Diminished Chords

In the study below you will examine diminished chords. Not only are there are several interesting facts concerning diminished chords, they are among the most useful, unusual, unique and effective types of chords you will encounter in your studies of the guitar.

There are basically two types of diminished chords you should be aware as a modern guitarist: a diminished triad and a diminished seventh chord. Although each of these chords sound great in the right circumstance, the diminished seven chord is normally the first choice when the need for any type of diminished chord arises. Most players do this diminished 7 for diminished triad substitution automatically because the fingerings for a diminished seventh chord are easy to get to and usually sound good in a variety of situations.

The first step in our study of diminished chords will be to review the theory associated with diminished chords and to listen to the sound of the diminished chords, comparing them to the sound of major chords. As you use the graphics below be sure to keep any enharmonic notes clear in your mind. For example B double flat (Bbb) is the same note as A natural, they are called enharmonic notes. Study the theory, sounds, formulas, spellings and symbols of diminished chords using the organizer below.

Inversions And Symmetry.

One interesting thing about diminished seven chords is a way you arrive at inversions of diminished seven forms. If you look at the formula and spelling for diminished chords you will notice that all the intervals separating all the notes in the diminished chords are minor thirds. Because all of the intervals in the chord are the same minor 3rd interval, the diminished 7 chord is called symmetrical in form. If you think about it, moving the entire chord shape a minor 3rd, a three fret jump, moves every note in the chord up to the next highest note in the chord and therefore creates an inversion of the diminished 7 chord.

In the diagram above you finished up with a chord you see as labeled C diminished seven, played on the top four strings. This is probably the most well known for a diminished chord. Try to play that chord in its normal position on the first fret, now push that form three frets higher in pitch up the neck to fret four. Without changing the form or shape of the chord, merely its position, you have played an inversion of that C diminished seventh chord. To play the next highest inversion, perform another three fret jump, or a leap of a minor 3rd, higher up the neck while maintaining the same shape. The diminished chord is the only type of chord for which this is true. Use the graphic organizer below to further understand and to practice playing diminished chord inversions and to study their sound.

Synonyms And Symmetry

Because of its symmetrical structure, and because the relationships between all notes in the chord are equidistant and the same, any note in a diminished seventh chord can be considered to be the root note of the chord. This is because all the notes in the chord are in essentially the same place when compared with all the other notes in the chord.These symmetrical chords are also synonymous chord forms, meaning one chord that is able to have two names, such as C6 and Ami7 -both containing the notes A – C – E – G in some order and are therefore called synonyms. In the case of a diminished 7 chord, which can assume any one of four root notes, meaning it can assume any one of four names which makes it a most interesting and unusual example



Diminshed chord concepts can be a little enigmatic at first glance. The best thing to do is to continue to study the diagrams, visualize the chord shapes and spellinigs on the guitar and work out your questions on music paper. The diagram below is quite interesting because it illustrates this concept in the first position.


The First Choice Diminished Chord

The voicing of a diminished chord I have been using in this lesson, the one diagrammed above and below, is what I call the first choice diminished chord because it sounds great, is highly useful and is usually the first diminished chord we learn when studying the guitar. The diagram below illustrates how that first choice diminished chord form can be used to play a diminished chord in all 12 keys in the area of the open position. Use this line of thinking to deal with diminished chords when playing in the open position, find and play diminished chords based on their root notes as I have done below. What we have done in this lesson so far should form your practical, first line of defense type of thinking concerning diminished chords.


Chord Quality

The quality of a chord is it’s unique sound, color, flavor, and personality of the chord. You will find that the diminished 7 has a most unique and identifiable sound. To get a handle on the effect usage of a diminished use the interactive listening experience below. As you listen and read pay attention to the color of the chord, to its unique and one of a kind sound properties and musical effect -it is actually quite easy to identify a diminished 7 chord by its sound alone. You must hear the diminished chord 7 as being unstable and as signaling chord movement, the listening exercise below is the first step towards being able to capture this small bit of musical ligtening in your very own musical bottle.

Applications And Uses of Diminished And Diminished 7 Chords

I – I Diminished – I

In the world of music diminished chords have many places, and one of those places is the blues. Below is an example of a blues intro that I have heard on blues recordings by all sorts of artists from Robert Johnson and T-bone Walker to my favorite contemporary blues bands. Going from E7 to an E diminished 7chord and back to E7 provides a great traditional blues sound and interest or movement within the framework of E7.

And I said before, the first choice diminished chord will prove itself to be incredibly useful throughout all stages of your playing career. In reality however, most players use a diminished seven chord as a substitute for diminished triad. That means that when the music calls for a diminished chord many players opt for a diminished seven instead because they have a cool sound in general and usually sound better than a diminished triad -on top of that they are easy to play.

There are certain instances however where you don’t want to substitute a diminished seven chord for a diminished triad because you prefer the sound of the plain diminished triad. In some instances, the first choice, common knowledge diminished chord will not sound good. It will be too high in pitch, shrill and alarming. For that reason I use the chord illustrated below, what I call the lifesaver diminished triad. This chord voicing has quite a mellow and laid back sound but still nicely produces a diminished effect.

