4 Essential Dominant Chords & Scales for Jazz

by | Jazz Theory

Transcribed from video:

Many students starting out in jazz often ask me what kind of dominant chord and scale to use in different progressions. There are so many possibilities, but how do we know which one is right? Well, the study of functional harmony provides a logical system to determine which dominant to use according to its placement in the context of any progression. However,  in this lesson I am going to minimize the complexity of having to undertake a detailed study of jazz harmony, and give you simple pointers to determine under which circumstances to employ each one of those different dominant chords and scales.

Today I want to talk about dominant chords and scales. So many of them…Mixolydian, Super Locrian, Lydian Dominant, Phrygian Dominant…and there are more! How do you know which one and when to use it? To answer that question, let’s examine each one of them and I will explain as well as give you a demonstration of how they resolve within a chord progression. And I just mentioned the key word in understanding this…“resolve”………  It turns out that dominants are the most unstable chord structures within a tonality. They are characterized by their 3 and b7 which when played together form an interval of an augmented 4th, also known as a tritone because it divides the 8ve in half. This so called tritone has a need to resolve or progress to a more stable chord. If not, the effect is like that of starting a sentence and ending it on a comma. It leaves you hanging! You need a conclusion. You see, a resolution chord is like the period in a harmonic progression.


Mixolydian Scale & Related Dominant 7 Chords

So let’s start with the most common dominant type. The diatonic V7 chord from a major tonality. Its formula: 1 – 3 – 5 -b7. It is extracted from the mixolydian mode and its available upper extensions are the 9 and 13. It’s tendency is to resolve a perfect 5th down to a major chord.

Mixolydian Scale & related Dominant 7 Chord


Super Locrian Scale & Related Dominant 7 Chords

Unlike a major tonality, a minor tonality primarily uses the altered dominant chord which is extracted from the super-locrian mode. And let me add that minor tonalities employ dominants and chords in general, from the natural minor, harmonic minor and melodic minor.

The super locrian is a mode of the melodic minor. The basic 7th chord derived from it consists of 1-3-#5-b7. The available upper extensions are all altered, hence its name. We have 2 available 9ths…a b9 and #9, also a #11, and the #5 in the fundamental 7th chord is often viewed as a b13.

This is the richest dominant in terms of its available upper extensions. Furthermore, all of the notes in the super locrian can be included in the chord. Lucky for pianists! Unfortunately for us guitarists, we are limited physically in terms of how many notes we can play. Either way, jazz musicians love this dominant and I would venture to say that of all the dominant varieties, it is probably the most used.

For a more detailed study on altered dominants please be sure to watch my video lesson titled “How to use the Altered Dominant Chord and Scale “.

Altered Scale & related Dominant 7 Chord


Lydian b7 Scale & Related Dominant 7 Chords

Another melodic minor mode is the Lydian b7. And the basic dominant 7th chord that is derived from this scale is comprised of 1-3-5-b7. The upper extensions are 9, #11 and 13. So this is identical to the mixolydian except that it has a #4 which is normally used in the chord instead of the 5th.

Contrary to what some believe, both the 5th and the #11 can be included in the chord as I will show you in a moment. I want to add that this chord is often used as a tritone substitute of the altered chord and because of this reason it has a tendency to resolve a half step down instead of a perfect 5th down.

Lydian b7 Scale & related Dominant 7 Chord


Phrygian Dominant Scale & Related Dominant 7 Chords

This dominant is seldom used and not that common but definitely has its place. It is the 5th mode or V7 from the harmonic minor. The fundamental dominant 7th chord that is extracted from this scale is identical to the Mixolydian and Lydian Dominant, that is 1-3-5-b7. So this is what makes picking the right dominant chord in any given context so confusing.

Except for the fundamental 7th chord derived from the super locrian, which has a #5 or b13, you can use a simple dominant 7th chord with no upper extensions in any situation. But that’s not the way we do it in jazz. We want to take advantage of the additional color tones available for each dominant to portray a richer harmonic landscape. Having said that, the only available upper extension for the phrygian dominant is the b9.

This scale can be understood as a mixolydian with a b2 and b6. It can be used whenever we have a dom7b9. So in conclusion, if there is no b6 in the melody, the phrygian dominant can work as an alternative to the altered dominant both in terms of its chord and scale. Again the reason it is not used that much is because it is lacking in its upper extension department.

Phrygian Dominant Scale & related Dom 7 Chord

There are a couple of additional dominant types I have not covered here, such as those related to the symmetrical diminished, but that will have to wait for its own dedicated video. What I’d like to do next is play a chord progression employing all the dominant scales I have covered here so you can hear how they contrast in color. Now, what is the unique chord progression that we normally play over in jazz that can consist entirely of dominants? ……The Blues! And what I am going to do in the first chorus before i improvise, is to play all the scales corresponding to each dominant type in the progression. (See last portion of video)


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