How Does That Work? Diminished Chords – You’ll Hear It

Today, Adam gives a tutorial on different types of diminished chords as he continues his solo series “How Does That Work?”

See more of Adam’s “How Does That Work?” series:

(“Emotion in Motion” by Peter Martin plays)

I’m Adam Maness and you’re listening to the You’ll Hear It podcast, daily jazz advice coming at you. Coming at you for day two of my solo week here. At the piano, Peter’s in Europe. I’m here in St. Louis but I’m at the Steinway piano, and this week I’m doing a sort of basic jazz theory series here called “How Does That Work?” You know, like yesterday was altered dominants. Today I’m going to be talking about diminished chords and how we often use them in jazz.

There’s a few different ways you can use a diminished chord but first let’s define what a diminished chord is. If we start on C, a diminished chord is built on minor thirds, so we have C, E-flat, G-flat, and A-natural.

So this chord is built around, at least in jazz, most of the time it’s built around the diminished scale. For a straight-up diminished chord, it’s built around the whole-half diminished scale, so we go in a series of whole-steps, C to D, half-step D to E-flat, and then so on, whole step, half step, whole step. So E-flat, F, F-sharp, G-sharp, A, B, C. So if you skip a note, right, you get this C-diminished seven.

Okay, so how do we use diminished chords in jazz? Now, diminished chords are often used as a substitute for a seventh chord. It can be, say here we have our C-diminished seven. This could be acting as a five-chord to D-flat major. You hear this all the time.

All right, from the half-step below the diminished, or it could be going to B-flat minor. Essentially, these are used as part of a dominant-seventh chord. It can really be used as a dominant-seventh flat-nine, remember altered extensions from yesterday, from any root note a half-step below any of the notes in this seventh chord, so wherever you would use a B-seven flat-nine, like, say to E-major, you could use one of these four because it’s symmetrical diminished chords.

So, C or A like, that’s kind of how they function, but mostly they go from the half-step below. You might see them used there. They’re also used to substitute a tonic chord, so if I’m landing on C, you see this all the time where you would use a C-diminished to delay going into the C-major six nine. You know, it happens on tunes like “Let’s Get Lost” and “What’s New?” You hear people do this all the time.

So, that’s another way you can use that diminished chord. And then, a final way we’ll talk about today, is again, is as another passing tone, but this time instead of from below as a seventh chord from above. So, if we have a three, six, two, five, again, you can sub out instead of A7, you can do E-flat diminished seven, to the D-minor seven, so three, and instead of six, E-flat diminished seven two, five, one. You see this all the time, especially on that three six sub. And you see it too from the two up to the three. It’s just a sound you hear a lot of in jazz. It’s how we use these diminished chords.

So, we have an option is to use it from below from above, like in the three, six, two, five and then as a substitute for the one. That’s so beautiful. So, how do we build voicings on diminished chords The way I’ve been playing ’em so far is really kinda icky, right? It’s what you hear a lot of beginners play, like they’ll just do straight up, and they might even double it, which is gross.

So, we noticed from our scale (our whole-half) that we actually have four other notes in this octatonic scale and all of those notes are in play, and they’re all one whole-step above our C-diminished here, C, E-flat, G-flat, and A, and so at any time, we can take any of these notes in our voicing, if we’re gonna voice out a chord, and sub it out with the note a whole-step above, so even here, this C-diminished seven I can, instead of playing A, add that B and it sounds great but it works with any of ’em. Adds just a little bit of a clash there, you know?

Any notes from this diminished chord that you move up one whole-step sound great, and for pianists, when we’re doing two-handed voicings, we can get some really lovely voicings out of this just by using the other notes in the scale. It’s called a double diminished, right?

So here I have C, A, and E-flat in my left hand, and that’s from right, our original C-diminished chord, and then I’m borrowing notes from those other four notes in the scale, A-flat, B, and F. I could put D in there, too. Here’s all of the notes, double diminished. Fully double diminished, all the notes from the octatonic scale and it sounds awesome, so if we’re doing, again, our three, six, two, five with subbing that E-flat diminished for the A7, we can do that exact voicing.

How great is that? Again, E-flat, C, G-flat, and then, from the other scale, B, D, F, A-flat. Right? I love that so much. That sounds so good. So that’s just a very basic primer of how we use diminished chords and scales in jazz. There’s a whole other philosophy of the diminished scale with dominant chords, the half-whole we briefly touched upon yesterday, but that’s a whole other can of worms. This is really just the pure diminished, you know, the very basics behind it and how we use it. So that’s it.

I’ll be back tomorrow for some chord subs “How Does That Work,” but until then, you’ll hear it.

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