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Dominant Chords: Improvisational Dominance

Jazzed Magazine • Basic TrainingJanuary 2015 • February 5, 2015

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by Mark Sherman

In this lesson, I present several approaches to dominant chords. A simple and very quick way to get moving with your improvisation is to use the these different scales over dominant chords: diminished, straight Mixolydian, and a Bebop scale.

A great way to practice playing is to vamp over ii-V-I progressions working through the different keys, one at a time.  Use Dorian for the ii and either Ionian or Lydian for the I.  For the dominant V,  start with one of the four scales presented in the music here, and rotate through the others, one at a time. Then you can mix the elements after mastering each. So you will be changing scales from Dorian for minor chords, to a 1/2 whole diminished scale (for example) for dominant chords, and Ionian (or Lydian) for the major chords. Try to play through the different scales while ascending all the way to the top range, of your instrument, and then again descending all the way to the low range as you would with basic scale drills. You can also use this exercise with arpeggios by inverting each outline (1,3,5,7,9) up the ladder with the same directional continuation in groups of four arpeggios. On the dominant, use the QUADRANT (9 dominant diminished outline).

Working these drills helps to make you “rootless” in the music, which is actually a good thing. There are many variations I have developed to go with these exercises, but this is the primary method, using eight notes, and sixteenths, and triplets with these elements, as well as scales in one direction or the other, and chord outline arpeggios in one direction or the other. Change to the very next note of the correct scale or outline. Keep direction consistent, then begin to mix them. You will find that as you break it up, mix it up, and keep the direction, plus vary the rhythms, this drill will open up your improvising skills drastically. It will enlarge the palette of your language in the music itself, and you will be playing lines you have never heard come out of your instrument of choice before.

  • The three diminished ½-step whole step scales
  • The three diminished9 dominant 7 chord outlines which I call QUADRANTS
  • The straight mixolydian dominant scale
  • The dominant bebop scale.


Mark Sherman has performed globally as a leader for 25 years, with tours to Europe and throughout Russia, China, Korea, The Philippines, Australia, the United States, and Canada. As a top-shelf jazz educator Mark has conducted master classes in over 15 different countries with the sponsorship of Yamaha Corporation, The Pro Mark Corporation, and Salyers Percussion. He is currently on the jazz faculty of The Juilliard School, New Jersey City University, and The New York Jazz Workshop. In the past he has been selected as a Jazz Ambassador for the United States State Department. In addition, Sherman is on over 170 CD recordings as a sideman, and has recorded 14 as a leader.

To learn more about how to apply these elements and others such as the altered dominant approach. get Mark’s new book, Skills For The Poetic Language of Jazz Improvisation available at

Mark Sherman can be contacted through his site,, or at

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