Diminished Chord Tricks on Guitar
Posted by Robinson Earle on Sep 16th 2020
I once worked for a guy who enjoyed riding his bike around the showroom before we opened our doors for the day. He would weave his way through the guitar stands like it was some sort of demented driving test. It was his shop, so the rest of the staff just egged him on. I never saw him knock one down. One day, just to stir the pot a little, I plugged in a Tele as he was mounting his fixed gear and played this ascending series of chords:
The tension was instantly heightened, and just as quickly relieved when he teetered safely to the floor, howling with laughter. Using what I’d learned from old cartoons, I had channeled the chords that naturally created a sense of impending doom.
Why do these chords sound so unstable? It has to do with their composition and indecision. They are all a semitone away from a Dominant 7 chord. For example, an E7 would be E, G#, B (Major Triad) plus D, while an Edim7 would be E, G, Bb (Diminished Triad) plus C#. While the E7 creates a sense of power and stability, the Edim7 does the opposite. It pulls us just far enough away from “home” to make us feel terribly insecure.
All that said, diminished chords make incredible connective tissue. They allow for greater chromaticism and make every Major or Minor chord feel more solid by contrast. Take this passage:
Sound familiar? It should if you’re a baseball fan: “One. . .two. . .THREE strikes, you’re out, at the old ball GAME!” The C# dim chord beautifully mirrors the drama of the second to last pitch, and makes the return to the one chord that much more satisfying. This is just a diminished triad, by the way, as opposed to the more common and aforementioned dim7 chords. C# Major is C#, E# (F), G#. C#dim is created by flatting the E# and G#, the third and fifth of the chord, down to E and G respectively.
Here’s another passage from a composition of mine that uses diminished chords to extend a turnaround for dramatic effect:
Diminished chords can also be used to modulate between keys. Observe how in this passage (from another composition of mine) how the dim7 chord takes us from D minor to D Major.
Finally, HALF-diminished chords, which only use notes within the diatonic scale, make for great vamps. Check out this one in Am. It’s a blast to solo over:
In conclusion, diminished chords are way under-utilized in contemporary popular music. I hope these examples inspire you to employ them in your own writing. Thank you for reading!