What’s the most important chord progression that you need to know as a musician? Well that’s a good question…In the past we’ve explored some common chord relationships that you’ll encounter as an improviser, but there is one chord relationship that sticks out above the rest. Any guesses?
It’s V to I.
The Dominant/Tonic relationship is at the foundation of Western music from Baroque concertos, to Mahler symphonies, to Louis Armstrong, to Coltrane, to the Beatles.
In nearly every standard that you’ll practice or perform as an improviser, you’re going to encounter the V7 to I chord relationship.
The Blues, Rhythm Changes, Stella by Starlight, Giant Steps, All the Things You Are…it all goes back to V7 resolving to I. If you haven’t already worked on this dominant to tonic relationship, now is the time to get started.
For many players, the most common way to access the Dominant 7th to Tonic sound is with the Mixolydian mode:
or a Bebop Scale:
The other common rule that many players also fall back on for V7 to I is the natural voice-leading motion between these two chords. Coming from an analytical perspective, the voice leading “rules” of the V to I relationship are resolving the 7th of the V chord to the 3rd of the I chord:
and the 3rd of V7 to the root of the I chord:
This is a fine place to start conceptualizing these chords in your mind and your ear, however these two scales and voice leading rules are just the beginning. To really start improvise over a Dominant 7 sound you need to go even further.
Learn the language
The next logical step after learning and ingraining these scales and voice leading rules is transcribing. Remember, a scale within itself is not music, however a scale can serve as the building blocks in constructing a musical line.
We’re talking about speaking the jazz language.
Checking out the blues is a great place to start gathering some language – it’s 12 bars centered around a V7 sound. With transcribed language, you’ll bridge the gap between playing scales & chord tones and actually creating musical phrases in real time.
For example, check out Freddie Hubbard’s solo on Hubtones:
At :48 seconds into the video you hear this line:
In terms of theory, the majority of the notes in this line are all from the G7 bebop scale, however in Freddie’s solo you don’t hear scales, you hear music.
The line has shape and forward motion from one sound to the next, not a static scale devoid of any musicality. Herein lies the difference between improvising with scales and musical language.
The goal of improvising is to create musical phrases that communicate with the listener.
You need to turn those scales, instrumental techniques, and theory knowledge into a musical language, into music that people actually want to listen to. To do this you must spend a lot of time transcribing and developing your own language over common chords and progressions.
But what is the next step after you’ve gathered some basic V7 language?
The next step is making those lines your own by altering the rhythm, intervals, articulation, and in this case, the harmonic content…
10 Dominant 7th Alterations
At the heart of the dominant/tonic relationship is tension and release – the movement from conflict and uncertainty to eventual musical resolution. The V7 chord is full of unlimited possibility.
As you craft your solo, there is a spectrum of dissonance that you can manipulate over this chord movement depending on your harmonic approach. Some altered notes will be mildly dissonant, while others will clash intensely with the harmony and beg for resolution.
There are many ways that you can alter the V7 sound to create more dissonance and accentuate the eventual melodic and harmonic resolution to the tonic. Below we’ll explore 10 options that you can use over V7 chords.
With each of the harmonic alterations that we’ll cover, remember that each one must be approached as musical language, not as a music theory exercise…
1) V7 b9
One of the easiest ways to alter a dominant chord is to utilize the b9 sound. This one altered note adds a touch more dissonance that will pull the V7 toward the tonic.
The b9 of V7 naturally resolves to the 5th scale degree of the I chord:
A skeleton of melodic movement containing this altered 9th would look like this:
Take a listen to a few examples of this altered note in action. Let’s start with the melody of Donna Lee:
In the 12th and 16th bars of the melody the b9 is accentuated on the V7 chord and resolved in the next bar. Now check out Clifford Brown’s solo on Jordu:
The first note he plays on the bridge is a b9 (1:24 in the video). Again the b9 is used on the dominant sound as a tension note that leads to resolution.
In both cases this b9 wants to resolve downward, eventually arriving at the 3rd of the following chord. This altered note has a unique sound that you need to learn how to manipulate in your improvising.
Get the sound of this note in your ear, experiment with it in the practice room, and use it in your solos.
2) V7 #9
Next explore the sound of the #9. The #9 naturally resolves up to the Major 7 of the I chord:
The #9 and b9 are also often paired together on a V7 chord as shown below:
Keep in mind that the #9 is also the minor 3rd, so explore this relationship by switching back and forth by half-step between these two chord tones:
Check out this article for more ideas on the V7 #9 chord and work on incorporating this sound on your approach to dominant chords.
The #11 of the V7 chord resolves to root of tonic:
It’s important to make a distinction between a V7#11 and a V7b5 chord. On a V7#11, the #11 refers to the upper structure of the chord, so the 5th is natural, however on a V7b5 chord the 5th is flat.
Here are a few ways to access this V7#11 sound:
A Maj triad over G7:
(Major triad a whole step above the tonic)
D melodic minor over G7:
This ii-7 over the V7 can also be approached with ii-7 V7 language.
F Major 7 #5 over G7:
These 3 ideas are all essentially the same sound (V7#11), just approached from a different mindset. One is a melodic minor sound, one is a Major 7 #5 sound, and one is a major triad. Depending on your language and technique each will produce different possibilities.
