Diminished Chords And Scales

A brief look at the use of diminished chords and scales within several different genres.

Ultimate Guitar

Diminished Chords and Scales

Right for this set of lessons, we will be taking a closer look at the generally more complex scales which are used within jazz composition and improvisation. For the first lesson, we will look at diminished chords and diminished scales. I will also be giving examples of their wider uses through a number of genres. The mp3 for this lesson can be found on my homepage at the bottom of the page, it runs in chronological order to the lesson so should be easy to follow.

Fully diminished chords are interesting in that the four notes which form them, are all the same interval apart, a minor third. So, for example, E fully diminished will be E, then up a minor third to G, then up a minor third to Bb and then up a minor third to Db. Because of this symmetry no one note takes priority, so an E diminished chord can also be named G diminished, Bb diminished or Db diminished, it's all a matter of context as to which is the most appropriate. Here are a few examples voicings of this chord. So to learn the full set of voicings for all 12 diminished chords you actually only need to learn 3 sets, each set applies to four diminished chords. 
etc etc

Notice how the shapes are often quite similar, with only the bass note changing. See if you can come up with any other voicings higher up the neck. Listen to the lesson mp3 to hear these chords being voiced.

As you will know from lessons on major, minor and dominant chord formation chords have a numeric formula, and diminished chords are no different, though their formula may be confusing for those used solely to the major scale and its modes. A fully diminished chord is spelt 1 b3 b5 and bb7, now the bb7 is new territory to a lot of people, I will go into it further when talking about diminished scales but as brief explanation it is named bb7 as it is the seventh note of the parent scale, but is a full tone below a natural seventh interval. You may also have noticed that a fully diminished chord contains 2 tri-tone intervals (a tri-tone is an inteval of 3 full steps, dividing the octave into two equal parts). These two tri tones give the dim chord a huge amount of tension, so it is always wanting to resolve, this can prove to be a very useful compositional tool. You may sometimes see a diminished chord referred to as just 1 b3 b5, this is a straight diminished chord, it functions much the same as a fully diminished chord and is easier to voice, but gives a less complete sound in my opinion, due to only containing one tri tone.

Finally, I will give you an example of diminished chords being used in a famous, popular song, Michelle by The Beatles. The verse section of the song is based on a progression of F, Bbm, Eb6, Ddim, Fdim, C, Bdim and back to C, tabbed below and included on the mp3.

See how the D diminished works, it creates tension, and when the slide to F dim begins you are tricked into thinking, albeit briefly, that a resolution is on its way, but the chord slides to another dim chord, F dim, same notes just a different order, this increases the tension even more. This is finally released as we hit a C major, but this is taken away quickly by slipping down to the B dim voicing, again same notes as the previous 2 dim chords, but different voicing and order, this then resolves back up a semitone to C, beautiful.

This idea of shifting dim chords around, so retaining the same four notes but altering the order hasalsobeenusedinshred/neo-classical/metal, here's a fairly generic example, simple to what you might hear from Yngwie Malmsteen, a recording of this can be found on the lessons mp3. 

Diminished scales

There are two types of diminished scale, the first we willlookatisthehalf whole diminished scale. This describes the nature of the scale, so after every half step interval, there is a whole step interval. From this, you can see dim scalesareadeparturefromionian etc as they contain 8 different notes,hecetheprescence of the bb7. So E half whole is as follows, E F G Ab Bb B Db D. Heres a tab of one position of this scale, this can also be found on the mp3. 

As well as being used over straight dim chords this scale is particularly useful over dom chords, with or without alterations, as it shares many notes with the altered scale. E HW being E F G Ab Bb B Db D, E alt scale being E F G Bb C D E. I have recorded a short vamp on an E7b9 chord using E Half whole dim scale, check the mp3.

The second diminished scale is the whole half, the same principle applies,justaftertheroot we have a whole step instead of a half step, and so on. Here's a tab with a mp3 section to go with it. 

This scale is mostly used over straight dim chords, and that is how I've used it in my example, please note the way I phrase the passage, play a lick and then play the same lick but all notes shifted up a minor third, you can do with everything to do with dim scales and chords and its a great way to get the maximum mileage out of a few licks.

Now as with chords, the nature of dim scales means we don't have too many positions to learn E G Bb and Db all use the same scales, as do F G# B D, and F# A C Eb, so you get four scales for the price of one, and if you think of the Whole half as the second mode of half whole, or vice versa, you get eight scales for the price of one, neat eh, Though it is still important to be able to play each as a separate entity and know where it will best work.

So how can we use these scales in our soloing, well I'll level with you, it isn't easy, it sounds cliche but you really have to get a feel for playing jazz, get a feel for swing and the way the rhythm accompanies you. General advice that applies to any scale within jazz is not to bend any notes, use slides, hammer-ons, pulls-offs, legato any of that, but no bends. Also get a nice mellow warm tone, cut down on the treble, roll the tone down on your guitar and boost the bass and mids, in an ideal world jazz should be played on a hollowbody guitar, or a jazz box as they are sometimes known.

Specifically to the dim scales, Half-Whole has a huge amount of tension within it, every non-chord tone is a semitone above a chord tone, e.g. E dim, is made of E G Bb Db, E HW dim is E F G Ab Bb B Db D, take out the chord tones, you're left with F Ab B and D, which if you're on the ball you'll notice is an F dim chord (as an aside starting the E HW dim scale from F will give you F WH dim, so you can almost think of WH as the second mode of HW), targeting those notes will provide dissonance which can sound really cool, but remember to resolve it nicely. As stated previously phrases can be shifted around by intervals of a minor third with no bother.

