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• Learn how to use diminished, augmented, and whole-tone scales.
• Create angular lines that emphasize altered sounds.
• Break down complicated scales into easily understood ideas.
Have you ever craved a little extra musical spice? Do you want your licks to have a sense of mystery, urgency, darkness, or zaniness that major scales and their corresponding modes can’t provide? If so, you may want to investigate symmetrical scales. The concept behind a symmetrical scale is pretty simple: The intervals within the scale follow a consistent and predictable pattern. For example, moving up in whole-steps until you reach the root creates a whole-tone scale. We’ll also cover diminished and augmented scales in this lesson, so let’s dig in!
Ex. 1 is based on a whole-tone scale. You may remember that we used this scale for a warm-up exercise a few months ago [“Future Rock: Hybrid Picking”]. As I mentioned, creating a whole-tone scale couldn’t be easier, just keep stacking up whole-steps until you get back to your root. You can hear this sound in the impressionistic work of Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy. A whole-tone scale creates an unfinished, dreamy quality since it doesn’t really resolve anywhere (that’s because any note in the scale could be considered the root). Everyone from hardcore jazzers to shredders like Bumblefoot, Buckethead, and Shawn Lane have twisted and turned this scale far past what any of the classical composers ever envisioned.
Because of the whole-tone scale’s symmetrical construction, there are only two different versions and each one is a half-step apart. Whole-tone scales sound great over dominant 7#5 chords, but also create an interesting sound over minor 7 chords (just make sure to use the whole-tone scale that includes the b3 of the chord). In the example below, we have an E whole-tone scale (E-F#-G#-Bb-C-D) over an E pedal tone, and this creates an E altered sound.
We’re sticking with the E whole-tone scale in Ex. 2, but this one is inspired by Guns N’ Roses guitarist Bumblefoot, who is a wealth of creative whole-tone ideas. You can hear some interesting tension over the funky E7 rhythm. Because of the symmetrical nature of this scale, we can use both these examples over Gb7, Ab7, Bb7, C7, and D7.
We dig into diminished sounds in Ex. 3. Here, we have a half-whole diminished scale that, as the name suggests, is created by alternating half-steps and whole-steps. Again, because of the scale’s symmetrical nature, there are only three versions. When you look at the intervals the scale contains relative to the root—in this case, G—you get b9, #9, 3, #11, 5, 6, and b7. That combination of tones works great over 7#9, 7b9, 7b5, and even basic dominant 7 chords. Make sure you are hearing the scale and thinking about the function of each note over the chord. This will help free you up to improvise with the half-whole diminished scale.