4) V7 b13/ #5
The b13 resolves up to the 3rd and down to the 9th:
To highlight the b13 or #5 you can use a descending Augmented triad:
Or you can employ a whole tone scale (#4, #5):
Listen to how Monk uses the whole tone scale over the V7 chord on his blues, Blue Monk (1:03-1:04):
5) Tritone Substitution, V7b5b9
One common bebop reharmonization technique over the V7 sound was the tritone substitution. For example the tritone substitution of a Db Major triad over a G7 chord:
This sound highlights the b5 and b9 of the V7 chord:
The b5 has a distinctive sound when it used over a V7 chord, it’s dissonant and immediately grabs your ear. For example listen to the melody of Tune Up:
The melody emphasizes the tritone on the V7 chords. Focus on the third note of the melody: the b5 (tritone) resolving to the 5th of the V chord and ultimately to the 3rd of the I chord.
6) Altered Scale/ Melodic Minor
The altered scale utilizes all of the altered notes (b9, #9, #11, and b13):
This scale is sometimes referred to as a diminished whole-tone scale (it’s part half-whole diminished scale and part whole-tone scale) and is also the melodic minor scale starting on the 7th note (look at the G altered scale above as an Ab melodic minor scale).
Take a listen to the video below, at 4:54 Freddie begins his solo by creatively using the altered scale:
You can also take a look at this article on 4 ways to use the melodic minor scale.
7) Half-Whole Diminished (octatonic) scale
The octatonic scale is an eight note scale, for improvisers this generally refers to the half-whole diminished scale (an 8 note scale alternating between half-steps and whole-steps):
This scale emphasizes the #9, b9, and the #11.
Take a look at how Freddie Hubbard uses this scale in his solo on Birdlike (2:57):
He utilizes the half-whole diminished scale over the V7 sound to resolve to the 5th of the tonic. In doing so he creates more tension over the V7 sound while grabbing the listener’s attention and emphasizing the resolution.
8) Diatonic triad pairings
Another option you can use over the V7 chord are diatonic triads. For instance alternating between a G triad and an F triad over a G7 chord:
Check out this article for more on Using Triads in Your Solo.
Listen to the melody of Passion Dance and the opening to McCoy’s solo for an example of this in action:
This approach will give you a Dominant sus sound (accenting the 4th scale degree). For more on sus chords take a look at this article, How to Improvise Over Sus Chords.
9) Non-diatonic (chromatic) triads
Aside from the diatonic triads that naturally occur within the key, you can also utilize the non-diatonic triads that occur outside of each key center.
Each triad has a varying level of dissonance depending on its relationship to the root.
Major 6th Triad (b9)
An E Major triad over a G7:
Major b6 Triad (#9, b13)
An Eb Major triad over a G7:
Minor b2 Triad (b9,b13)
An Ab minor triad over a G7:
Tritone substitution b5 Triad (b9, #11)
A Db Major triad over G7:
Major 3rd Triad (#5, Maj. 7)
A B Major triad over G7:
Check out how Freddie Hubbard employs both the #5 and major 7th on the tune Birdlike (2:32 in the video):
Each of these triads have their own unique sound and method of resolution. Strive to familiarize your ear with the sound of each of these “dissonant” or non-diatonic triads.
10) Diminished (minor 3rd) relationships
Finally explore the use of the diminished relationship over the V7 sound.
To begin play Major triads separated by minor 3rds starting on the tonic of the dominant chord, for G7:
An example of a line using this diminished relationship is below, a whole step below each diminished chord tone:
Listen to how John Coltrane uses this pattern in his solo on Moment’s Notice (2:09 – 2:11):
There are a number of different patterns that you can play using the sequence of diminished thirds.
Besides triads or scale patterns, you can also explore different intervals from each of the Diminished chord tones (4ths, 5ths, etc.)
Take a listen to Mulgrew Miller’s solo in the video below, specifically around 2:00 – 2:05 mins:
He is using the minor 3rd relationship and descend in 4ths from each root note.
Or check out Michael Brecker’s solo on My One and Only Love. In just the opening few minutes you’ll hear multiple uses of this diminished 3rd relationship over the V7 sound:
Connecting theory and language
The main thing to keep in mind with these 10 options is that they are just theory devices.
To employ these sounds in your solos they must be musical – they need time, articulation, rhythmic variety, sound, and a logical place within your phrase. The way that you achieve all of this is through listening, transcribing and applying these harmonic concepts musically in your own solos.
Once you have the musical and stylistic foundation of transcribing under your belt, it becomes much easier to incorporate new theory concepts into your playing.
Remember, you’re not reinventing the wheel or forcing a foreign object into your playing, you’re just highlighting a different harmonic flavor within your lines.
The best players seamlessly blend these concepts in and out of their lines as they play. It’s not a cut and paste approach, rather one that is effortless and musical – another harmonic option that adds tension and interest to the age old tonic/dominant relationship.
However this is not an overnight process, it takes hours of practice and trial and error on the bandstand to make these concepts effortless. You must get the sound of each of these V7 alterations in your ear and ingrain them into your fingers.
Begin by going to the piano and playing each of these altered notes over a simple V7 voicing.
Then in your practice take a piece of language that you’ve already transcribed, a ii-V-I line or a chorus of blues, and experiment by altering the V7 chord using the techniques shown above.
In essence you’ll be using these altered dominant options as an extension of the language that you already know.
With this method you’ll quickly add interest to that familiar language, you’ll begin to create new lines of your own, and most importantly, you won’t be stuck with the usual mixolydian modes or bebop scales, you’ll truly have an entire spectrum of sound at your disposal!