Conquer The Diminished Scale On Guitar - Awesome Ways To Play It

Diminished Scale On The Guitar

Learn how to play the diminished scale on the guitar, and where to use it in your solos. Also learn how to use the half-diminished pentatonic over m7b5 chords.

Diminished Scales For Guitar

    The Diminished scale pattern is made up of a series of alternating half steps and whole steps. On the fretboard a half step corresponds to a distance of one fret, and a whole step is two frets. So when we lay this out on a single string we start on our Root Note and move up one fret, then two, then one again and so on:

Half Whole Diminished Scale on a Single String.
Half Whole Diminished Scale on a Single String.

Why You Don't Need A Diminished Scale Guitar Tab

    Symmetric scales such as this one are very easy to lay out on the guitar fretboard. Watch the video below for an easy and effective way to instantly play the diminished scale in all fretboard positions, using the String Fragment System.

Video: Instant Diminished Scale

What's An Octatonic Scale?

    "Octatonic" means that the scale has eight (octa-) notes (-tonic). Most scales have 7 notes (or 5 in the case of pentatonic scales), so when someone refers to an octatonic scale, they are usually talking about the diminished scale, which is the most common 8-note scale.

    In the diagram above, count the notes and you will see that this is indeed an 8 note scale. In this example we start on the B root note in fret 2 and it takes 8 notes before we get to the root again (in this case the B in fret 14).

Half-Whole VS Whole-Half Diminished Scales

  • If we begin with a half step followed by a whole step, the scale is called a "Half Whole Diminished Scale"
  • If we begin with a whole step instead of the half step, the it's called a "Whole Half Diminished Scale"

    These two scales are essentially modes of each other and are collectively called the "Symmetric Diminished Scale”. Actually all structures that are made of repeating interval groups are called “Symmetric Structures”, and if we are talking about scales they are called “Symmetric Scales”. We will look at more of these in another lesson.

How To Play The Diminished Scale

    As you will quickly figure out, it’s very impractical to play this scale on a single string. It can be cool to do it sometimes, maybe combined with sliding as a special effect, and so on, but we need to find a way to play this on more than one string in order to improvise with it freely and mix it up with other scales.


    And once again, instead of having you memorize meaningless scale shapes, I will show you an application of SFS (String Fragment System) that will get you going with this scale immediately. This is not the only option, and I will make other lessons later that cover all diminished fingerings, but this is the quickest one, because the whole system is just one string fragment.


   That's right!  In a few seconds you will be able to play this scale everywhere on the fretboard using just one string fragment. Here it is:

Diminished Scale - One String Fragment
Diminished Scale - One String Fragment

And here's how to use it to build the complete scale; First you place your first finger on the root note and play these 4 notes. In the following example I use  the A on fret 5 as a Root Note:

Diminished Scale - One String Fragment On String 6
Diminished Scale - One String Fragment On String 6

    Then you move one fret up and repeat the same string fragment:

Diminished Scale - String Fragment System On Strings 6-5
Diminished Scale - String Fragment System On Strings 6-5

    Then one up again and repeat:

Diminished Scale - String Fragment System On Strings 6-5-4
Diminished Scale - String Fragment System On Strings 6-5-4

    You then continue in the same way, but as always with SFS there is an exception when crossing between strings 3 and 2. You will have to move up 2 frets at that point. So we end up with this fingering shape, which conveniently covers a wide range by moving diagonally:

Diminished Scale - SFS Full Position
Diminished Scale - SFS Full Position

    Now it doesn’t matter what string you start with, or what key you play in. You will always get the same system. That’s the beauty of SFS. So what you need to do now is to play through these scale a few times, decide what fingers you want to use, get some muscle memory happening, and so on.


    Then you can use the backing track below and improvise creatively with it in the key of A. Make sure that you build the scale on every A on the fretboard just like we do with the pentatonic scales.


    In the video I play a demo, going through the following practice routine that you can use in your own practice sessions as well:

  • Build the system in the ASCENDING direction, on every string, starting on the A
  • Build the system in the DESCENDING direction, on every string, starting on the A
  • Improvise freely and jump between fretboard areas, again using the A as a root note. 

