How to Play Songs with Dominant Function on the Guitar

Some songs 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.

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

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

You can see a demonstration at Closing Progression and Dominant Function.

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.” If you know the words, sing along.

[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. 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.

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