Scales - Whole Tone, Diminished, and Altered

Scales - Whole Tone, Diminished, and Altered

If you've ever done any basic ear training, you might have noticed that the whole tone, diminished and altered scales all have a similar "vibe" and might be hard to distinguish upon first listening.

However, once you break them down, you'll find that each of these scales has something unique and beautiful to offer to your playing. What are the differences between these scales, and when do you use them? This post will answer both of those questions, and more!


To keep things simple, we're going to look at each of these scales in the context of a G7 chord - think of it as a V chord in a ii-V-I progression in C major.

(Once you've gotten comfortable with using the scales over this chord, then try using it over the V chord in other keys!)

Whole Tone Scale

(Starts at 1:13)

First up, let's look at the whole tone scale. The theory behind this scale is pretty evident from its name alone: it's built entirely in whole tones!

Starting from the note G (the root of our G7 chord), this gives us:

G A B Db D# F

A 6 note scale, or a hexatonic scale 😎. Pretty cool, right? If we analyze the scale degrees of each of these notes we end up with this: G Whole Tone Scale

There a couple things to notice here! Within this group of notes we get some notes straight from the G7 chord 1, 3 and b7. In addition to this, we get some more colourful notes: 9, b5, and #5. These are the notes that give the whole tone scale its unique, "dreamlike" sound.

So, what this means in practical terms is that the G whole tone scale will work over chords that use those notes as extensions: such as G9, G7#5, G7b5, etc. Try playing through the scale, and then playing some of these chords to hear/see how they "fit together"!

Exotic Scales - Whole Tone Example 1

Exotic Scales - Whole Tone Example 2

With all that said, you're probably wondering what the proper fingerings are for the whole scale on guitar. Here I've laid out some fingerings which I personally find to be the most practical. Choose your favourite!

G Whole Tone Scale Fingerings

G Whole Tone Fingering 3 Notes Per String

G Whole Tone Fingering 2 Notes Per String

G Whole Tone Fingering 2&3 Notes Per String

If you're looking for some real life examples of the whole tone scale in use, I recommend checking out this video of Thelonious Monk, who often uses it in stride piano-style descending runs.

Half-Whole Diminished Scale

(Starts at 4:12)

Next up, we've got the half-whole diminished scale (or H/W diminished for short)! You might be wondering, what's with the long name? Well, there are really *two* types of diminished scales, whole-half diminished and half-whole diminished. That could be a lesson all on its own!

For today, we're just going to focus on the half-whole diminished scale because, like the other scales on this list, it works really well over a G7 chord. You'll just have to trust me! 👍

The H/W diminished scale is an 8-note scale - here it is spelled out starting from our root note, G:

G Ab A# B C# D E F

in notation, with scale degrees: G HW Diminished Scale

The notes that give this scale its unique sound are b9, #9, b5 and 13. So,  you would play the G H/W diminished scale when the chart explicitly says G7b9, G7#9, G13b9 etc, OR if you just want to imply that kind of sound on any G7 chord.

Just like we did for the whole tone scale, let's play some of these chords and then play through the scale to get your ears acquainted with the sound:

Exotic Scales - HW Diminished Example 1

Exotic Scales - HW Diminished Example 2

G Half-Whole Diminished Scale Fingerings

HW Diminished Scale Fingering One Octave

HW Diminished Scale Fingering Expanded Range-1

Recommended listening: check out this video of Jim Hall playing an original blues composition. The tune uses a lot of diminished material and is aptly titled, Careful! 😅

Altered Scale

(Starts at 7:23)

Last but not least, we've got the altered scale! An easy way to think of this is by using our existing knowledge of the melodic minor scale. (If you don't know that scale, we've got a lesson just for you!)

What we're going to do is play the 7th mode of the melodic minor scale. If this doesn't make sense right now, don't worry. All you have to do is think of the melodic minor scale that's one semitone above the root of the chord you're soloing over. For example, for G7, this would be Ab melodic minor.

Then, we're going to play that scale but start on a G instead of the usual Ab, which gives us:

G Ab Bb Cb Db Eb F

scale degrees: G Altered Scale

The notes that give this scale its unique sound are: b9, #9, b5 and #5. So this means that the scale will work on any "Galt" chord, plus G7b9, G7#9, G7b9b5, and so on. As with the other scales, let's test some of this out for ourselves:

Exotic Scales - Altered Example 1

Exotic Scales - Altered Example 2

G Altered Scale Fingerings

Altered Scale Fingering One Octave

Altered Scale Fingering Two Octaves

Altered Scale Tritone Sub Trick

Here's a quick theory trick! You can get two scales for the price of one with this scale. G altered also happens to work over the tritone sub of G7, which is Db7. Looking at it from the perspective of Db7, we would call this scale Db7 lydian dominant.

To recap, G altered = Db7 lydian dominant. And vice versa! Same notes, different name. To make sure you fully understand this concept, ask yourself: what scale do you get if you play the Db7 altered scale over G7?*

Wrapping up

In summary, the whole tone, half-whole diminished and altered scales are simply some different options you have available to you when you're soloing over an V7 chord. Which one to use really depends on what's appropriate for the tune, and what sounds you personally enjoy the most.

So, I recommend trying out some of the playing examples, and then putting it into a tune for real. Try it over a backing track so you can really hear how each tone of the scale sounds over the chord. As always, we're happy to answer any questions you may have in the comments below!

All the best,



* ANSWER: G Lydian Dominant. Nice work!

Was this post confusing? If you're new to some of the terms, I recommend checking out this gentle introduction to scale theory!

Next, try your hand at some improv with our FREE guide!

This guide will teach you the very basics of jazz improv covering subjects such as outlining the changes, hitting the right notes, and most importantly making music. We’ll cover the basics with you and take you through an actual jazz standard showing you how to play over it!

beginners guide to improv w store background

**Note from the editor** This post was updated 30/10/2020. (Layout and imagery updated)