January 17th, 2012

Why You Still Suck At Half Diminished Chords

By Forrest

Half Diminished Chords

Half-diminished chords are difficult, but they don’t have to be. In How to Not Suck At Half-diminished Chords, I presented a simple way to start to improve at these often neglected chords and if you practiced the exercise in that article, you will without a doubt have made progress.

But even with some concentrated effort on those exercises, half-diminished chords are probably still giving you a tough time.

Why does this particular chord cause us so much trouble and what can we do about it?

Incomplete information

The only reason half-diminished chords are difficult is because we’re given incomplete information about how to approach them. Jazz theory instructs us to play the locrian mode. So, what do we do with this information? We make a short cut so we can remember in real-time how to play over a half-diminished chord.

The line of thought goes something like this: Oh, B half diminished is just the locrian mode (7th mode) of C major. Great…that means whenever I see a half-diminished chord I’ll simply go up a half-step and play the major scale.

If that sounds like you, that’s why you suck at half-diminished chords. As How To Not Suck At Half-diminished Chords notes, the locrian mode is a starting place. That’s it.

And that being said, it’s actually a quite confusing starting place. Take for instance the half-diminished chord in this iii Vi ii V:

iii Vi ii V

What does the B half-diminished chord have to do with C major? The answer: Nothing! That’s right. It has nothing to do with C major in this progression, so why would you think of it as a part of something completely unrelated?

Thinking of the B half-diminished chord as the locrian mode of C major will slow you down and confuse you time and time again.

The locrian mode trick is just a starting put to know what notes are contained within the chord. The problem, as we’re all to familiar with, is that this little trick turns out to be how we approach half-diminished chords time and time again. It’s time to get beyond this line of thinking and develop a clear picture of half-diminished chords in your mind.

Creating a half-diminished model in your mind

To create a clear model of a half-diminished chord in your mind, you have to get to the point where it becomes its own entity in your mind. Just like you think “Ok, it’s a C major chord,” you need to get to the point where you think to yourself, “Ok, it’s a G half-diminished chord,” not…”G half-diminished…go up a half step and play Ab major.”

To get to this point, start with the following chord-tone exercise and on each chord-tone say mentally to yourself the chord-tone number you’re playing as yo play it:

Half Diminished Exercise

So say mentally to yourself, “1357531, 3575313, 5753135, 7531357”

The purpose of this exercise is to start to think of a half-diminished chord as its own entity and to be able to quickly access the chord-tones as they relate to the chord you’re playing over, not some other related chord.

After you do this in A half-diminished, take this exercise slowly through every key making sure to mentally recite each chord-tone number to yourself.

Putting half-diminished in context

Now, that chord-tone exercise is not something you’d go play in your solo. Of course you’re more than welcome to, but I’m guessing it’s not really what you’re after. What you’re after is playing half-diminished chords in context.

There are three common scenarios you’ll encounter half-diminished chords:

  • A minor ii V
  • A iii Vi ii V
  • A vamp of four measures or so

In general, those are the only times that half-diminished chords come up. Here they are written out:

Minor ii Vs

minor ii V one meas

minor ii V 2 measure

iii Vi ii Vs

iii Vi ii V

iii Vi ii V one measure each


Half diminished vamp

Look at these examples and realize that if these are the only times you’ll encounter half-diminished, it really can’t be that difficult. Once you go through the chord-tone exercise presented earlier and begin to formulate a clear mental image of half-diminished chords in all keys, transcribe language that fits these basic scenarios. There’s many ways you could approach this:

  • half-diminished language that lasts for two beats and connects to a dominant chord
  • half-diminished language that lasts for one full measure
  • Connecting multiple pieces of half-diminished language to play over a vamp

The important thing is to learn something from one of your heroes and make it your own. One idea learned in this way over each instance and you’ll be light years ahead of where you are now.

There’s no reason to keep sucking at half-diminished chords. Understand you’ve been playing based upon incomplete information, etch a crystal clear model of each half-diminished chord (in all keys) in your mind, and learn language for the several occasions that you’ll encounter them. In several weeks or so you’ll wonder why these chords were ever difficult for you in the first place.

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