Actually, as great as it is, this I – I diminished – I idea is one of the oldest tricks in the book. Below we are in the key of G major where the change is G major to G diminished and back to G major and I am using my ever reliable, always pleasing “lifesaver” chord. The example sounds Hawaiian but could be used in any folk, country or ethnic style. Although the feeling of the song is restful and sweet, the I to I diminished change livens up the harmony and adds a pleasant increase to the energy and to the interest of the song that would have otherwise been absent.

Diminished 7 Chord Forms

As great as those basic diminished triads sound, the diminished seven chord is by far the more widely used voicing even when the music calls for a basic diminished chord, without the seventh. As I said before, diminished seven chords sound cool and always seem to do a more modern and smoother sounding job. Use the diagram below to memorize the most important voicings for diminished seven chord. In addition to the two forms of a basic diminished chord presented earlied, this small collection of diminished seventh chords should do quite nicely to fill virtually all of your needs for diminished chords as your playing career evolves. The chords below fit nicely into your root 6, 5 and 4 system of thinking. As all of these chord forms are moveable forms, each one can easily be transposed to all 12 keys. With the circle of fifths as your guide, practice playing a root 6, 5 and 4 diminished 7 chord on your guitar.


Chromatic Passing Chords: I – #I dim – IIm7 – #IIdim7 – IIIm7 etc…

In this lesson we have seen how the diminished chord can add punch to a static chord change, we have also seen how a diminished chord, with its unsettling nature, can add drama and create a heightened demand for movement. However, in modern musical styles such as pop, rock, jazz and blues, the main job of a diminished chord is to act as a passing chord and to provide strong motion between chords in a key, making the cadences stronger. In a passing chord, the root note is one half step above or below the target chord, the diatonic chord, the chord in the key. A smooth chromatic movement of bass notes characterizes chord progressions containing diminished seven passing chords.

The first types of diminished progressions we’ll discuss are those that place diminished 7 chords either one half step above or below any of the first three chords in a major key, I major, II minor 7 and III minor 7 -In the key of C that would of course be C major seven, D minor seven and E minor seven. This is a famous and favorite technique proven by generations of musicians, songwriters and arrangers. Listen to and study the examples below to understand the musical effect of passing chords based on chromatic root motion. The diminished 7 passing chords achieve a sense of movement and progress to their diatonic target chords immediately.

The first two examples below are written in a traditional jazz style, as any study of modern guitar would dictate. I regard all of the chords in these first two jazzy examples as being related to C Major 7 with its root note on string 6, or as I like to say, “cadences to string 6.” The final two examples recieve the same thought process except they are “cadencing to string 5” as the root 5 C major 7 chord is center of activity for learning and memorizing the chord changes. These examples are done in an R&B or contemporary style to further illustrate the point that chord changes and harmonic techniques belong to all styles, not just one.

The most used and best sounding diminished 7 passing chords are shown in the diagram below. I prefer to name a passing chord based on its target because it keeps things clear. In the key of C, I will call the first passing chord below C# diminished 7, or sharp I, if the next chord is D minor 7, if I am ascending. Conversely I would name that very same chord Db diminished 7, or flat II, if the following chord is C Major, if I am descending.


A diminished seven passing chord can also be used as a way to change key. The example below is based on a Latin music standard called Wave written by Antonio Carlos Jobim and uses the A flat diminished seven passing chord as a chromatic passing chord resolving one half step down to G minor seven. As you listen to the following example you’ll notice the lift and pull created by the A flat diminished seven passing chord as it leaves the C major seven chord behind and brings that famous feeling of expectancy to your ear. When the chord progression arrives a G minor seven, you have arrived at the II of a new, temporary key of the moment: F major.

The #IV Diminshed 7 Chord: Part Of the Modern Musical Vocabulary

Below is a classic blues ending in the key of C, no matter how many times you hear it, it never gets old. This musical idea gets its richness and power from the F# diminished 7 chord, called ‘sharp 4 diminished’. As you play the chords take special notice of the chromatic root motion between F7, F# diminished 7 and G7. This sharp IV diminished chord is another use of the diminished 7 chord that become a part of the modern musical vocabulary and something you will see again and again. As you cycle through these changes take special notice of the power and the lift that comes from the # IV diminished 7 chord.

The 8 bar example below is done in a traditional jazz style and based on the chord changes to one section of I Got Rhythm written by Irving Berlin. In it’s time (1930), I Got Rhythm was revolutionary, had great chords and an interesting and novel form. Accordingly, it quickly became a favorite of jazz musicians who subsequently played, transposed, reworked and then recorded the song endlessly for decades. As a result, ‘Rhythm Changes’, as it is called, has become an important chord progression in the study of pop music. The version/ excerpt below is intended to point out the lift and energizing of the progression through the use of a # IV diminished chord, C# diminished seven, and also the use of diminished seven passing chords in the final two measures. Take special notice of the chromatic motion in the final two bars of the bass line –from B the all the way down to G (B, Bb, A, Ab, G).

