A Brief Introduction to the Diminished Scale
Nothing makes my guitar students cringe like the first time they hear a diminished chord. Oh, the faces they make!
And that is a good thing.
Of course, behind every great chord is a great scale.
In this case that would be the diminished scale.
Technically, it’s possible to get any chord from any scale, you just have to judiciously apply some accidentals and you’re there.
Almost every chord has its own scale – that one, unique scale that will allow you to create it by starting on the root and never worrying about those pesky accidentals.
So we start our journey into the realm of the diminished scale.
One of the primary differences between the major and minor scales on which we spend so much time and the diminished scale is the number of notes.
Major and minor scales have seven different notes and repeat the root on the eighth note.
A diminished scale has eight different notes and repeats the root on the ninth note.
Nine notes for the price of eight. What a bargain!
(See Section 1 download Video 1.1 – Number of Notes in a Diminished Scale)
The other major difference between the scales we know and love and this strange, new diminished scale is that the diminished scale is completely symmetrical.
Every scale has a pattern.
Looking at a series of whole steps (two frets) and half steps (one fret), the major and minor scales looks like this:
The whole steps and half steps aren’t predictable. The diminished scale, however, gives us a regular, predictable pattern of whole steps and half steps.
These two major differences (pardon the pun) are what really set the diminished scale apart from most others.
(See Section 1 download Video 1.2 – Whole-Step, Half-Step Patterns of Scales)
We’ve worked so far with E as the root of our scales, but if we look closely at the G major and E minor scales, they are really the same scales starting on different notes.
Even the modes are subsections of the major scale. We’ll touch on modes in just a little bit.
(See Section 1 download Video 1.3 – G Major and E Minor)
While every mode has its own unique sound, it’s still just a major scale.
It’s only when we break away from the major scale completely and start messing around with the number of notes and the pattern of the scale, that we end up with a really unique sound.
(See Section 1 download Video 1.4 – The Modes of G Major)
Let’s rock that diminished scale.
Everything from this point forward will use standard tuning. It is, after all, standard.
The diminished scale is very simple: whole step followed by a half step followed by a whole step followed by a half step all the way up the octave.
Starting with E, this gives us the following notes:
E – F# – G – A – B♭ – C – C# – D# – E
Here’s a cool aside: because of the symmetrical pattern of the diminished scale, there are really only three of them. The E, G, B♭ and C# diminished scales are really the same scale, as are the F, A♭, B and D diminished scales, which leaves the F#, A, C and E♭ as being the same.
Back to our regularly scheduled scale.
Learning new scales is never easy. Or exciting. As a matter of fact, next to hearing a diminished chord for the first time, scale exercises rank number two on the “Student Cringe List.”
There is a method to my madness here. The first part of the method requires learning the scale.
I always start with a one-octave scale to start getting the sound in my ears and the pattern in my fingers.
Next, I move to a boxed scale. Boxed scales are simply multi-octave scales played in one position across the neck. Usually, they end up being about 2 and a half octaves.
Boxed Diminished Scale
Got the sound? Got the fingering? Good. I’m going to completely screw you up now.
The last phase of learning the scales starts breaking the scales up into usable patterns.
First, I practice running the scale up one string for one octave. This gets you thinking outside the box. Yep. Another really bad pun. You’re welcome.
It also starts training you to move from position to position smoothly.
After that, I’ll break up the scale into a two-string pattern. This keeps you moving up the neck smoothly and has the same overall effect as a broken interval. Broken intervals have a very special place in my heart, so don’t worry, I’ll explain those shortly.
(See Section 2 download Video 2.4 – Two-String Diminished Run)
If you’ve ever heard someone play classical guitar, then you probably know who Andres Segovia is. Mr. Segovia developed his own particular method of practicing scales. As a budding classical guitarist, I hung on every note. Even if I did get very confused and frequently lost on the fretboard.
The basic concept of the Segovia scales is to cover as much of the fretboard as possible. The not-so basic concept is that the scale is usually three octaves and the descending pattern is often (if not always) different than the ascending pattern.
A Segovia-style scale really opens up the fretboard once you get the hang of it. You get a scale that covers the entire length and width of the fretboard and learn new ways to connect the octaves of a scale.
Most instruments move in a linear fashion. Stringed instruments are like matrices. The combinations of connections are almost endless. If you can master the art of connecting scales, you can unlock the guitar neck.
I promised you a full disclosure a little while back. Full disclosure of broken intervals, that is.
I love broken intervals. These have done the most for my playing and technique of any of the scale exercises I’ve ever done. Broken intervals come closest to giving you some real- world chops that you can use.
Once again, the concept of broken intervals is easy to grasp. The distance from the root of the scale, in this case “E,” to the note in question gives us the interval.
(See Section 2 download Video 2.6 – Intervals in the Diminished Scale)
Since F# is the second note of the E diminished scale, going from E to F# is a second.
E to G would be a third, E to A is a fourth and so on. There is a bit of a catch, though. We always measure intervals according to the major scale. Technically, this gives us some altered and added intervals in the diminished scale, but for our purposes, we really just need to be able to count a given number of notes.
When we break the interval, it’s really just kind of a stutter.
A broken second, for example, would go from E to F#, then from F# to G, G to A, A to Band so on. We don’t go straight through the scale, we keep going back and repeating that interval.
CAUTION! Before you proceed, I feel compelled to warn you that these exercises will go very slowly at first. Don’t try to play them quickly!
I will descend into the depths of the guitar abyss by speeding up the notes, not the tempo. The basic scales were in quarter notes. The broken seconds will be in eighth notes, broken thirds in triplets, broken fourths in sixteenth notes and so on.
Make sure you are playing these exercises slowly enough to get all of the notes cleanly.
Let’s try some broken intervals on the one-octave scales.
And here are some on the boxed scale:
Finally, we get to shred up the neck with Andres! He’ll be with us in spirit, I’m sure.
(See Section 2 download Videos 2.9 – Three-Octave Broken Intervals)
That’s all for this week. Actually, that’s probably enough for a couple of weeks.
I’ve created a bunch of great extras for you. There are some videos, PDFs and Rich Tabs (Guitar Pro) HERE! Be sure to grab them!
Until next time – Play in the Key of YOU!