How can we get beyond the same old Pentatonic, Blues Scale licks?
How about taking some hints from Blues/Rock/Fusion great Robben Ford? Larry Carlton? Mike Stern? Saxophonist Extraordinaire Michael Brecker? Dave Liebman? Bill Evans? Bob Berg? All of these world-class regularly made leaps and strides musically using the Diminished Dominant Scale.
These players, and many others like them, are masters in playing through chord changes in a meaningful way, weaving in and out of consonance and dissonance. In order to make improvisational lines sound great to the majority of listeners, it’s important to understand how to use dissonance, or outside notes to allow the consonant resolutions to sound particularly pleasing. Blues is dependent on this concept. Breaking the rules and redefining melodic brilliance can be inspiring to the listener.
As the vast majority of pop and rock styles has come from blues, learning how to play over dominant chords is key. Often songs utilize dominant sounds in chords even if the chords are limited to triads. In fact, learning to navigate dominant sounds over triads can be some of the best sounds that one can explore. A particular sound that mixes up inside notes as well as outside notes is often known as the dominant diminished scale.
The Diminished Scale is initially to play over the Diminished chord. This chord is a particularly dissonant chord that screams out for resolution. It is not a restful chord; it’s made to be a passing chord. It can be considered a darker version of the minor chord. It’s formula is Root, minor 3rd, lowered 5th, and double-flatted 7th. C Diminished 7th chord(C°7) is spelled C, Eb, Gb, and Bbb(or A). Each of these chord tones is 3 half-steps away from the previous chord tone, and the same to the next chord tone. All minor 3rds. It is a symmetrical chord. The same interval from any chord tone ascending or descending.
This symmetrical quality means that any note of the chord can be the root. C°7 uses the same notes as A°7, Gb°7, and Eb°7.
What is intriguing about this is that the upper notes of a Dominant 7th chord with the altered 9th note yield a diminished chord. Look at C7(b9): C, E, G, Bb, Db. This is a garden variety C7 chord used in many blues and rock songs. However, the Db note adds just a bit more dissonance, creating the aural necessity to resolve to it’s intended target chord, F or Fm. Notice that the C7(b9) incorporates an E°7 over the C bass note.
Try this: play an E°7 and resolve it to an F chord:
Sounds smooth, no? The C7 chord resolves nicely to the F chord naturally. This perfect cadence is what our music system is based on. The added Db note added to it only adds to the resolution. Whenever we want to create a strong resolution, we can use the diminished chord to substitute for the dominant chord.
The Diminished Dominant Scale, or Double Diminished
With the symmetrical quality of the diminished chord, this means that Eº7 chord, the Gº7, Bbº7 chord, or the Dbº7 chord can resolve to the F chord. In that case, the diminished scale works over the dominant chord. This scale includes the altered b9 note, along with the #9, and the #4 notes. The scale is symmetrical, just as the diminished chord, making it quite versatile in an improvisation setting. The number of patterns and melodic shapes that repeat in minor 3rds work equally over the dominant chord.
Using this scale over the Bbº7 outlines the chord nicely. It’s a Bbº7 alongside a diminished chord a half step lower, which is Aº7. From the Bb root, the scale goes whole step, half step, whole step, half step, etc. Any scale pattern or melodic shape originating from the scale can repeat a minor 3rd higher or minor 3rd lower.
A simple line, Bb→C→C#→D#, can be lowered by a minor 3rd, which would become G→A→Bb→C, E→F#→G→A, or C#→D#→E→F#. The interval pattern is the same, and all fit in the scale. Any diminished lick can be raised or lowered by a minor 3rd(or 3 frets) and still work over the Bbº7 chord, therefore can also be used over an A7 chord, C7 chord, Eb7 chord, or F#7 chord.
Whole/Half or Half/Whole?
