How To Use Secondary Dominants

Turn a Boring Chord Progression into a Masterpiece

In this tutorial, we're going to learn a useful composing trick that will make your tunes more interesting and fun: secondary dominants! If you are tired of playing always the same, boring chord progressions, adding secondary dominants will open up a world of new options. So without further ado, let's get started!

What is A Dominant Chord

We already have talked abundantly about chord degrees and their function, so here's a quick recap just to be sure we are on the same page:

DegreeRoleChord7th Chord
1TonicCmajCmaj7
2SupertonicDminDmin7
3MediantEminEmin7
4SubdominantFmajFmaj7
5DominantGmajG7
6SubmediantAminAmin7
7Leading ToneBdimBmin7b5

As you can see on the table above, the dominant chord is the 5th chord in the scale. You simply count 5 from the tonic and you'll get its dominant chord.

The particular and unique role of the dominant chord is that it wants desperately to return to the tonic. For example, in the key of C, if you play a G7, you'll perceive a great tension that will be dissolved only if you play a C, the tonic of the key.

An analogy could be the force of gravity that pulls everything to the ground. In our case, the tonic is the ground.

Here below a quick example to help you internalize the dominant effect (I've included the tabs so that you can try it on your guitar):

C F G7 chord progression

Notice the tension created by the dominant chord (G7) and how that tension is released once we land on the tonic (C). Click the play button to hear this progression.

Secondary Dominants

What if we count 5 from any note in the scale, and then play a dominant chord there? We'll get all the secondary dominants in that scale!

DegreeChordSecondary DominantRoman Notation
1CmajG7V/I
2DminA7V/ii
3EminB7V/iii
4FmajC7V/IV
5GmajD7V/V
6AminE7V/vi
7BdimF#7V/vii

The table above shows you the secondary dominants of each note in the scale. These new dominant chords, that are out of the original key (C in this example), can be used to enrich our chord progressions with not so obvious chords.

The last column shows the dominant chords denoted with the Roman Number Notation; it's not beginner stuff, but basically it tells you that the chord is the dominant (the "V" before "/") of a chord degree (I, ii, iii and so forth).

No Brainer Trick To Get The Dominant Using The Fretboard

On the fretboard, the dominant of a note is always 1 string up and 2 frets up from that note (except for the notes across the G and B strings, that requires you to go 3 frets up instead of 2):

how to find the dominant of a note with the fretboard

This little trick is also useful for travelling the Circle Of Fifths (you simply move on the fretboard by fifths)

How To Use Secondary Dominants

As previously said, a dominant chord wants to resolve to its tonic, 5 notes below. So a good idea would be to introduce a secondary dominant right before a chord in our key.

C Dm G7 to C A7 Dm G7

For example, we have a very simple C Dm G7 chord progression:

C Dm G7 chord progression

We introduce the secondary dominant of Dm, which is A7 (V/ii in Roman Numbers Notation). Even if A7 is out of the key of C, notice the pleasant effect that it creates:

C A7 Dm G7 chord progression

C Am Dm G7 to C Am D7 G7

We can even use a dominant of the dominant. In the key of C, G7 is the dominant; 5 notes up we find the dominant of G7, which is D7 (denoted as V/V). In the following example, we substitute the Dm chord with the secondary dominant D7:

C Am Dm G7

C Am Dm G chord progression

C Am D7 G7

C Am D7 G chord progression

Secondary Dominant: Conclusions

Secondary dominants have other use; one of the most important is exploiting them for modulating to other keys; basically, we introduce the dominant chord of the key we want to move to obtain a smoother transition; we'll talk about this topic in a specific tutorial on modulations.

For the moment, experiment with secondary dominant by tweaking the chord sequences you already know (by the way, check my complete ebook about chord progressions).

Some chord sequences will sound good, other less, the important thing is to give you some time to play with this stuff and get your ear used to the sound of out of key chords.

An of course feel you free to break the rules; if you stumble upon something interesting that does not fall in any particular music theory category, don't discard it!

Well, that's all, I'm sure that your songwriting skills will advance with this new tool in your arsenal.

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