How to play diminished scales on guitar

Last updated on January 23rd, 2024


Diminished scales are some of the most ambiguous scales in music and are often misunderstood as to how they are used. However, they are very satisfying to play once you understand how they can be used to spice up your improvisation.

We’ll first learn some music theory about how diminished scales work, learn the scale shapes on guitar and then we’ll look at some musical examples to apply them.

Diminished scales music theory

Diminished scales are built on 7 notes with a repeating sequence of whole and half steps. There are two types of diminished scales: the whole half diminished scale and the half whole diminished scale.

Let’s look at the scale formulas with some examples below.

Whole half diminished scale

For this scale formula, we start with a whole step, then a half step, and repeat this pattern. The formula is whole, half, whole, half, whole, half, and whole step. For example, a C whole half diminished scale has the notes C, D, Eb, F, Gb, Ab, A, and B. In terms of scale degrees, the notes are the root, 2nd, flat 3rd, 4th, flat 5th, flat 6th, 6th, and 7th.

whole half diminished scale formula

Whole half diminished scale chart

Here are some examples of whole half diminished scales below.

Whole half diminished scale12b34b5b667
C whole half diminishedCDEbFGbAbAB
C# whole half diminished C#D#EF#GAA#C
D whole half diminishedDEFGAbBbBC#

Half whole diminished scale

For this scale formula, we start with a half step, then a whole step, and repeat this pattern. The formula is half, whole, half, whole, half, whole, and half step. For example, a C whole half diminished scale has the notes C, Db, Eb, E, F#, G, A, and Bb. In terms of scale degrees, the notes are the root, flat 2nd, flat 3rd, 3rd, sharp 4th, 5th, 6th, and flat 7th.

half whole diminished scale formula

Half whole diminished scale chart

Here are some examples of half whole diminished scales below.

Half whole diminished scale1b2b33#456b7
C half whole diminishedCDbEbEF#GABb
C# half whole diminished C#DEFGG#A#B
D half whole diminishedDEbFF#G#ABC

Related diminished scales

Here is an interesting fact about diminished scales which saves you time to learn the scale in different keys.

The diminished scale is symmetrical because the whole and half step intervals patterns repeat. Because of this, one scale shares the same notes as another scale that is a minor 3rd interval away. For example:

  • C diminished scale shares the same notes as the Eb, Gb, and A diminished scale. The only difference is that the starting points are different.
  • C# diminished scale shares the same notes as the E, G, and Bb diminished scale.
  • D diminished scale shares the same notes as the F, Ab, and B diminished scale.

Essentially, you can play the diminished scale in all 12 keys if you know the C, C#, and D diminished scale!

Whole half diminished scale shapes on guitar

In this section, we’ll be covering the four whole half diminished scale shapes in several positions of the guitar fretboard.

How to read the scale charts

For the charts below:

  • The lowest horizontal line represents the thickest string (Low E). The top horizontal line represents the thinnest string (high E). 
  • The green circles represent the root note of the diminished scale and the blue notes are every scale note in between. 
  • The numbers inside the circles represent the suggested fingering to use on your fretting hand.

If needed, check out how to read guitar notation symbols.

W/H diminished shape 1

On the 1st shape, I include a suggested fingering that you can use for all the other shapes. The root notes are highlighted in green.

For diminished scales, the guitar scale shapes look exactly the same starting every minor 3rd interval or every 3 frets across one string. Even though the shapes look the same, it’s helpful to keep in mind where your root notes are.

Whole half diminished guitar scale shape 1

W/H diminished shape 2

Whole half diminished scale shape 2

W/H diminished shape 3

Whole half diminished scale shape 3

W/H diminished shape 4

Whole half diminished scale shape 4

Half whole diminished scale shapes

Now, let’s look at the four half whole diminished guitar scale shapes. Again, the fingerings are the same as the previous shapes but keep in mind how the scale degrees shift.

H/W diminished shape 1

Half whole diminished scale guitar shape 1


H/W diminished shape 2

Half whole diminished scale guitar shape 2

H/W diminished shape 3

Half whole diminished scale guitar shape 3

H/W diminished shape 4

Half whole diminished scale guitar shape 4

Connecting diminished scale shapes

Here are some examples of how you can connect between different scale shapes below.

H/W diminished scale connecting shape


W/H diminished scale connecting shape

W/H diminished connecting shape

Diminished scale application examples

Now, we’ll look at how some musical examples of how you can use diminished scales.

I suggest using the whole half diminished scale whenever you see a diminished chord. For example, use the C# whole half diminished scale over a C# diminished chord.

I suggest using the half whole diminished over dominant chords. For example, use a C half whole diminished scale over a C7 chord.

For a quick overview, diminished chords have the chord tones 1, b3, and b5 while diminished 7 chords have the chord tones 1, b3, b5, and 6. If needed, check out this post on how to play diminished chords on guitar.

Examples 1 through 3 show you how whole half diminished scales can be used in a chord progression.

Example 1

Diminshed scale example 1


Example 2

Diminshed scale example 2


Example 3

Diminshed scale example 3

Examples 4 through 6 show you how half whole diminished scales can be used in a chord progression.

Example 4

Diminshed scale example 4

Example 5

Diminshed scale example 5

Example 6

Diminshed scale example 6

To learn other ways to play over a dominant chords, check out these jazz licks and blues licks over a dominant chord.

Wrapping up

Even though a diminished scale shares the same notes with other scales a minor 3rd interval away, you can practice writing them out starting on different root notes to learn them better.

You can practice writing them yourself using a tool like the My Music Composition Notebook which has printable sheet music and simple guides on notation or use software such as Musescore where you can input notes from your computer.

For other ideas on developing your improvisational vocabulary, check out these 9 ways to make your melody lines sound jazzy.

Get the free guitar practice guide here!

All the best,

JG Music Lessons

My Music Composition Notebook is meant to help you write down your musical ideas with printable sheet music for different instruments.
This ebook also includes simple guides to understand basic music symbols and concepts such as note names on the staff, time and key signatures, note values, and the circle of 5ths. 
👉 Get it here!


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