Guitar Jar contributor and jazz guitarist Warren Greig shares 30 years of guitar playing experience in this article, discussing the theory behind diminished sounds and how they can be applied to the guitar fretboard.
Diminished sounds are quite different from major and minor due to the fact they are based on what is referred to as a symmetrical scale.
The scale is built of alternating whole and half steps; the scale has eight notes in it rather than the seven of major, natural minor, melodic minor and harmonic scales. Another aspect that differs is that unlike the major and minor scales which have 12 different applications based on the 12 note chromatic scale, there are only three diminished scales.
If we were to apply the diminished scale to its chordal context, one diminished scale can be applied to four diminished chords and have four different names. Eg. C diminished aka Eb diminished, Gb diminished, A diminished (please note the four names are in a sequence of minor 3rds. So if one scale has four names and there are only 12 notes in music it follows that there are only three diminished scales).
Not only can the diminished scale be applied to diminished chords it can be applied as well to 7b9 chords which are a common jazz sound. If the chord of the moment is C7b9 the scale sequence would be C, Db, Eb, E, Gb, G, A, Bb.
Again going back to minor 3rds, I could apply this scale to C7b9, Eb7b9, Gb7b9 and A7b9. If I were going for a direct relationship to diminished chords this scale could be applied to Dbdim7, Edim7, Gdim7 and Bbdim7.
Once you find out where to play these sounds on the guitar it is way less work than the major and minor scales and their related chords that go through 12 different applications. Diminished is basically three scales that can most commonly be applied to 24 chords.
Remember one scale has four names move it up one fret there are four more names move it up another fret and there are yet another four names, 4+4+4 = 12.
I, like many guitarists, found the biggest battle to be using the scale melodically in solos and the easiest applying the chord shapes.
Going back to the symmetrical aspect, this applies to both scales and chords wherein the same shape can move up and down the fingerboard in minor thirds (on guitar the minor 3rd is a four fret span, unlike major and minor the inversions of the chord invert perfectly to the same shape which is a byproduct of the symmetrical nature of the chord).
Once I figured out the applications I could move a diminished 7 chord shape to four locations on the top four strings and four locations on the middle four strings (drop 2 voicing). Therefore I would have eight shapes for rootless 7b9 chords or diminished 7th chords.
For the 7b9 application I would play E on the fourth string-second fret, Bb 3rd string-3rd fret, Db 2nd string-2nd fret, G 1st string-3rd fret. I would move this exact same shape up to the fifth fret with G being the lowest note on the fourth string then I would move it to Bb at the 8th fret and finally Db at the 11th fret. ( 2-5 is a four fret span, minor 3rd, 5-8 is a four fret span, minor 3rd, 8-11 is a four fret span, minor 3rd).
Scales can also be applied this way wherein the exact same shape is moved up and down in minor 3rds.
The difficulty I found being melodic with the scale fingerings was that moving from major and minor shapes that I was very familiar with diminished sounds I always felt off balance or wrong footed or would resort to a couple of licks I knew that would fit. I didn’t have the feeling that I was able to control the melodic flow going with control and the solo would sound off during the section where I tried to utilize diminished sounds.
Everyone is different but for me I found the biggest issue was ease of fingering and very recently simplified the fingering concept. A whole tone on one string has one fret between the two notes whereas with a half tone there is no fret between the notes. Therefore if I were to think only horizontally the fingering over a four fret span would be; 1-2-4 or 1-3-4. (half step-whole step, whole step-half step)
I could then using this principle play one string scales up and down the fingerboard which is useful when you are moving from one position to another. To apply this concept I would play a G diminished scale starting on the 6th string with 1-3-4 I would play G, A, Bb then moving up to the 5th string play C, Db, Eb, fourth string E, F#, G, third string A, Bb, C, second string Db, Eb, E and 1st string F#, G, A.
Going back to the point about minor thirds in this example the sequence started on the 6th string-3rd fret therefore I could move the exact same shape up to Bb on the sixth string-6th fret, then Db sixth string-9th fret then E sixth string-12th fret.
Following the same principle but starting on a different note the same principle applies when I use the half step whole step sequence or the1-2-4 fingering. Again starting on the sixth string play F#, G, A, fifth string Bb, C, Db, fourth string Eb, E, F#, third string G, A, Bb, second string C, Db, Eb, first string E, F#, G. Again these shapes can be moved up the fingerboard with the sixth string note being the pivot, F#-A-C-Eb (note again it rotates in minor 3rds).
These fingerings take some getting used to especially the one starting with 1-2-4 because this keeps shifting your hand back and forth by one fret. However if you learn the above layout you have eight fingerings for the same diminished scale that start on the sixth string at the following frets; 2,3,5,6,8,9,11,12.
I find with this approach I am able to have more melodic continuity if I am coming out of major or minor sounds and my hand can easily shift from 1-2-4 or 1-3-4 based on where I land. I have avoided tab because knowing the notes on the fingerboard is necessary to apply this concept fully.
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