Rock'n Roll Saxophone
BLUES AND THE DOMINANT CHORD
By John Lull
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.
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 |
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 |
| F7 | C7 | C7 |
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
dominant chord is a seventh chord with a major third and a minor (flatted)
seventh. Based on a major scale,
its formula would be:
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:
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.
major scale, starting on C = C D E F G A Bb
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.
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
chord: Take a major seventh
chord and flat the 7th:
Cmaj7: C E G B
C E G Bb
scale: Take a major scale and
flat the 7th:
C major: C D E F G A B
mixolydian: C D E F G A Bb
Mixolydian “bebop” scale:
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.
mixolydian bebop scale: C D E F G A Bb B
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.
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
G B D F
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.
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
consider the chord movement in a basic blues:
| C7 | C7 | C7 | C7 |
| F7 | F7 | C7 | C7 |
| G7 | F7 | 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)
to C7 (bar 11)
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
to C7: Eb to E
the following chord tones are used for each chord: C7 = E, F7 = Eb, G7 = F.
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.
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.
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.
Pentatonic and Blues Scales
Basic Blues Chord Progressions