Whole-Half is slightly different, its non-chord tones, are a semitone below the chord tones, when we have a note a half step below a target note it is known as a leading tone, the note wants to lead to the target note. Because of this the soloing with the whole-half will lead to a need for resolution, your phrases will often give a feel of needing resolving, outline a dim chord a semitone below the backing chord and then resolve up a semitone with your last note, beautiful tension beautifully resolved. If you want to increase tension go the other way, play largely within the chord tones until the end of the phrase, stick in a non-chord tone and then hit that sweet resolution.

As a final note I would say one of the best ways to get your head around dim lead lines is to really know your dim chords, know all the voicings and positions, if you know how to outline a dim chord anywhere on the neck you can use that as the basis for your soloing, and with the uniform nature of the scale its easy to come up with phrases based off that.

Well, that has scratched the surface of diminished chords and scales, there's plenty more for you to discover so get playing.

62 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Well done, I'm sticking this in my little Theory reference folder The only complaint you could possibly have is that you didn't relate the degrees to the major scale; but since the intervals are such a simple pattern it doesn't matter too much. The degrees are, by the way 1 b2 b3 b4 b5 bb6 bb7 b7 1 for HW (or 1 b2 b3 3 #4 5 6 b7 1, if you want. That does throw off your scale degrees when forming the dim chord though.) and 1 2 b3 4 b5 b6 bb7 7 1 for WH.
    Great lesson. In over two decades of playing, I still never really used or truly understood diminished scales. Playing a diminished chord or arpeggio is one thing, understanding it is another (especially when your chord chart says F dim, and you're like, "Great. Which of the four notes is the root?). Now I understand clearly. Thank you very much. You wouldn't have a lydian dominant lesson, would ya? Heh.
    yeah thats intentional, i find with symmetrical scales it confuses more than helps, with have 8 different tones and all, but yeah, it doesnt hurt to have the info there. Thanks for commenting.
    thanks man hella useful and i agree you need to have a feel for jazz
    Silky Smooth
    The diminished scale is wonderful for getting around the neck in a verticle fashion. It's shapes are ideal for moving up and down the neck freely. It's one of my favorites!
    You can use the HW in a blues when going from the I to the IV chord (over the last beats or bars of the I chord) eg play Gdim (HW) in a G blues over bar 4 leading to the C chord. Cool.
    nice lesson but i didn't see the mention of min. tri-tones because if u look at a dim pattern, thats all it basically has is a group of notes 2 1/2 steps apart thus a tri-tone.
    i am sure this is a good lesson like everyone else is saying but um.. im a newbie at this so it might take me awhile to get all this XD
    thanks for explaining u did a good job...only i suck really bad with chords and the one thing i could use is fingering... right now this seems impossible to play to me
    It will take great discipline to play these exercises in a loop but will be worth all the pain in my hand. Great lesson, thanks for the advice.
    really good article. helped a lot. i love diminished scales because they are easy to improvise on but i need to work on the chords.
    Great lesson. You really get well around the subject and give one a clue of what it is like to work with dim. And you explain it very precisely and well. So thumbs up! Now I have some stuff to work on.
    So...each scale has essentially "2" chords in it, in terms of fingerings? Also, could the idea of using one dim chord 4 times to move up the neck whilst building a neoclassical-esque tension, like this: D-----0-----3-----6- A----2-----5-----8---- E--1- ----1--4-----4--7----- ETC? Cheers
    Parrenze wrote: I dont understand gitair in general, and cant spell it either
    ha, you spell it like my name, a pioneerwho champions a guy he doesnt know.
    i wish i could understand this, theres so much to theory i hardly know where to start. good job though, it seems like it makes sense.
    Dude.... so confused haha, 17 notes in the diminished scale..but I though it had 8....shouldnt it all add up to 16 or something..sorry if I sound rediculouse but I am completely new to theory..been playing 5 years and cannot understand any of this shit LOL any articles on diminished scales for complete morons ??
    I know my question now... what is the whole half pattern of the diminished scales ??? It seems to make no sence, after every whole there is a half ????? But in your scales they go up like whole, half, half, half whole ?
    Sweet ive been looking for a nice lesson on diminished shapes and such, i will be using these chords a ton, they sound the best the best the best
    Yesss!!! Now I can make my music even scarier!!! Seriously though, that article was awesome! And I didn't even hafta pay.
    minichibi wrote: cant find the audio on your page. is it laney lc50 demo?
    ah never mind sorry. Good lesson 5 outta 5
    Well i mention a couple, Michelle being my favourite, Just by Radiohead uses diminished scales heavily. Jazz is really where youll get the most out of this, get a cassette record a simple one chord diminished vamp and then play along, see what you come up with.
    You have lit the light. As a guitarist who has spent a good deal of time puzzeling over the mysteries of diminished 7th scales, I'm grateful for such an eye-opening article. This is the best that I have seen. Thanks.
    i find it funny no one posts when theres useful information...but when theres stuff about a band everyone posts on how much they suck...anyway nice article.
    Cool.. I didn't read very carefully but will definetly come back once I start really studying my theory. I'm only just learning the basics now and this will be useful to me later. Thanks!
    Reed Peterson
    Excellent lesson - dude, this is the kind of stuff you pay out of the ying-yang to learn about from some instructor, and you've posted it for free! Totally awesome.
    Excellent article, I've often wondered about dimished chords and scales. I've always used sevenths to add tension to my playing, this'll add way more depth. Thanks for passing on the knowledge my friend!
    Excellent lesson, has got me out of a rut i was stuck in for a long time. Thank you very much, rating of 5 from me. Nice one!!!!