Jazz Concepts: Diminished Chords & Scales

Sassy sings the clever gershwin lyric, “what a kick, how i buzz.
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SASSY SINGS THE CLEVER GERSHWIN LYRIC, “WHAT A KICK, HOW I BUZZ. Boy you click, as no one does.” On the word “buzz,” Ray Brown starts an ascending line— hipness in a two-bar package. I first heard the record when it came out in 1978 [Sarah Vaughan, How Long Has This Been Going On?, Pablo], and I listened to it constantly, soaking up the sound of Sarah Vaughan’s incredible voice and Brown’s impeccable bass lines. Vaughan, known by her fans as “Sassy” or “the Divine One,” assembled an all-star quartet to accompany her. Brown anchored the Pablo date with characteristic aplomb.

At the time, I wasn’t hip to Ray’s hipness. The magical line I heard was just a diminished scale, and Brown delivered it perfectly—the right notes, deep in the pocket. One of Brown’s skills was making tricky techniques sound musical and natural. He dissects diminished scales in his book Ray Brown’s Bass Method [Hal Leonard], but he doesn’t explain where to use them. For that, we listen to his recorded legacy. This month, let’s look at how to use diminished arpeggios and scales in bass lines and solos.

Example 1 shows Brown’s slick lick over a Bdim7 chord, during the second eight bars of the head, at 2:02. The first two bars float on a Cm7/F chord. In bars 3 and 4, pianist Oscar Peterson plays the Bdim7/F. The low F pedal note underpins both chords. Brown jumps into the spotlight for a moment and shows us how to use an octave-and-a-half diminished scale in an artistic way.

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Why does this sound good? Do bass players—at least those who do not aspire to be the next Ray Brown—really need to understand how diminished chords function? The chord sounds good because it provides tension and movement, like a souped-up dominant chord. Countless songs in the jazz and pop world use diminished chords, which are often used as passing chords, or as substitutes for dominant chords. When you understand diminished sounds, it’s like having a key to the back door always at the ready.

Diminished chords and scales are symmetrical, in that they repeat themselves every minor-3rd interval (every three half-steps). Example 2 shows the notes of a Bdim7 arpeggio. Note that there are three half-steps between each chord tone: B, D, F, Ab. The four notes of the chord divide the octave’s 12 notes into equal segments. This opens up a world of possibilities, because the notes in Bdim7, Ddim7, Fdim7, and Abdim7 are all the same. You can play licks, patterns, and melodies up and down the bass in minor-3rd intervals to create the diminished sound.

The diminished chord can also be used as a substitute for a dominant chord with a flatted 9th. Example 3 shows a G7b9 chord. The root is the note G, followed by the notes of the Bdim7 chord: B, D, F, Ab. When playing a 7b9 chord, you can use the diminished arpeggio starting on the 3rd, 5th, b7th, or b9th of the chord (Ex. 4).

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Example 5 shows a progression, in the key of Bb, which uses diminished chords as passing chords between the diatonic chords Bbmaj7, Cm6, and Dm7. This progression is similar to the first bars of the ubiquitous Gershwin standard “I Got Rhythm.” The Bdim7 is like a G7b9 without the root, and the Dbdim7 is like an A7b9 without the root.

There are two formulas used to construct diminished scales, and this month we’re only analyzing the whole–half diminished scale, like Ray Brown played (Ex. 6). This scale uses the formula W H W H W H W H W H, where W = whole-step and H = half-step. Using this formula, you can construct a whole–half diminished scale from any starting note. (Next month, we’ll look at the half–whole diminished scale.) Examples 7–9 are patterns using the B whole– half diminished scale. You can also think of these patterns harmonically as a G7b9 chord. A good practice method would be to play the G7b9 pattern for two bars, then vamp on a Cm7 for two bars. Repeat until you and the folks in the neighboring apartment are in a trance.

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Check out some standards that use diminished chords: “Wave” (Antonio Carlos Jobim, 2nd bar), “Spring Is Here” (Rogers & Hart, 1st bar), “Crazy” (Willie Nelson, 3rd and 6th bars), “It’s All Right With Me” (Cole Porter, first two bars of the bridge). Understanding diminished chords and scales will give you more options in your lines and solos, and make you a better bassist—Ray Brown would have backed me up on that statement!



John Goldsby is teaching in July at the Aebersold Summer Jazz Workshops in Louisville, Kentucky, and the Sligo Jazz Workshop in Ireland. Introduce yourself in person, or online at johngoldsby.com.