Dominant chords are everywhere in music, and some genres use them more than others. You might have seen a funny little chord with a “7” beside it. That is what we are dealing with here. Being able to access these chords in different places on the fretboard is crucial for any guitar player in the modern age.
In this article, we will provide you with different shapes around the fretboard and show you how you can access specific dominant chords from anywhere. We will discuss some of the theory involved and give you different shapes on different sets of strings. If you are not familiar with the notes on the fretboard, I would recommend working on that first before tackling this. It will help you find your desired chords faster! This article also assumes you are able to read basic chord charts.
Let’s start with some basic chord construction. To understand this, we will have to discuss intervals first. Intervals are simply the distance between two given notes. A lowercase “m” is minor, uppercase is major, and a “P” is what’s known as a perfect interval. These are listed in half steps. A half step is simply one fret in distance.
m2 = 1
M2 = 2
m3 = 3
M3 = 4
P4 = 5
Tritone = 6
P5 = 7
m6 = 8
M6 = 9
m7 = 10
M7 = 11
P8 = 12
A dominant chord – also known as a 7th chord – is simply a major triad with a m7 from the root added. To build a major triad, you stack a M3 with a m3 on top.
For example, C E G. From C to E we have a M3, and from E to G, we have a m3. That gives us a C major chord.
To make this chord a dominant 7th chord, all you have to do is add the note a m7 from the root: Bb. Therefore, C7 is C E G Bb.
Another way of thinking about this is by looking at it within the confines of a key signature. The “dominant” chord in a regular major key is built off the 5th note of the scale. Since we already started with C7, let’s use that. C7 is the V of F major.
F major = F G A Bb C D E
To build a dominant chord in the key of F, we start from C and use every other note until we reach its 7th.
C D E F G A Bb = C7 (C E G Bb)
In functional harmony, this chord is typically used to set up the tonic or I chord. That is beyond the scope of this lesson but it bears mentioning for your own further research.
Now let’s get into some chord shapes. We will start with some common shapes you have probably already seen before.
These shapes are very common for guitar players as they are very easy to grab. They are in root position which means that the bass note is the root of the chord. Let’s get into some more shapes in different inversions on different sets of strings.
As guitar players, we should be able to access these chords on any set of strings, but it is common for us to want to use the top four. Ergonomically, shapes on these strings tend to be easy to grab and they are in a nice range for accompanying another player.
These shapes are in different inversions. All this means is that the lowest note in the shape is a different note from the chord itself.
Root position – Root is the bass note
1st inversion – 3rd is the bass note
2nd inversion – 5th is the bass note
3rd inversion – 7th is the bass note
I have made it a point to highlight where the root is in each shape. This is why it is important to know the fretboard. If you know where every note is, you can find your desired chord with ease.
These are a bit more difficult to grab, so you might find that some of these are not very useful. Still, it is good to know how they lay out on the guitar and then you can decide whether or not you want to use them.
These tend to be a little too low for most accompaniment purposes, but sometimes it can sound interesting to get down there and create some variety. Once again, some of the shapes don’t lay out as nicely down here, but it is important to know them.
Next, we have what are known as shell voicings. These are known as shell voicings because they only use the root, 3rd, and 7th of the chord. Shell voicings tend to be a favorite for many big band guitar players and arrangers.
This is because they leave plenty of room for the arranger to explore different possibilities such as a raised or lowered 5th as well as color tones like 9ths, 11ths, and 13ths. Additionally, the simplicity of these shapes leaves several strings available for adding those colors in your own comping and solo guitar arrangements.
Here they are from the 5th string.
And here are the same shapes only these are played from the 6th string.
I invite you to explore all of the applications that dominant chords can offer. In modern music, they really do serve a purpose more than simply dominant to tonic resolution. One great example of this is a standard blues where just about every chord can be played as a dominant 7th chord, including the tonic. Further, find out how you can color each of these shapes. There are so many options for upper extensions that you can use to get some really rich colors. I hope this guide has helped expand your knowledge of dominant chords for guitar.
About the Author
Marc-Andre Seguin is the webmaster, “brains behind” and teacher on JazzGuitarLessons.net, the #1 online resource for learning how to play jazz guitar. He draws from his experience both as a professional jazz guitarist and professional jazz teacher to help thousands of people from all around the world learn the craft of jazz guitar.