The Dominant Diminished Scale in Blues-Rock

Maybe you know this voicing of E7#9 from "Purple Haze" and other rock songs.



The usual rock scales - E minor pentatonic, E blues, or E dorian - can
be played over this chord. But the chord's theoretical spelling (1, 3, 5, b7, #9)
tells us we can also use the dominant diminished scale over it. This scale can give
us some great sounds ranging from jazz and ragtime, through perilous horror-film
mayhem, cheese-metal and progressive rock fusion, all the way to whacked-out cartoon rockabilly.

Here's a common fingering for an E Dominant Diminished Scale. The root, E, is circled. Try starting this one with your third finger.


The scale is symmetrical, always
consisting of alternating half-steps and whole steps: half-step, whole step,
half-step, whole step, etc. (A half-step equals one fret. A whole step is two
frets.) Because of this symmetry, as bizarre as the following statement sounds, it
is nonetheless true: every other note of the scale can be considered the root. Notice the alternating repetitions of 3-note shapes on the top four strings. Once you get started, the scale is pretty easy to play.


The scale shape repeats in minor thirds - three frets down (or up) the fretboard, giving the same pitches.

Three frets down: 
Or up here: 
Another three frets up: 

Any of the above shapes is an E, G, Bb, or C# dominant diminished scale. Expanding on the idea of symmetry, we can move anything using these notes up or down in minor thirds. Licks, arpeggios, chords, all can be moved in minor thirds as long as they started with the correct notes in the first place.


This scale commonly fits a V chord that is about to resolve to I (G is the "V" chord in the key of C. The "I" chord in C is C). If a G chord appears as part of a progression in the key of C, the G dominant diminished scale might be played over it. In a jazz environment, extensions of G7 can be present, but must be drawn from the scale: G7, G7b9, G7#9, G7b5, G13. In a rock setting the chord is likely to be G7, a G major triad, a G5 power chord, or just a G bass note only. If notes that clash with the dominant diminished scale are present, then another scale choice is called for. For instance, we should not use this scale over Gadd9, Gsus4, G9, G11, or G7b13.

There are other places to use the dominant diminished scale, but for now we'll stick with this basic application: V going to I. When the funky, psychedelic Hendrix chord, G7#9, occurs as a V chord, it really fits well.

We need to use the idea of repeating shapes to add some structure to what can be a confusing sound. From there, lots of experimentation with arpeggio shapes leads us to the right combination of chaos and order to (hopefully) create something compelling.

Below is a tasty lick I prepared earlier, using the G dominant diminished scale to fit the progression:

| G | G | G | G | C |

This lick is found in the last 4 bars of the solo section of "The Giant Cockroach That Ate Tokyo", at 3:54. The lick is all triplets with a short (one note of an eighth-note triplet) rest on beat 4 of bar 3.

MP3 - "The Giant Cockroach That Ate Tokyo" - lick
MP3 - "The Giant Cockroach That Ate Tokyo" - song

       H       P   S P P   P        P      P       P    S  P
E ---|-----3-6-3-6-7-4-0-------|-10-7-----------12-9-12-13-10----|
B ---|---3-------------------8-|------8------11---------------11-|
G -3-|-4-----------------7-6---|--------10-9---------------------|
D ---|-------------------------|---------------------------------|
A ---|-------------------------|---------------------------------|
E ---|-------------------------|---------------------------------|
LH:1   2 1 1 4 1 4 4 1   2 1 3   4  1 2 3  2  3 4  1 4  4  1  2

                       rest BR                                        B
E 12-10------13-10-12-10----13-|-11---------------------------------|----
B ------11-9-------------11----|----13-11---------------------------|-11-
G -----------------------------|----------12-10------------------10-|----
D -----------------------------|----------------13-10-------8-10----|----
A -----------------------------|----------------------13-10---------|----
E -----------------------------|------------------------------------|----
  3  1  2  1 4  1  3  1  2  3    1  3  1  2  1  4  1  4  2  1 2  2    3  
H Hammer-on 
P Pull-off 
S Slide 
B Bend 
R Release 
LH Left Hand Fingering 


We start with a common G blues lick at the third fret to outline the chord: Bb B D G Bb G Bb, ending with the Bb on the 6th fret of the first string.

Then we slide up to an E7 arpeggio starting with the B note on the 7th fret of the first string. Pull off to G# and open E, then play a D on the 7th fret of the 3rd string. Again, notice that was an inverted E7 arpeggio: B G# E D.

We will embellish the arpeggio with two notes from the scale (C# and G) to make a 6-note phrase that suggests E13#9.

In bar 2 we start with that 6-note phrase again, a minor third higher. Notice my suggested fingering for this part. Then on beat 3 we'll repeat part of the G blues lick we started with, but now in the key of C# at the ninth fret.

In bar 3 we'll counter the repetition with a scalar passage. During this, we also start our return to the G tonality. Up to this point we have gone from "inside" the G chord to "outside". In this bar we are moving back "inside".

In bar 4, we anticipate the resolution from G to C with a rock lick from the C minor pentatonic scale. It works for me!

Good luck and take it slow. You'll probably learn it a lot faster than I wrote it.

Barrett Tagliarino is a guitarist and author, whose most recent book is entitled "The Guitar Fretboard Workbook".

His debut CD, "Moe's Art", features nine rock-inflicted instrumental pieces showcasing his concise compositional style and innovative guitar voice.

Barrett Tagliarino