I admit it, I am scared. It’s just a chord, one of the seven main chords in any key, but still, I avoid it. I don’t think I ever play it when I see it used in a progression, I will just play the root and move on quickly. And if you hadn't guessed by now, I am talking about the diminished chord. I am not sure where my aversion to this family of chords came from, but hopefully admitting I have a problem is the first step towards solving it.
Exposure therapy should be a good way to desensitise myself to this trigger chord. The diminished chord shows up in Jazz, and less so in pop songs. The Beatles’ ‘Michelle’ uses it frequently, but the Beatles are known for their more complex songwriting so it’s not too surprising that they would write songs with diminished chords. A great YouTube video from David Bennet Piano exposes several songs that use the diminished chord and how they use it including: ‘Bennie and the Jets’ by Elton John, ‘Don’t Look Back in Anger’ by Oasis and ‘We Are The Champions’ by Queen. The list is quite long and includes The Isley Brothers, David Bowie, Billie Eilish and Amy Winehouse among others, so it is not as rare as I thought.
Even though it shows up in some mainstream songs the major and minor chords are the predominant chords used for writing popular songs. To fill in some of this mystery chord let’s examine its construction and its use in different musical contexts.
Decoding the diminished chord:
If you have a Decoder: Circle of Fifths, you will see that we place the diminished chord in no-man's-land between the major and minor chords. The Decoder also shows what notes are in the chord in every key. A diminished chord, like most chords, is built using a triad, three notes: the root, the minor third, and the diminished fifth.
On the Ukulele fretboard below, I show a major chord using the D shape:
To make this a diminished chord we need to flatten the 3rd AND the 5th, shown below. The position makes the flattened 5th on the top string hard to play, so it is easier to just damp that string and only play the three top strings:
This highlights one of the main reasons that diminished chords aren’t in my usual repertoire. On stringed instruments they are more complex and difficult to play. The super-secret technique to get around this is to only play a portion of the chord. It took me a long time to figure this out but it is one of the biggest tips that I would give starting guitarists or ukulelists. Remember this:
You don’t need to play all the strings of your instrument all the time!
Armed with more chord knowledge I hope to incorporate a diminished chord or two into my playing. I am going to use easy-to-play triads and concentrate on the three high strings (G, B and E). The diagram below shows the three triad inversions for Ukulele.
(If I could play piano, I would show this on a keyboard)
The first triad looks exactly like the simple, easy to play, G7 shape, except the root is on the A string. Armed with this I am going to work on incorporating this diminished chord into a progression. The simplest way to use a diminished is to use the chord as it shows up in the key, as the chord at the seventh degree of the scale.
For example: In the Key of A, the diminished 7th chord is the G# Diminished, sometimes written G#˚.
The diminished is probably the most dissonant chord in any key, but that also means that it has the strongest pull to resolve to the root of the key. So I will probably follow the G#° immediately by the A. Now I just need to decide on a preceding chord and practise my diminished progression.
Hopefully by dipping my ears into the shallow end of the diminished pool I can slowly build my confidence in using this useful chord. Especially since Halloween has just passed (for those who celebrate), if we are going to play around with spooky chords, now seems pretty fitting.
Let me know how you use or play the diminished chord, let’s share tactics!