try to keep in mind, the altered scale does not contain a thirteenth, so any dominant chord containing a thirteenth in addition to lowered 5th and/or altered 9ths would be better approached by using the half/whole diminished scale. Some musicians call the #5 a b13 and the b5 a #11 but no matter what you call them they are the same things. Some other chords you might run into that come from the altered scale are; G7b5, G7#5, G7b9, G7#9, G7(#5,#9), G7(#5,b9), G7(b5,#9), G7(b5,b9), G7(b9,#9), G7(b5,#5), basically any 7th. chord with any combination of lowered or raised 5ths or 9ths. Remember: no natural 9ths, 5ths or 13ths.

(The altered scale = 1, b9, #9, 3, b5, #5, b7)

Chords from the half/whole diminished scale

The following next group of chords are all derived from the eight note G half/whole diminished scale (1/2 step, whole step starting on G). The half/whole diminished scale contains the raised 11th. plus both the lowered and raised 9th. and also includes the 13th. These chords, like the altered scale, generally resolve to a C major chord but they don't have to. With good voice leading they also can go other places. The thing to remember about this scale is the fact that it contains the 13th and has a natural fifth. Any 7th. chord with a #5 in its name didn't come from this scale. The #11 can also be thought of as a b5. The chords from this scale: G7, G7(#11), G7b5, G7b9, G7#9, G13, G13(b9), G13(#9), G13(b5), G13(#11).

(The half/whole diminished scale= 1, b9, #9, 3, #11, 5, 13, b7)

Chords from the phrygian scale

The G phrygian scale (Eb major). This is where the whole thing gets a little gray. You see, the minor 3rd. in any minor family scale, can also be thought of as the #9th in a dominant chord?!?!?!?! For this reason sometimes you can get chords like the ones below. This chord comes from the G phrygian scale (Eb major scale). The already lowered 9th. of the phrygian scale functions as the, duh, b9th. in the chord, while the b3rd is probably functioning like a #9th. Anyways, the chord has a suspended 4th so the #9th (b3rd) doesn't bug your ears when using it to improvise over the chord. Check out Wayne Shorter's Ana Maria and Herbie Hancock's Dolphin Dance to hear the exotic effect produced by this chord.

(The phrygian scale = 1, b9, #9, 4, 5, b6, b7)

Chords from the lydian dominant scale

The next scale to discuss is the G lydian dominant scale (D melodic minor). This scale is about as close as you can get to the mixolydian scale with the exception of the raised 11th. The chords you get are almost the same except rather than a 7sus chord you'll get a 7#11 chord (guitar players usually play this chord the exact same as we would a 7b5 chord). The important thing to remember about this chord is that it tends to resolve a half step down to the chord a half step below itself. Example: Abmin7-G7#11-Gbmaj7. Chords you can make; G7, G9, G7#11, G13. Remember; no sus chords.

(The lydian dominant scale = 1, 2, 3, #4, 5, 6, b7)

Chords from the whole tone scale

The whole tone scale is another scale that you have to keep in mind when dealing with chords. When you harmonize chords from this scale, you will find a G7(#5) chord just like the altered scale but when you get to the ninth you will find, unlike the altered scale, that it is natural. Therefore you can create some weird chords like: G9(b5) or a G9(#5). Granted you will almost never run into one of these chords on a gig but if you did, you'll know where they came from. A G9(#5) chord is one of the weirdest sounding things you will ever hear but give it a try and let me know whet you think! Point to remember about chords from this scale; Altered fifths and an unaltered ninth.

(The whole tone scale = 1, 2, 3, b5, #5, b7)

Make your own dominant chords

Use the diagram below to make any dominant chord you want. A few rules to keep in mind: Generally major 3rds and 4ths don't usually end up in the same chords. If you keep the major third in the chord you should either leave out the 4th or raise it a half step making it into a #11th. If you want the unaltered 4th in the chord, leave out the 3rd. This will turn the chord into a sus chord. Last but not least: Any rule can be broken with good voicings and voice leading. A long time ago I was jammin' with jazz guitar legend Joe Diorio and he played some kind of altered chord but he left in the natural 4th. on the fifth string, right between the root on the sixth and b7th on the fourth string. I asked him about it and his answer was; "It don't bug me and If it don't bug me, it's ok".

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