A dominant pedal places the 5th note in the bass, creating energy in very subtle ways.
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- Play louder
- Play busier
- Play faster
- Play higher
As you see, all of those options refer to playing style. Back in the days of the classical composers, there was another technique that was commonly used to build energy that had nothing to do with playing style – the so-called dominant pedal. It’s a technique that works really well in pop music as well, and here’s how it works.
A dominant pedal simply means that regardless of the chord of the moment, the bass note will sit on the dominant pitch of the key. It generates momentum, expectation and energy by virtue of the fact that the dominant note, particularly when it occurs in the bass, makes it sound as though a move to the tonic note is imminent.
That sense of expectation increases energy. Classical composers used that technique all the time in sonatas, which you can hear demonstrated here in Mozart’s Symphony No. 41, 1st movement. In this excerpt, you hear a dominant pedal start at 7’49”, and stays in place as chords change above it, until 8’04.”
Tonic pedals work the same way: the bass playing the tonic note while chords change above it. A tonic pedal can also generate energy, but more often than not, it can create a calming effect as it serves as a constant reminder of “home”.
Pop music makes less use of pedal point than Classical music, but some groups use pedal point more than others: Genesis, for example. From their album “A Trick of the Tail” (1976), the song “Squonk” demonstrates both a tonic and dominant pedal predominantly throughout.
Dominant pedals are most effective in a verse as it approaches a chorus, particularly if the verse ends on a V-chord, and the chorus begins on the I-chord. If that’s the case, try having the bass play the dominant note for at least four bars before the chorus, no matter what chords are being played. You’ll find that it’s a great energy builder.
Here’s an example of a verse progression that would work well with a dominant pedal:
C F C G C Am F G
Starting on the fifth chord (C), move the bass to G, and you’ll hear that it generates a strong sense of anticipation of the tonic that eventually arrives at the beginning of the chorus.
It’s possible to use a dominant pedal in an upper instrument. When that happens, it’s called an inverted pedal. You can hear the excitement that an inverted pedal generates in “You Keep Me Hangin’ On“, (Holland–Dozier–Holland, performed by The Supremes). The upper guitar note that prevails through much of the intro and verse is an inverted dominant pedal.
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.
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