    Practice this yourself and when you feel that you are beginning to get comfortable with it, then you can move on to the next lesson where we will talk about where you can use this scale, and how you can mix it with your pentatonic scales in songs with complex chord changes. 

A Diminished Scale Backing Track

Where To Use Diminished Scales

Video: Where To Use The Half-Whole Diminished Scale

Over Diminished Triads

    The most obvious application of the Half-Whole Diminished scale is when you see a diminished triad, a simple diminished chord. (Btw, in this lesson we are going to always use the half-whole version of the scale, not the whole-half). Watch the video to hear how that sounds.


    There is a chance that the Half-Whole diminished might not be the most conventional and traditionally appropriate choice. This depends on harmonic context. Sometimes the Whole-Half might be more appropriate, or even something totally different like the Locrian mode, or the Superlocrian, or the Ultralocrian.


    But we can't cover all these scales in one lesson, and the truth is that whenever you have a high tension chord, like the diminished, or an altered 7th chord, the listener’s ears are more receptive to more “outside” sounds. In fact, in jazz and fusion, and some other styles, players do this on purpose all the time. They substitute the more conventional scale choice with an “outside” substitution.


    So if it happens that the Half-Whole diminished scale sounds a bit "off" over a certain diminished chord, don’t worry about it, use it anyway. The trick when playing “out” is to play confidently so that the sound of the scale becomes more prominent than the sound of the harmonic context, and pulls the listener into following your melodic idea.


    Another important thing is to resolve the tension by voice-leading smoothly into the target chord that comes next. I play you an example of this in the video as well.

Over Diminished 7th chords

    Another use for the H/W Diminished Scale is over the diminished 7th chord. That’s the one we learned in the video lesson and backing track above, so it should be familiar.

Exception: m7b5 chords

    One situation where I don’t recommend using this scale, is over a m7b5 chord, also known as the half diminished 7th. For reasons I’m not going to get into, this can sound sloppy, so instead we can use another very simple solution. You can use a modified 3 string pentatonic. You just play the standard 3 string fragments for pentatonics, but move the second note of SF2 a fret back. This works very well for m7b5 chords and sounds really cool:

Regular Pentatonic using 3 String Fragments
Regular Pentatonic using 3 String Fragments
Modified Pentatonic using 3 String Fragments
Modified Pentatonic using 3 String Fragments

    You can hear this in action over chord changes in the video.

3. Over Dominant 7b9 chords

    Another place for the Half-Whole Diminished scale is when you see a dominant 7 flat 9 chord. This is one of those places where again you will most likely get a slightly “outside” sound, but again the use of this scale is very standard and should work fine. For a shortcut it certainly beats having to learn all the theory in order to decide if you should use a Phrygian Dominant, or the altered dominant, or some other scale.


    You can always learn those as well, but what we are after here is to equip you with a basic toolbox to handle all chords in a short time. Later you can add new colors and choices on top of this.


    In the video I play you an example over the following chord progression: Dm7b5, G7b9, and then Cm for 2 bars. According to what we learned in this course, I play the modified 3 string pentatonic for Dm7b5, the H/W Diminished for G7b9, and then the C minor pentatonic for Cm. I improvise and try to voice-lead smoothly from one scale to the next. This way you can hear how the tension of the “outside sound” of the H/W diminished resolves when I voice-lead into the C minor. So watch the example paying attention to the scale changes, and have fun practicing this scale yourself.


   Below you can find a minor II-V-I backing track that you can use to practice the 3rd option over. There are other scale options, but according to what we covered in this lesson you can use:

  • D Modified Pentatonic for 1 bar
  • G Half-Whole Diminished for 1 bar
  • C Minor Pentatonic / blues scale for 2 bars

    Enjoy your practice, and be effective!

    Prokopis Skordis


II-V-I in C Minor Backing Track

Lead Guitar Lessons:

Related Courses:

SFS Fretboard Secrets
SFS Pentatonics
SFS Pentatonics 2 - Navigating Chord Changes