What’s A Diminished Chord? – Diminished Fifths

What is a diminished chord? You have major chords and minor chords. But when people start adding extra numbers and names after those major and minor chords, it suddenly becomes very theoretical.

I’m going to try to explain the concept of diminished chords as slowly as possible with clear, corresponding imagery. We’re going to do this step by step.

Because I really want you to understand the concept behind diminished chords. Your guitar playing will benefit from it. Diminished chords can really spice up your sound. They’re bluesy, dissonant and tense. In the best possible way.

So let’s start. What are diminished chords?

Let’s Start With Triads

Before we get into diminished chords, let’s first refresh our knowledge on regular major and minor chords.

Regular major and minor chords are chords that solely exist from notes from major and minor triads.

There are three notes in every major and minor triad: a root, a third and a fifth.

Root

The root is the note that will decide the name of the chord.

The root of the C major triad is C:

Third

The third is the note that will decide if a chord is major or minor.

The third of the C major triad is E:

Fifth

You can’t talk about diminished chords without talking about fifths, so this is really important. In regular major and minor triads, fifths are always stable. This means the distance between the root and the fifth are always the same. More about this later.

The fifth of the C major triad is G:

Feel free to visit my post about triads, if you want more information. A clear understanding of how triads work will be beneficial when you’re learning about diminished chords.

Diminished Chords

There are seven chords in any major scale. Six of them are regular major or minor chords. But one of them is different.

  • The first chord of the C major scale is always C major. We covered that chord above.
  • The second chord of the C major scale is always D minor.
  • The third chord of the C major scale is always E minor.
  • The fourth chord of the C major scale is always F major.
  • The fifth chord of the C major scale is always G major. 
  • The sixth chord of the C major scale is always A minor. 
  • The seventh chord of any major scale is always a diminished chord. In the C major scale, it’s B diminished.

What makes a chord diminished?

Let’s take a look at the root note:

Nothing weird so far. It’s the seventh note from C, making it the seventh note of the scale.

Let’s take a look at the third:

This is a minor third. We know this because it takes four notes in the chromatic scale (all notes) to get from B to D.

If the third had been a D# it would’ve been major third, but D# is not in the C major scale.

So we now know a diminished chord has a root and a minor third.

Let’s Take A Look At The Fifth.

In regular major and minor chords, fifths were always eight semitones away from the root. When the fifth is eight semitones away from the root, we call such a fifth a “perfect fifth”.

C major has a perfect fifth:

D minor has a perfect fifth as well:

If we were to analyze all major or minor chord, not just in the C major scale, but in any major scale, you’d see that all these chords have perfect fifths.

But fifths are not always perfect.

Let’s see what the fifth looks like in the Bdim chord:

As you can see, the fifth is seven semitones away from the root. When the fifth is seven semitones away from the root it’s not called a perfect fifth anymore but a diminished fifth.

Summary

A diminished chord exists out of the following three intervals:

  • Root 
  • Minor third
  • Diminished fifth

Diminished chords always have this foundation. On top of this triad, a lot of other intervals can be added, but the foundation of diminished chords are always the same.

We also know there’s always a diminished chord in the seventh position of any major scale.

What Do Diminished Chords Look Like?

There are two shapes diminished chords take that can be used anywhere on the neck. When you know how to play these two shapes, you can basically play every standard diminished chord there is.

Let’s see what the B diminished looks like played fully:

In the beginning, it feels a bit spider-like, with the little finger dangling in between the middle finger and the ring finger. But give it some time. Compared to barre chords or more complex jazz chords, it takes a lot less time to learn. It’s just the first phase that’s a bit weird.

Let’s see what C diminished looks like:

As you can see, it’s exactly the same shape, only one fret higher.

Now let’s go a string lower and see what G diminished looks like:

If you don’t like barre chords, you can also play it like this:

F diminished looks like this:

As you can see, it’s the same shape as the G diminished, only two frets lower.

You can move these shapes around and play any standard diminished chord you want. You just have to be aware of the root note. When you know the notes of E and A string, this will go a lot easier. If you want to learn the notes of the fretboard, this link might be helpful: How To Memorize Notes On A Guitar.

Outro

For now, learn these shapes and get used to them. Next diminished lesson, we’ll add some diminished sevenths and start incorporating those chords into actual chord progressions. That’s where things get magical.

If you have any questions about diminished chords, feel free to leave them below. I’ll be here to answer them.

Happy strumming,

Timo

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