What are altered chords?

In your Jazz career you will hear people talking about altered chords and on your jazz charts you may see G alt. What does this mean? Altered chords are not that hard to grasp, and are an important concept to know about. Any Chord can be altered, but the most common is the dominant chord. For this article we will use dominant 7 chords as the example. In this article you will learn what an altered chord is and how it is made.

The simplest definition of an altered chord is any chord that has chord tones altered. Another way to think of an altered chord is a note in the chord that has been raised or lowered in the scale that correlates to that chord. The notes in a dominant 13 chord are 1, 3, 5, b7, 9, 11, 13. This chord is not altered. When you change one of the chord tones you now have an altered chord. If you take the term “altered” and change it to “changed” or “edited” you will get the idea. This chord is changed or edited to be different from its original form.  The changed version of that chord is known as the altered chord.

The more theoretical definition of an altered dominant chord is a chord with a lowered or raised fifth or a lowered or raised 9th. These alterations can be written in different ways. You may see a #11, but this is a b5. You can see a b13, but this is a raised 5th. The 9th and the 5ths are responsible for creating the tensions. Typically tensions are creating on the upper structures of chords. Very rarely do you see anything written or played b2. The difference between a 9th and a 2nd is not the note, but how the note correlates to the root. If there is an octave between the 2 notes it is called a 9th. If it is a whole or half step away from the root it is a second. The octave between the root and the alterations will make the altered note sound better and clash less.

Altered chords which are used a lot in jazz, primarily over the dominant chord are really fun chords. Altered chords are chords that the tones have been changed. The notes that are typically changed in an altered chord are the 5ths and 9ths. You may see these written differently but they 5ths and 9ths are the notes responsible for alterations. Alterations typically appear in the upper structures of chords and are primarily put in dominant chords.  Most chords can be altered; however the most common is dominant chords. This makes the dominant chord one of the most interesting chords in music.

How to solo over dominant chords

Dominant chords are one of the most enjoyable chords to solo over. Some styles of music rely strongly on the dominant chord. The dominant chord has so many options that you can use to play over it. However, because the chord is so flexible there are challenges to it. We will discuss how you can play over dominant chords and what options you have available to solo over it.

The most common scale that people use to solo over the dominant chord is the Mixolydian. This scale fits to that chord perfectly with hardly any tensions. This is the go to scale for dominant chord. However, this chord can be much more complex than this scale. Typically in jazz you will find people pushing forward and trying new sounds over the dominant chord. If you consider the dominant chord a little bit different, your whole world of soloing will change.

Most dominant chords are part of the altered family. An altered chord is a chord that has chord tones changed. The unaltered dominant chord is 1 3 5 b7 9 11 13. However if you play a dominant chord most of the time any alterations will fit well. If you make the 9th flat or sharp, make the 11th sharp or the 13th flat you now have an altered chord. This means that every single note is available to use to solo over the dominant chord. The hard part, you can play any note and make it sound good, but if you play any notes you want it will sound bad. You need to play those altered notes with a purpose. The best way to do this is to play with a scale.

You have many scales available to use to solo over dominant chords besides the Mixolydian scale. You have the Whole Tone scale, Diminished scale, Phrygian Dominant (5th mode of harmonic minor), Lydian dominant (3rd mode of melodic minor), and many more. These scales mentioned already take up practically all the notes possible. A common scale that is used a lot in jazz is the bebop scale. The Bebop scale is very similar to Mixolydian and allows for more chromaticism in your playing. The Bebop scale would be a great place to start after you are comfortable with the Mixolydian scale.

Dominant chords are a joy to play over and there are so many option that you can use to solo with.  Most dominant chords belong to the altered family which makes virtually every note acceptable. The Mixolydian scale is the go to scale for dominant chords, but there are many other options you can use. Some are similar and others are way different from the Mixolydian. Experiment with different scales and find what works for you.