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How to Play Songs on the Guitar with Dominant Function

Some songs you will play on the guitar are based on simple progressions that contain only the I and V chords (also known as the tonic and dominant chords). Songs like “You Never Can Tell” by Chuck Berry, “Jambalaya” by Hank Williams, and “Achy Breaky Heart” by Billy Ray Cyrus are all good examples of this basic chord progression.

Play any one of these songs and stop on the V chord. Notice that the music doesn’t sound complete or resolved, but as though it wants to continue back to chord I. That’s an example of dominant function.

[Credit: Illustration courtesy of Desi Serna]
Credit: Illustration courtesy of Desi Serna

In traditional uses, the V7-I progression appears to close a section or phrase of music.

[Credit: Illustration courtesy of Desi Serna]
Credit: Illustration courtesy of Desi Serna

You hear many examples of functioning dominant 7th chord progressions in traditional folk songs. Think of songs like “Skip to my Lou,” “Shortnin’ Bread,” “Go Tell Aunt Rhody,” “Down in the Valley,” “Clementine,” and “Buffalo Gals.” Here is a folk song example in the style of “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.”

[Credit: Illustration courtesy of Desi Serna]
Credit: Illustration courtesy of Desi Serna

You can figure out the chords to most two-chord folk songs simply by singing or humming the melody while playing along with I and V7 in any key. Just pick a key, any key, and try it.

For example, in the key of C, I and V7 are C and G7; in the key of G, I and V7 are G and D7. You can also try D and A7, E and B7, or F and C7.

“Twist and Shout” by The Beatles is a great example of a V7 chord that has a dominant function. After the guitar solo, you hear six measures of the dominant 7th chord sung one note at a time by each of the band’s members.

The root of the chord, A, appears in the first measure, followed by the 3rd, C♯, in measure 2, the 5th of the chord, E, in measure 3, and finally the 7th, G, in measure 4. After two more measures of climactic, rock ’n’ roll screaming, this musical tension resolves to the I chord, D, and the music continues on.

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