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Symmetrical Scales Part 2 – Diminished

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Read Time: 7 min
This post is part of a series called Symmetrical Scales.
Quick Tip: Symmetrical Scales Part 1 – Whole Tone

Here’s the second chapter of the symmetrical scales saga, covering the diminished sound. I like to refer to it as “sound” instead of scale, since today we’re going to get really physical with two types of diminished: the diminished scale, and the dominant diminished scale.

1. Theory

Diminished Scale

Let’s start with the diminished scale. This scale is also known as the diminished whole-half scale since it’s made alternating whole step and half step. I personally prefer a different way to build and think about this scale that, in my opinion, is going to help you big time when improvising.

The first thing I think about when I hear the word “diminished” is a diminished 7th chord/arpeggio. Why? Well, because every scale has to relate to a chord and in this case, a diminished 7th chord perfectly fits the diminished scale.

This chord has four notes in it:

  • 1
  • b3
  • b5 (part of a diminished triad also) and
  • bb7 (basically a Maj6 soundwise, but keep in mind that in terms of intervals it’s some kind of 7).

So, I’ll put my guide tones on the staff.


The second thing I want to remember while I’m building this scale is the “leading tone”. So I’ll put a note—half step down from the root of my scale—on the staff.


The last thing I need to remember is that every missing note is a whole step above the root, the b3 and the b5.


This might seem a bit difficult to remember, but it’s going to set your mind to properly think about this scale: a diminished 7th arpeggio with a leading tone to its octave, and notes a whole step above the 1, b3 and b5.

Dominant Diminished Scale

Let’s now talk about the dominant diminished scale, which is also known as the diminished half-whole scale since it alternates between half steps and whole steps. As before, I’ll guide you through a way to build this scale where you understand it and target your note choices in a better way.

The first word you read in the name of this scale is “dominant”. That has to remind you of something. The notes that create a dominant chord or arpeggio are: 1 3 5 b7. Let’s put them on the staff.


The second thing you need to remember in order to build this scale, is that the missing notes are all a half step below our guide tones, with the only exception being the root. So basically, we’re going to have a note half a step above the root.


As you can notice, both of these scales have eight notes in them. That’s really unusual if you have only dealt with major scales. Both diminished scales have a repeating pattern: half step – whole step and whole step – half step. They are symmetrical.

2. Diminished Seventh Chords

Dealing with diminished scales naturally leads to diminished chords. As I mentioned in the previous section, every scale has to relate to a chord, so I just want to give you a brief explanation of how and when you can use a diminished chord, and its relation to the diminished scales we talked about.

First, a diminished chord is built by stacking notes a minor third apart. For this reason every note in the chord can be the root of the chord. In fact, if you move this chord up or down in minor thirds, you’re still going to have the same notes, just in a different order.

There are two ways a diminished chords can appear in a song: as a passing chord, or as a substitution for a Dom7(b9) chord. A passing chord will take advantage of the unstable sound of a diminished chord to connect two, or more, diatonic chords a whole step apart.

So for instance, the following progression in the key of G:


You could connect the first three chords with a diminished one:


The second usage of this chord is a little more theory-oriented. For example, let’s take a look at a G7(b9) and the notes in this chord.


You can always substitute this kind of chord with a diminished 7th chord, starting from the 3rd, 5th, 7th or the b9th of the chord. In fact, let’s look at the notes in Ab°7.


Notice you still have the same notes, with the exception of the root. (Cb is enharmonically a B.)

In the diagrams below I graphed out three common voicings for the diminished seven chord—one with the root on the sixth string, one with the root on the fifth, and one with the root on the fourth string.


3. Fingering

Diminished Scale

Let’s start with some fingering for the diminished scale.

In the diagram below you'll find a pattern for the diminished arpeggio. You can move this entire shape up or down a minor third, and you will still play the right notes. Most of the time you’ll just play some kind of pattern inside this shape, and move it along the neck.

Diminished ArpeggioDiminished ArpeggioDiminished Arpeggio

In the next diagram I graphed out the diminished scale in one position. I personally haven’t found myself using that one a lot, but it’s always great having some kind of safe-zone in the neck where you can visualize the entire scale without moving your hand too much.

Diminished ScaleDiminished ScaleDiminished Scale

Dominant Diminished Scale

Let’s move to some fingering for the dominant diminished scale.

I honestly think the following pattern I graphed out for the diminished scale is really useful. It is a “fast-playing” type of fingering, but since you’re not going to play a dominant diminished scale over a chord for five minutes, you'll find it a handy quick lick in many situations.

Dom. Dim 4 noteDom. Dim 4 noteDom. Dim 4 note

As I said before, knowing your scale in one position is always a good thing. Here’s the dominant diminished scale in one spot.

Dominant Diminished ScaleDominant Diminished ScaleDominant Diminished Scale

4. Licks

Now that you understand what the diminished and a dominant diminished scales are, it’s time to learn some licks. I've included a few for you, but I encourage you to mess around with this scale and come up with some of your own. I also recorded a short audio sample for each lick that you might use as a sound reference.

Lick 1

The first lick descends with an A7 arpeggio, and then it comes back with A dominant diminished scale. I intentionally started with a dominant seven arpeggio to let you notice how to approach this scale: chord tones with added notes in between.

You can use alternate picking the whole lick, or use sweep picking for the descending part using hammer on. I suggest you use this lick with the proper chord, but you can also superimpose it over an altered chord.


In the audio example, I play the lick in eighth notes and then in sixteenth notes.

Lick 2

This second lick uses the diminished scale. I wrote this lick not thinking too much in term of an arpeggio, but trying to jump around intervals, and playing the whole scale shape a little bit more. I personally prefer alternate picking for this scale, and using slides.


In the audio example, I play the lick in eighth notes and sixteenth notes.

Lick 3

Back to the dominant diminished sound, this time you will deal with an eclectic hypnotic lick. I simply repeat the same diminished shape following the symmetry of the dominant diminished scale (half step - whole step).

As you can see, the same sequence is repeated, starting with a half step, then a whole step.


In the audio example, I play the lick in sixteenth notes and then in eighth notes.

Lick 4

Last but not least, we'll play a diminished run through the whole neck. I descend three strings, then come back one string, and then descend another three strings.


In the audio example, I play the lick in eighth notes and sixteenth notes.


I hope you enjoyed this little journey through the diminished sound, and keep messing around with this scale. Don’t look at it as a "super outside" sound—you can mix up those scales with regular minor, major, blues scales.

Hungry for more? Check out the music of Scott Henderson, one of main users of the diminished sound.

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