Dominant Arpeggios: Movin’ On Up

What goes up must come down. In jazz, what goes up quickly, usually comes down slowly. Arpeggios ascend in thirds…they move up relatively quickly.  Scales descend by step…they move down relatively slowly. So a broad stylistic guideline is, arpeggios up…scales down. 

This guideline derives from the common practice of the jazz masters. Like all musical rules, this one is nothing more than academic formulations of how the ‘cats’ actually play. And that applies to all the cats. Whether it’s the counterpoint of J.S. Bach or the bebop of Charlie Parker, the rules are derived from the improvisations and compositions of the masters. 

3 essential arpeggios

When improvising on unaltered dominant 7th chords, modern jazz players most frequently use three arpeggios.  They are arpeggios beginning on the 3rd, 5th or 7th of the chord…not on the root. Playing root based dominant arpeggios is not wrong, but stylistically tends to evoke an older (think Louis Armstrong) style.

If you’re not yet comfortable thinking about 9ths, 11ths and 13ths, try this little three step exercise.  1) Play a C mixolydian scale.  2) Play it again, leaving out the 2nd, 4th and 6th notes. You’ve just played a C7 arpeggio…root, 3rd, 5th, 7th.  3) Play that same arpeggio, and add the 2nd, 4th and 6th at the end…but play them an octave higher.  When you play them up an octave, they’re called the 9th, 11th and 13th!

You’ll probably want to do this for all 12 dominant 7th chords. The ability to quickly access the 9th, 11th and 13th of any dominant 7th chord is an foundational improvisational skill. By the way, these notes are commonly referred to as the ‘extensions’ of a 7th chord.

So now you know a bit about the ‘what goes up’ part of making a jazz melody.  The ‘what comes down’ part is often the bebop dominant scale, (check out my bebop dominant post).

So here they are…the three arppeggios you can use when improvising on a dominant 7 chord. Practice them on each of the 12 dominant 7 chords. Make the decision to use them intentionally when improvising on dominant 7 chords. As you make these arpeggios your own, you’ll start hearing them on all of your favorite recordings. 

When you’re ready to begin practicing your dominant arpgeggios, check out the interactive lessons, Level 4 Dominant Arpeggios (coming soon!).  These lessons will provide you  with an organized, progressive framework for practicing and internalizing this essential vocabulary.