If you like the sound of diminished chords but don’t know how to use them, read on.
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Naturally-occuring diminished chords are ones that are built on the 7th note of a major scale. If your song is in the key of G major, the diminished chord that exists naturally for that scale is F#dim, using the notes F#-A-C. As you can see, a diminished chord is a stack of minor 3rds. Most of the time when a musician uses a diminished chord, they’re adding a diminished seventh on top, making a 4-note chord. Diminished seventh chords are beautiful when used correctly, but can sound out-of-place if they’re simply “thrown in.” So let’s look at how to work diminished seventh chords into a typical progression.
The neat thing about a diminished seventh chord is that any of the notes within the chord can act as a kind of “leading tone.” That means that you can resolve any note of a diminished seventh chord upward by a semitone, and then play a major chord on the resulting note.
For example, if your song is in the key of G major, and you’re playing F#dim7 (F#-A-C-Eb), that chord sounds just fine if you follow it with any of the following chords: G (listen); Bb (listen); Db (listen); or E (listen). You can also resolve the diminished seventh chord to the minor versions of those chords as well.
You’ll notice that only two of those resolution chords, G and Em, is actually in the key of G major. So most of the time, the naturally-occuring diminished chord on the 7th note of the scale works best if it moves to a naturally-occuring chord in your chosen key, or if your song is changing key.
There’s a better and more versatile way, however, to create and use diminished seventh chords, and it’s this: create a diminished seventh chord that’s built on the semitone below any chord you’re moving to.
For example, if your chord progression starts with: G Am, you can insert a diminished seventh chord that builds a stack of minor 3rds starting on G#: G G#dim7 Am (listen). That G#dim7 is made up of the four notes G#-B-D-F.
Continuing with this process, a diminished chord can be a nice connector that fits nicely between every naturally-occuring chord in G major. Doing this creates a rising semitone scale in the bass. So you can turn this sequence of chords: G Am Bm C D Em F#dim G into this:
G G#dim7 Am A#dim7 Bm C C#dim7 D D#dim7 Em Fdim7 F#dim G (listen)
You’ll hear that I didn’t insert a diminished seventh on Bm, as there is a semitone already between Bm and C, but there’s no particular reason that you couldn’t.
So if you feel stuck trying to figure out a way to use diminished chords in your chord progressions, try this basic rule: take any chord within your progression, and build a diminished 7th (a chord with stacked minor 3rds) on the note that’s a semitone below the chord you’ve chosen.
By doing that, you’ll turn this: G D Am D Em into this: G D Am D D#dim7 Em (listen).
If you’re looking for even more basic chord information, including lists of hundreds of progressions that you can use right away, check out “Essential Chord Progressions“. It’s part of the 6-ebook songwriting bundle written by Gary Ewer.
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