Basically, if we’re using this scale over a Dominant 7th chord, we want the scale to start with a half step above the root. So, when we play over the Bbº7 chord, we want the above Whole/Half scale. Otherwise, over the Bb7 chord, we can use the same scale. So, the Whole/Half scale for diminished chords, and the Half/Whole scale for dominant chords. The dominant scale is sometimes known as the Inverted Diminished scale.
Notice the interval shapes that can be moved in minor 3rds. Playing whole step intervals every three frets yields the Inverted Diminished scale, or the Dominant/Diminished scale. Major 3rds every three frets also yields this scale. Playing Major triads every three frets yields the Dominant/Diminished scale. Let’s start from Bb Major triad. Build a Major triad over each note of the Bbº7 chord. Bb triad(Bb, D, F), Db triad(Db, F, Ab), E triad(E, G#, B), G triad(G, B, D). This spell Bb, Cb, Db, D, E, F, G, A.
Is all of this too complicated for improvising? Of course it is. No one wants to be thinking about all of this while soloing. The important thing in soloing is to think only about what sounds good, what is an interesting melody. The best way to use this material is to learn to hear what sounds good in different circumstances.
Guitar players in particular love to think scale fingerings over particular chords. This misses the point of placing the best sounding notes into the best rhythmic and melodic places. There are very few specific rules on how this works. It’s like saying, “which verb is the most appropriate to used in a sentence about animals?”. Clearly the context matters most.
Common Diminished Scale patterns
Let’s simplify some of the tools here. Look at some patterns that have been used by the master improvisors in their solos. Then apply them where they sound best to you. There is no wrong or right; only what works for you at the moment.
Here’s the making of a popular John Coltrane pattern. First, let’s look at the Whole step(one fret) intervals in the Db Diminished scale:
Notice that each Whole Step is a chord tone in the Cº7 chord, preceded by a note a whole step below it. Since the Cº7 scale starts with a half step, we’ll begin with the Db note, ascend a whole step to the Eb(which is in the Cº7 chord), then move to the E note, ascend a whole step to the F# note(enharmonically the same as Gb, the lowered 5th of the Cº7 chord), move to the G note, ascending to the A note(enharmonically the same as Bbb, the double-flatted 7th of Cº7). This is the Diminished scale in scale order.
However, if we invert the whole step intervals, we have this pattern:This would be each note of the Cº7 chord, followed by the whole step below the chord tone. If you take away every other note, we have chord tones Eb, Gb(F#), A(Bbb), C. This also yields a number of 4th intervals between the whole step patterns. For guitar, this means a lot of patterns starting on the same fret on an adjacent string. Let’s take this pattern over all of the strings:
So as not to only play this pattern from the root note, Robben Ford uses a version of this pattern that includes a slide into the 3rd of the A chord to begin this lick that works into the turn-around C7 chord at the end of an F Major blues:
Notice the varying degree of dissonant notes landing on strong beats, like the raised 4th note on beat one of the Eb7 chord. It does resolve nicely before enclosing the target Bb note on the end of beat one, moving to a particularly strong root note of Eb7 on beat 2.
This whole lick can be moved up 3 frets to yield similar results, utilizing notes from this same scale. Same fingering pattern, different location on the fretboard. Here’s a good way to think of where to move this pattern to. The first 4 notes of the lick show the minor 3rd-to-Major 3rd and then 5th and root of the AMaj chord. The other chords that this works over would be the C chord. Move the lick up to start on Eb, sliding to E, and then G and C notes of the C chord. This lick works over Eb7, F#7, A7 chords, too.
Move the lick up to begin on Gb-to-G slide of the Eb7 chord, yielding G, Bb, Eb. Then, move the lick to begin on the A-to-A# slide into the 3rd of the F#7 chord. Then move it up to the begin on the C-to-C# slide into the 3rd of the A7 chord. Any of these four licks works over any of the four dominant chords. Some sound more more outside the tonality than others. You want to use your ears to figure out which one you like better. Maybe change the phrasing to make it work better for your taste.