Diminished Chords And Scales

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

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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 at 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 intersting 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 diminshed 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 sets applies to four diminished chords. 
|-3--------------6--|
|-2--5--2--8--5--5--|
|-3--3--3--6--6--6--|
|-2--5--2--8--5--5--|
|----4--x--7--x-----|
|-------3-----6-----|
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 theyre 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 refered 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.

|-8---9---8-----------8-------8---|
|-6---6---8---6---9---8---6---8---|
|-5---6---8---4---7---9---7---9---|
|-7---8---8---6---9---10--6---10--|
|---------6---5---8---10--X---10--|
|---------------------8---7---8---|
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 semi tone to C, beautiful.

This idea of shifting dim chords around, so retaining the same four notes but altering the order has also been used in shred/neo-classical/metal, heres a fairly generic example, simple to what you might hear from Yngwie Malmsteen, a recording of this can be found on the lessons mp3. 
|-------2/5---------------8/11------------------|
|-----4-----7----------10------13---------------|
|-2-5---------8-5/8-11------------14-11/15~-----|
|-----------------------------------------------|
|-----------------------------------------------|
|-----------------------------------------------|

Diminished scales

There are two types of diminished scale, the first we will look at is the half whole diminished scale. This describes the nature of the scale, so after every half step interval there is a whole step interval. rom this you can see dim scales are a departure from ionian etc as they contain 8 different notes, hece the prescence 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. 
|-------------------------------------------------12--|
|----------------------------------------12-14-15-----|
|-------------------------------12-13-15--------------|
|-------------------11-12-14-15-----------------------|
|----------11-13-14-----------------------------------|
|-12-13-15--------------------------------------------|

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, just after the root we have a whole step instead of a half step, and so on. Heres a tab with an mp3 section to go with it. 
|----------------------------------------------11-12--|
|----------------------------------------13-14--------|
|----------------------------11-12-14-15--------------|
|-------------------11-13-14--------------------------|
|----------12-13-15-----------------------------------|
|-12-14-15--------------------------------------------|

This scale is mostly used over straight dim chords, and that is how ived 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 dont 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 isnt easy, it sounds cliche but you really have to get a feel foir playing jazz, get a feel for swing and the way the rhythm accompanies you. General advice that applies to any scale within jazz is don't 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 semi tone above a chord tone, eg 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, youre left with F Ab B and D, which if youre on the ball youll 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 semi tone 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 semi tone below the backing chord and then resolve up a semi tone 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 out line 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, theres plenty more for you to discover so get playing.

62 comments sorted by best / new / date

comments policy
    SilentDeftone
    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.
    onevoiceinc
    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.
    beatallica_fan
    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.
    killtrend
    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.
    geetarbaz
    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.
    FreakinCool
    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
    cssst10
    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!
    Diabsoule
    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 ??
    bcrich1234bc
    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.
    Diabsoule
    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 ?
    heinrick
    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
    gibsonvsfender
    Yesss!!! Now I can make my music even scarier!!! Seriously though, that article was awesome! And I didn't even hafta pay.
    git-airman
    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.
    learninclutch
    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.
    minichibi
    minichibi wrote: cant find the audio on your page. is it laney lc50 demo?
    ah never mind sorry. Good lesson 5 outta 5
    ornobatlfc
    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.
    Bardi
    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.
    diesiraex
    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
    lamkins
    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
    beatallica_fan
    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.
    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.
    Greenback
    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!
    Philiptalk
    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.
    REPOMAN
    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!
    nirvanafuk23
    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.