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Blues and the Dominant Chord

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By John Lull

Longa 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 appearancesat local clubs, including Eli's Mile High Club, JJ's Blues Club, OldPrinceton Landing, Biscuits and Blues, Lou's, Half Moon Bay Brewing Co, theBoom Boom Room, and the Blue Lamp. Henow plays with the South City BluesBand* and is a guest artist in several other local bands. John currentlyliveson the coast south of San Francisco, California.

Thedominant chord is very important in all styles of music, but it is especiallyimportant in the blues. Considerthe most basic 12-bar blues progression:

|I7| I7| I7| I7|

| IV7 | IV7 | I7 | I7 |

|V7 | IV7 | I7 | I7 |

Note:[/I]The roman numeral refers to the chordroot in the key. So the I chord inthe key of C would be a C chord, the IV chord would be an F chord, and the Vchord would be a G chord. Likewise,I7 = C7, IV7 = F7, etc. The "7"denotes a dominant chord. So theabove progression in the key of C would be:

|C7 | C7 | C7 | C7 |

|F7 | F7 | C7 | C7 |

| G7| F7 | C7 | C7 |

Notethat every chord in this progression is a dominant chord.In some cases, the "I" chord is played as a major triad in the firstthree measures, but the b7 can still be added and used as a "blue" note whenimprovising. Other types of chords(primarily minor chords) are certainly used in the blues, especially in a jazzblues, and "minor blues" is based mostly on minor chords.But overall the dominant chord is the most common type of chord used whenplaying the blues. For this reasonit 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 scalesto get deeper into the harmony of a blues progression.

Dominant Chord and Scale Analysis[/B]


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

1 35 b7

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


Anotherway to arrive at a dominant chord is to start on the fifth tone of a major scaleand spell out a chord using every other tone of the scale.The C7 chord is contained[/I] in anF major scale, starting on C, the fifth tone in the F major scale:

Fmajor scale = F G A Bb C D E.

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

TheC7 chord is derived using every other tone (chord tones are underlined).The entire scale, spelled from the fifth tone of an F major scale, isalso 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 asa pool of notes to choose from when improvising.

Alsonote that the same scale, C mixolydian, can be derived from a C major scale, byflatting the seventh tone of a C major scale.In order to derive dominant chords and other types of chords, you mustknow all 12 major scales and chords. Thenyou 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 asfollows:

Dominantchord: Take a major seventhchord and flat the 7th:

Cmaj7:C E G B

C7:C E G Bb

Mixolydianscale: Take a major scale andflat the 7th:

Cmajor:C D E F G A B

Cmixolydian: C D E F G A Bb

Mixolydian"bebop" scale:

Thisscale is derived by adding the major 7th tone to the mixolydianscale. It is important to place the major 7th tone on anupbeat when using this scale. Themajor seventh tone is rather dissonant, so must be used as a passing tone.

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

Thecharacter of a dominant chord is defined by the major 3rd and minor 7thof the chord (E and Bb for a C7 chord). Theinterval between those tones is known as a "tritone" and is a verydistinctive sound. When improvisingkeep in mind the importance of the 3rd and 7th chordtones. They should be emphasized tohelp sound the harmony.

Inthe 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

Thereare 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 themboth ascending and descending. Thentry playing them from the different chord tones: the 3rd, 5th,& 7th. Try playingthe chord tones in random order, but use your ear while doing this to seek outwhat sounds best.

Onceyou've got the chord tones memorized and "under your fingers," work onmoving smoothly from one chord to the next.The smoothest transition is usually from one chord tone to the nextclosest 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 harmonybest. Take a look at the abovechords, 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 |

C7moves to F7 (in bar 5, sometimes also the second bar)

F7to C7 (bar 7)

C7to G7 (bar 9)

G7to F7 (bar 10)

F7to C7 (bar 11)

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

C7to F7: E to Eb

F7to C7: Eb to E

C7to G7: E to F

G7to F7: F to Eb

F7to C7: Eb to E

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

Playthrough a blues progression using only these three notes and see how smoothlyyou move from one chord to the next. Thistype of movement can be used as a horn line, especially on a slow blues.

Nowdo 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.

Thisis the principle of voice leading, moving stepwise or by half step from onechord tone to the next. Of courseall the other chord tones and extensions are available, but keep the voiceleading principle in mind when moving between chords.

DominantChords in all Keys

Learnall 12 dominant chords and practice playing them through blues progressions inall 12 keys. You can also work onthe 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 onechord, then descending on the next, around the cycle. Once you become very familiar and comfortable with the chordtones, you can add in various chromatic and scalar passing tones to add interestand help form melodies, riffs, and horn lines.

Pentatonic and Blues Scales

Basic Blues Chord Progressions
Created: October 22, 2006.
©2006, HarriRautiainen and respectiveauthors

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