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The Importance Of Dominant Chords

Updated: Apr 10

If you have played guitar for longer than 6 months you have probably come across dominant chords. You know the ones with a 7 next to the letter.

If this is confusing to you or you are looking for some tips in how to use them then this article is for you!

In this article we will discuss the following topics:

What Makes A Dominant Chord Special?

To understand what makes the dominant chord special we first must look into the formula of a dominant chord.

A dominant chord consists of a Root major 3rd 5th and flat 7th. To understand what this means you would apply this formula to your major scale intervals.

I fully recommend learning your major scale intervals before proceeding as that’s beyond the scope of this article.

What makes the dominant chord special is that relationship between the 3rd and the flat 7th.

There is an unresolved tension between these two notes that makes the listener anxious and wanting that sound to resolve.

This tension that is created is one of the more dissonant intervals, a flat 5th. What that chord wants to do is to resolve to the first chord due to the distance of the third being a semitone away from the root of the first chord.

You can literally reduce the dominant chord down to its 3rd and 7th and you’d still get the functional harmony, producing the sound and motion of a dominant chord.

This is called a perfect cadence. In which the 5th chord wants to resolves to the first chord. You often hear this in the amen chant in churches as a signifier that the end of the sermon has arrived.

It is also special due to this functional harmony that it can help indicate what key you are in due to that resolution.


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This is displayed in example 1 below:

The Importance Of Dominant Chords - Picture 1 | Grokit Guitar
The Importance Of Dominant Chords - Picture 1 | Grokit Guitar

We will use the standard 1 4 5 chord progression in C to demonstrate how we can use the information in this article, to show how useful dominant chords are to our chord progressions.

The Importance Of Dominant Chords - Join Beta Banner 1 | Grokit Guitar

Secondary Dominants What Are They?

Now we understand the nature of dominant chords and how they resolve into the first chord of a key.

What would happen if we took the chords in example 1 and made them all dominant chords?

Well, the obvious answer would be we would be creating a typical dominant blues 1 4 5 chord progression, but it actually goes deeper than that.

That’s where secondary dominants come into play!

Secondary dominants can be super useful for a few reasons. You can take any chord and force it to be dominant!

what this does, is it gives you more options as due to the functional harmony giving that movement to the first chord, it turns any chord as a springboard to a new key if you wanted to.

It’s a surefire way to have a new way to modulate (key change). Lets look at the previous example and adapt it with secondary dominants in example 2:

The Importance Of Dominant Chords - Picture 2 | Grokit Guitar
The Importance Of Dominant Chords - Picture 2 | Grokit Guitar

What we did was to make the first chord a dominant with a C7 the fourth chord a dominant with F7 and finally the 5th chord stays a dominant with the G7.

Now they are all dominants we can look at the keys each chord wants to resolve to.

With the C7 chord you can resolve to the key of F

The F7 can resolve into the key of B flat

And The G7 can resolve back to C

The reason why I used the word “can” in these contexts is that you don’t have to you can use secondary dominants in place of regular chord but still stick to the same key and tease a key change, which might spice up any melodies you may have in mind.

This is also why the blues as a genre can be very flexible in terms of what you can use to improvise over the chord progression and these options expand greatly when we get onto the topic of altered dominants.

Altered Dominants - Where The Crazy Scales Live!

Firstly, we have to answer the question what are altered dominants?

The answer to that is simple and complex;

Its simple in terms of “hey it’s a dominant chord with extensions of your choosing” and complex because each choice you make by adding those extensions and alterations on the 5th interval, determines which scale choice you should be making.

This is why this section has the title altered dominants where the crazy scales live.

If we alter our dominants from example 2 to altered dominants, we gain example 3 below:

The Importance Of Dominant Chords - Picture 3 | Grokit Guitar
The Importance Of Dominant Chords - Picture 3 | Grokit Guitar

Instead of C7 we now have C7b5.

Which indicates to use scales that include the flat 5 in their makeup a good scale over this chord would be the 4th mode of melodic minor, namely C Lydian Dominant with the intervallic structure being R 2 3 #4 5 6 flat 7.

The next chord is an F7#9 which lends it self to F Phrygian dominant, the 5th mode of harmonic minor.

The formula for that being R b2 3 4 5 flat 6 flat 7. The last chord which is now a G7b9, which lends itself to G mixolydian flat 9 the 5th mode of harmonic major.

The formula for that being R b2 3 4 5 6 flat 7.

An important thing to note is that any dominant chord can be treated as an altered dominant it just requires sensitivity to the context of what every other instrument is doing.

This is called super-imposition.

It allows you to make dominant chords have all these exotic sounds that you wouldn’t usually use, adding more colour to your improvisations and on the fly chord voicings.

One more thing to note is that with example 3 these scales chosen to use over these chords are but one choice as there can be several more choices and you will learn these as your vocabulary grows.

I hope this article demonstrates the importance of dominant chords and you have learnt how to use them in new an exciting ways.

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