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BLUES AND THE DOMINANT CHORD

John Lull

By John Lull

Long a part of the Oakland California Bay Area rhythm & blues scene, John Lull has played in numerous blues and R&B bands, including Drivin’ Wheel, Good Life Band, Third Street Blues Band, and Souled Out, with appearances at local clubs, including Eli’s Mile High Club, JJ’s Blues Club, Old Princeton Landing, Biscuits and Blues, Lou’s, Half Moon Bay Brewing Co, the Boom Boom Room, and the Blue Lamp. He now plays with the South City Blues Band* and is a guest artist in several other local bands. John currently lives on the coast south of San Francisco, California.

The dominant chord is very important in all styles of music, but it is especially important in the blues.  Consider the most basic 12-bar blues progression:

| I7  | I7  | I7  | I7  |

| IV7 | IV7 | I7 | I7 |

| V7 | IV7 | I7 | I7 |

Note: The roman numeral refers to the chord root in the key.  So the I chord in the key of C would be a C chord, the IV chord would be an F chord, and the V chord would be a G chord.  Likewise, I7 = C7, IV7 = F7, etc.  The “7” denotes a dominant chord.  So the above progression in the key of C would be:

| C7 | C7 | C7 | C7 |

| F7 | F7 | C7 | C7 |

| G7 | F7 | C7 | C7 |

Note that every chord in this progression is a dominant chord.  In some cases, the “I” chord is played as a major triad in the first three measures, but the b7 can still be added and used as a “blue” note when improvising.  Other types of chords (primarily minor chords) are certainly used in the blues, especially in a jazz blues, and “minor blues” is based mostly on minor chords.  But overall the dominant chord is the most common type of chord used when playing the blues.  For this reason it is crucial to learn to improvise on dominant chords in all 12 keys.  This is the first step in moving beyond the pentatonic and blues scales to get deeper into the harmony of a blues progression.

Dominant Chord and Scale Analysis

The dominant chord is a seventh chord with a major third and a minor (flatted) seventh.  Based on a major scale, its formula would be:

1 3 5 b7

If you start with any major scale and use this spelling, you’ll determine the chord tones for a dominant chord.  So a C7 chord (C is the root) would be spelled as follows:

C E G Bb

Another way to arrive at a dominant chord is to start on the fifth tone of a major scale and spell out a chord using every other tone of the scale.  The C7 chord is contained in an F major scale, starting on C, the fifth tone in the F major scale:

F major scale = F G A Bb C D E.

F major scale, starting on C = C D E F G A Bb

The C7 chord is derived using every other tone (chord tones are underlined).  The entire scale, spelled from the fifth tone of an F major scale, is also known as the mixolydian mode, or the fifth mode of a major scale.  The mixolydian scale “fits” over a dominant chord and can be used as a pool of notes to choose from when improvising.

Also note that the same scale, C mixolydian, can be derived from a C major scale, by flatting the seventh tone of a C major scale.  In order to derive dominant chords and other types of chords, you must know all 12 major scales and chords.  Then you can use the major scale or major chord as a frame of reference.  The rules for deriving a dominant chord and the mixolydian scale are as follows:

Dominant chord:  Take a major seventh chord and flat the 7th:

Cmaj7: C E G B

C7:       C E G Bb

Mixolydian scale:  Take a major scale and flat the 7th:

C major:          C D E F G A B

C mixolydian: C D E F G A Bb

Mixolydian “bebop” scale: 

This scale is derived by adding the major 7th tone to the mixolydian scale.  It is important to place the major 7th tone on an upbeat when using this scale.  The major seventh tone is rather dissonant, so must be used as a passing tone.

C mixolydian bebop scale: C D E F G A Bb B

The character of a dominant chord is defined by the major 3rd and minor 7th of the chord (E and Bb for a C7 chord).  The interval between those tones is known as a “tritone” and is a very distinctive sound.  When improvising keep in mind the importance of the 3rd and 7th chord tones.  They should be emphasized to help sound the harmony.

In the blues progression above there are three dominant chords: C7 (the I7 chord), F7 (the IV7 chord), and G7 (the V7 chord).  These chords are spelled as follows:

C7: C E G Bb

F7: F A C Eb

G7: G B D F

There are many exercises you can practice to internalize these chords.  As a start, you can play them as arpeggios, one chord tone to a beat, through the 12 bar blues.  Play them both ascending and descending.  Then try playing them from the different chord tones: the 3rd, 5th, & 7th.  Try playing the chord tones in random order, but use your ear while doing this to seek out what sounds best.

Once you’ve got the chord tones memorized and “under your fingers,” work on moving smoothly from one chord to the next.  The smoothest transition is usually from one chord tone to the next closest chord tone (either a half step or full step) in the next chord.  And remember, the third or seventh of each chord will sound the harmony best.  Take a look at the above chords, using only thirds and sevenths:

C7:  E, Bb

F7:  A, Eb

G7:  B, F

Now, consider the chord movement in a basic blues:

| C7 | C7 | C7 | C7 |

| F7 | F7 | C7 | C7 |

| G7 | F7 | C7 | C7 |

C7 moves to F7 (in bar 5, sometimes also the second bar)

F7 to C7 (bar 7)

C7 to G7 (bar 9)

G7 to F7 (bar 10)

F7 to C7 (bar 11)

Now look at the 3rd and 7th chord tones for each chord, and find the closest note when moving between chords.  Starting on the 3rd of the C7 chord, here are the chords and corresponding notes to use for smooth voice leading:

C7 to F7:  E to Eb

F7 to C7:  Eb to E

C7 to G7:  E to F

G7 to F7:   F to Eb

F7 to C7:  Eb to E

Notice the following chord tones are used for each chord: C7 = E, F7 = Eb, G7 = F.

Play through a blues progression using only these three notes and see how smoothly you move from one chord to the next.  This type of movement can be used as a horn line, especially on a slow blues.

Now do the same thing starting with the 7th of the C7 chord.  The chord tones used will be as follows: C7 = Bb, F7 = A, G7 = B.

This is the principle of voice leading, moving stepwise or by half step from one chord tone to the next.  Of course all the other chord tones and extensions are available, but keep the voice leading principle in mind when moving between chords.

Dominant Chords in all Keys

Learn all 12 dominant chords and practice playing them through blues progressions in all 12 keys.  You can also work on the dominant chords by practicing them moving through the circle of 4ths:  C F Bb Eb Ab Db F# B E A D G.  One good exercise is to play the chords as arpeggios, ascending on one chord, then descending on the next, around the cycle. Once you become very familiar and comfortable with the chord tones, you can add in various chromatic and scalar passing tones to add interest and help form melodies, riffs, and horn lines.


prev Pentatonic and Blues Scales



nextBasic Blues Chord Progressions

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Created: October 22, 2006.
© 2006, Harri Rautiainen and respective authors
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