Today we are going to cover how to add some flavor to your chords and compositions using Altered Dominant chords, namely those that alter the 5 of the chord. These chords can be great for adding tension to your music and are often exploited by Jazz players for adding more harmonic dissonance and density. If you have heard of these types of chords but never knew exactly how they were constructed then this tutorial is for you. We will cover everything from basic structure to different voicings of the chords and try to apply them in a creative context. If you want to alter your progressions on the way back to the tonic then read on!
What is a Alt Dom Chord?
In order to effectively use a Alt Dom chord we first need to understand what exactly a Alt Dom chord is. An Alt Dom chord is simply a dominant chord (centered around the 5th of the key) but with a minor 7th on top (hereby creating a Dominant 7th) and the 5th and 9th of the chord either lowered or raised by one half step. This in turn gives us either a b5 or a #5 instead of a natural 5 as well as a b9 and #9.
However for our purposes we will only concern ourselves with the 5th for now. Remember also to always include the minor 7th of the chord when working with Alt Dom chords. Finally, do not confuse the 5th degree of the chord with the 5th degree of the scale.
The 5th scale degree of the C Major scale is a G. If we were to play an G7b5 in the key of C major we would have to flatten the 5th, a D in this case, and replace it with a Db. Notice, how the G is the 5th of the key and D is the 5th of the chord? If you are still having issues visualizing this concept here is a written out example...
Remember, always go to the 5th of the chord you are playing no matter what key you are in. If it says C7#5 then your 5th is G#, if it says Bb7b5 then your 5th is Fb. End of Story. Remember that there is no major or minor in this case since these are dominant chords. However you could resolve to either a minor or a major chord after the fact if you so wished.
When contending with inversions of any chord the rules always seem to change ever so slightly depending on the type of chord and the Alt Dom chords are no different. With 7ths we had how to voice them, with 6ths and Sus we had to be careful how we interpreted our inversions, and with Alt Doms we actually do not have too many traps to be aware of however it is still good to go over the rules anyways. Let's take a look at what the quirks of inverted Alt 5 chords are...
As we have discussed in the previous articles, an inversion is simply a reorganizing of the notes of a chord so that the root is no longer in the bottom of the chord. Which note is in the bottom of the chord will then determine which inversion of the chord we are using. Since Alt Dom chords have 4 notes, we can only have 4 different voicings, root position, 1st inversion, 2nd inversion, and 3rd inversion. So if a C7#5 has the notes C,E,G#,Bb in root position, then E,G#,Bb,C will give us a 1st inversion. Finally we will have G#,Bb,C,E for 2nd inversion and Bb,C,E,G# for our 3rd inversion.
What is nice about Dominant chords is that unlike the chords in the previous tutorials, the inversions do not imply different types of similar chords. With the Sus chords we could shift around which chord and Sus we were using, Alt Dom chords cannot do this. While you theoretically could come up crazy names like a Emaj#4#5 for a first inversion C7#5, you really are not implying any other chord other than an Alt Dom chord.
Expanding Alt Dom Chord
Thankfully with Alt Dom chords, extending them to have more notes and have a richer sound is very easy and is almost required. Traditionally if you wanted to alter a Dominant chord, you will alter not only the the 5th of the chord but 9th of the chord as well. Another way to think of this is to take a make your Dominant 7 chord a Dominant 9 chord and alter the 5th and 9th. Let's look at an example...
A C9 is C,E,G,Bb,D which of course is our base Dominant 9. If we were to alter that chord to have a b5 and a #9 then we would have C,E,Gb,Bb, D#; this chord would then be represented as C7b5#9. The reason we do not refer to it as a C9b5#9 is because that would imply a natural 9 at the same time as a #9. Rule of thumb is if you have no alterations then refer to the chord as a Dominant 9 (C9 for example), if however you do have an altered 9 then refer to it as a Dominant 7 with the altered 9 added on top(C7#9 or C7b9). Remember also that it is fairly normal to alter both the 5th and 9th of the chord.
Finally here is one more idea for expanding your Alt Dom chords, try using both the b5 and #5 at the same time! This is not always a commonly used technique but it has its uses especially if you want to add some real density to your chords. You will often see this done with the #9 and b9 as well. Here are some examples to listen to of the Altered Dominant 9ths using both raised and lowered 5ths and 9ths...
Using Alt Dom Chords
Now that we have a solid grasp of the fundamentals of Alt Dom chords we can finally start to apply our knowledge. If you have noticed already, Alt Dom chords have a very similar feeling to a regular Dominant chord but with an even more jarring quality. These are dirty chords that want to move and there is no other real way to put it. They are designed for high tension that (hopefully) will have a greater feeling of resolution followed after. Of course if you wish to have a more open feeling to the chords then spacing the notes further away from each other would give you that effect.
To stir some musical creativity here is an example of some basic chords I worked out and then expanded into something more. I have included which chords I am using and what inversion they are. Keep in mind this is not the proper way to notate these inversions; it is simply an easier to use reference. Finally I kept the chords in closed position for simplicity's sake. You could experiment with different more open voicing if you wanted a wider range of sound.
That about covers the basics for Alt Dom chords my friends. Experiment with different progressions and variations of the chords to what kind of tension works best for you. Remember that the any Dominant chord wants to resolve to the a tonic but maybe you will keep suspending that resolution to add even more tension. With these new-found chords what will you alter? What will you Dominate? Thanks for reading!