A musician derives much of his working knowledge and a large part of his knowledge base through this study of standard tunes and common knowledge chord progressions. Understanding this type of material means greatly increases your understanding of music and how to play the game. Below is a rhythm guitar track based on When The Saints Go Marching In, which is an 1890s gospel hymn that musicians such as the great Louis Armstrong transformed into a jazz standard in the 1930s.

If you look at the version below you will see nothing more than the three primary chords in the key of C: the I major, IV major and V dominant chords. Use this version as good form of ear training, listening practice and review of basic operating principles. It shouldn’t be necessary to play along but you should actively listen to the music as it goes along thinking about all of the basic issues involved in composing and understanding chord progressions. The rest and stability created by the one chord which is immediately contrasted by the instability of the five dominant chord demanding resolution. The F major chord, the IV chord, the chord in the plagal cadence, has quite its own type of strength and musical effect. Cadences and chord progressions involving the IV chord are an integral part of creating an understanding modern music.

Now that you have closely listened to When The Saints Go Marching In and have taken time to digest and understand not only the sound but the Roman numeral harmonic analysis listen to the jazz style arrangement of the song below. To make a jazz chord arrangement, first of course the rules of chord substitution are applied by trading basic major, minor and dominant chords for more interesting and advanced harmonies such as a major seven, dominant ninth or a minor seven chord.

In the second line of the example you will have the opportunity to hear and play some of the ideas you have been learning in this course. Notice the C9 chord, labeled secondary dominant, a C9 dominant type chord is not in the key of C, but it is the dominant chord of F so it is called a secondary dominant and provides an interesting transition to F, the four chord – the secondary dominant is also called the “five of four”. The next “new” chord for this arrangement is of course the star of the show, sharp IV diminished, or F# diminished seven which once again creates its signature lift and rich empowerment. As the jazz style would dictate, the plain old G7 chords have been replaced with the richer harmonies of either G 13 or G9. Finally, the last two bars contain another example of the use of chromatic bass movement to approach diatonic chords. In this approach non-diatonic root notes are seen as the root notes of diminished chords.

Use the drawing below to really sink your teeth into the sound of the chord changes used in the previous song and to ultimately memorize these chord changes. If you follow the instructions printed inside the thick black boxes beneath the chord diagram you can use this illustration as great harmonic ear training practice as well. For example, the first two chords, C6 and G 13, should be grouped together and thought of together because they represent a I – V cadence in the key of C. For purposes of practicing, play C6 to establish the chord, G 13 to create the tension and then cadence to (return to) C6 releasing the tension, as is outlined in the black box connecting these two chords. Use the black boxes connecting the groups of two or four chords to practice these cadences as a group, learn to visualize and to hear these chords as belonging together. After you have gotten the chords and cadences under control, return to the recorded example and play along in unison with the recorded music. Think of the C root not on fret III of string 5 an the center of activity, you focal point of mental organization.


#IV Diminshed 7 Across Styles

Below is a 32 bar A A B A song written in a lively two beat style reminiscent of important early popular music genres such as jump and jive, early rhythm and blues, swing, country or Texas swing, rockabilly and early rock ‘n roll. In the final two bars of the first line (first A section), chromatic diminished passing chords are used in ascending order this time beginning on C6. When the chord progression arrives at letter B the use of the #IV diminished seven chord is quite pronounced and has a real impact on the chord progression itself. That line finishes up with D7, the ‘five of five’ secondary dominant sound to G7 the actual dominant chord in the key of C. Before playing along with the example below use it as harmonic ear training practice as with earlier examples.

After you have listened to the preceding example and understand the chord changes in your ear, use the illustration below to practice playing and visualizing the cadences on the neck of your guitar. As before there are black boxes that appear with in the diagram which service instructions for you. For example the first two chords are C6 (the I chord) and F9 (the IV chord) respectively and the black box connecting those two diagrams says play I – IV – I, which means you practice playing those chords in that order beginning on I, playing the IV chord and returning to I. Play all the cadences according to the instructions in their respective black boxes. Once you are in control of these cadences play along with the preceding recorded exercise.


Every generation of songwriters and arrangers have known, used, and loved the the energy, power, lift and musical interest generated by the # IV diminished seven chord sound. Below is an example based on a pop music mega hit called Every Time You Go Away, which first appeared on a 1980 album, by Hall & Oates but was a number one hit in 1985 by Paul Young. The chord progression of the song is fine and excellent representation of the craft of songwriting. The A section (verse) of the song is a tried-and-true favorite cadence; I – III – IV – V. The B section of the song uses another iconic, familiar and comfortable cadence to support its hook: I – VI – II -V. The pre-chorus of the song is written brilliantly using the lift and power of the sharp IV diminished 7 to announce the chorus.



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