Diminished Scales: A Jazz Piano Power Tool

Would you like to learn how to incorporate diminished scales in jazz piano?

You’ve come to the right place.

In this lesson, you’ll learn how to use diminished scales to spice up your chord and soloing vocabulary.

Let’s get started.

What Exactly Are Diminished Scales?

A diminished scale is one of the symmetrical scales in music.

It consists simply of a series of alternating half and whole steps.

A diminished scale in C would look just like this:

Since it is an 8-note scale, it’s also called an octatonic scale.

There are a lot of reasons why jazz pianists love using this scale.

Let’s explore some reasons why.

The 3 Diminished Scales You Need To Know To Play In All 12 Keys

Yes, you read that right: You only need to know 3 diminished scale shapes.

Once you know all 3, it’s easy to manage improvising with them in all 12 keys.

Simply learn how to play the diminished scale in C, Db, and D:

If you can play the C diminished scale, you can also play the Eb, F#/Gb, and A diminished scales. Knowing one pattern allows you to improvise in 4 keys right off the bat.

The Db diminished scale also gives you access to E, G, and Bb diminished scales:

diminished scales

The D diminished scale also provides the F, Ab, and B diminished scales:

diminished scales

As you might have guessed, this happens because of common notes in all of those scales.

If you think about diminished scales this way, memorizing all 12 of them becomes easy.

Interestingly, there’s another way to learn any diminished scale, especially for jazz piano soloing.

The 2 Chord Shapes and Progression You Need To Master

To start mastering diminished scales, you need a major triad and the 2nd inversion minor triad.

Yes you read that right: You only need 2 simple chord shapes to start with.

Let’s look at one way we can harmonize the C diminished scale:

As you can see in the chart above, each of the notes of the C diminished scale can be harmonized as alternating root position major and 2nd inversion minor triads.

It’s that simple.

Here are your practice steps:

  1. Start with any major triad in root position.
  2. Play a 2nd inversion minor triad a half step above the previous chord.
  3. Play a root position major triad a whole step above.
  4. Pick another 2nd inversion minor triad a half step above the previous major triad.
  5. Keep repeating the cycle.

As long as you understand the pattern, you can harmonize any diminished scale quickly.

Over What Chords Can You Use The Diminished Scale For Soloing?

Great question. You can certainly use diminished scales over dominant chords.

For instance, you can use a G diminished scale over a G7 chord and it will sound good.

Obviously, it can also be used over diminished chords.

Following the earlier example, the G diminished scale can also be used over a Gdim or a Gdim7 chord.

Now, let’s look at more practical and musical ways to practice diminished scales.

How To Practice Improvising Lines With Diminished Scales

First, look at how a diminished scale can be organized. Because its structure:

  1. You can form root position major and minor triads on the 1st, b3, b5, and 6th of the scale.
  2. You’ll also have 2nd inversion major triads and 1st inversion minor triads available on the b2, 3rd, 5th, and b7.
  3. Lastly, every scale degree can form diminished triads.

Second, start practicing arpeggios using that alternating root position major triad – 2nd inversion minor triad like this:

diminished scales

diminished scales

Practice it in all 12 keys.

Next, practice using this alternating descending-ascending pattern:

diminished scales

The great thing about practicing the pattern above is you learn how to make use of chromatic passing tones in between chord shapes.

Coincidentally, you can also do the same exercises using a variation with alternating minor triads and 1st inversion major triads like these:

1. Practice block chords like these first:

diminished scales

2. Practice arpeggios up and down.


diminished scales

diminished scales

3. Practice alternating between descending and ascending arpeggios in this way. Each arpeggio connects to one another via half steps:

diminished scales


After that, simply practice diminished triads over each scale degree.

The Power of Diminished Scales

To even take it up a notch, try this exercise:

  1. Play any possible arpeggio from the diminished scale.
  2. Resolve the last note of the previously played arpeggio to a note a half step up or down (this depends on its position along the diminished scale)
  3. Play any possible arpeggio starting on that resolution note.
  4. Repeat the cycle.

What you’ll notice here is how flexible the diminished scale is.

In fact, when you see how you can resolve any note of the diminished scale to any chord or triad, it makes it easy to switch from one idea to the next!

Lastly, try and apply the concepts learned above when improvising lines over songs. Nothing beats practicing with real music.

How To Take It Even Further From Here

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I hope you enjoyed today’s lesson about diminished scales.

If you have any questions, comments, or suggestions for a new lesson, feel free to leave a note below.

Happy practicing.

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Mark A. Galang

Mark Galang is one of our contributors at FreeJazzLessons.com. He loves teaching all styles of music especially jazz, blues, rock, classical, and Christian music.