Augment Your Playing With Diminished Scales
- Wednesday, March 03, 1999
In this article I'd like to share something I use all the time in both improvised solos and fills, and that would be the diminished scale. The reason it sounds cool and is so useful is because like chromatic scales and whole-tone scales it doesn't have a definite, or shall we say, anchored tonal center. This scale, whether ascending or descending, gives the illusion of going in and out of tone centers with every note that is played, thereby making it a very interesting and tasty little fill.
First, let's examine a diminished scale. Like the chromatic and whole-tone scales, the diminished scale is a perfectly symmetrical scale. The chromatic scales ascend and descend in half-steps. The whole-tone scale, (like its name) ascends and descends in whole-steps-. The diminished scale ascends: half-step, whole-step, half-step, whole-step, etc., and descends: whole-step, half-step, whole-step, half-step, etc. You're playing the exact same notes going up and coming down. Sit down and figure out a couple of these to get used to their sound. I think you will find them to be just a little "outside," yet very melodic, thereby making them quite effective in everything from ballads to be-bop. Plus, you'll find that they fall quite comfortably under you hands, as the fingering for diminished scales is very similar to that of the major scales.
You may be saying, "Okay, but how and when can I use these things?" In everything I write I emphasize three things: experiment, experiment, experiment! Once you've exhausted everything you know, experiment with some things you hadn't thought of before! If it weren't for people who were willing to step outside the realm of what has already been done, we would still be sending messages by log drums instead of e-mail! Try diminished scales in as many places as you can, and let your ear be your guide.
A diminished chord is a perfectly symmetrical chord, in that each not is a minor 3rd from the next. For example, a C diminished chord is C-Eb-Gb-A. The next note in this sequence is obviously C, then Eb, etc. Therefore, a Cdim chord is the same as an Ebdim, Gbdim and Adim. Because we operate in a twelve tone environment and we've just played a four note chord that has equal intervals between each note, it follows that there can only be three diminished chords. Play a Cdim chord and move up in half-steps. After you've played C, C# and D, you'll find the next chord (Eb) has the same notes as Cdim.
Let's take this one step further by looking at the diminished scale. A half-step plus a whole-step is a minor 3rd. Therefore, every other note of the diminished scale is a note in the diminished chord, or actually one of three diminished chords. So, just like diminished chords, there are only three diminished scales. You can think of them individually by name, or as one of C, C# or D, or as one of C, F or G. Once you've learned the three diminished scales, it's then just a matter of which note you start on and whether you're going up or down.
Finally, let me say that these scales are not restricted to being played just over diminished chords. In fact, the opposite may be appropriate. Personally, I like to use them over 2m7-57-1 (ii7-V7-I) progressions, on endings that have an extended V7 that resolves to I, on montuna-type vamps that make go back and forth from a I to a bVII chord, or as lead ins to melodies or spots in a melody where before you might have used a chromatic or major scale to get there. Again, remember the three E's!
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