Most people think of using the whole tone scale for augmented chords, but you can build 7♭5 chords from the whole tone scale as well.
In this article, I go over the C whole tone scale, the chords that can be built from the notes and practical application of the scale when playing leads.
I also list examples of songs that use chords from the whole tone scale and I include augmented 7th and 7♭5 guitar chord shapes, both closed and open chords in the key of E.
C whole tone scale: examples of when and how to use the scale & chords
The whole tone scale is a unique and difficult scale for beginner guitar players. It is not the most widely used scale in everyday popular music but you can get some nice chords and riffs from the scale. Let me go over the obligatory points of the scale that you will see in every other article:
- The whole tone scale is a symmetrical scale which means the intervals that make up the scale have a pattern that repeats.
- There are 6 notes in the whole tone scale and each is separated by a whole tone, hence the name.
- As a result of the 6 major 2nd intervals in the scale, there are only 2 whole tone scales: C & C#\D♭.
- The scale formula is W-W-W-W-W where “W” stands for whole tone.
- C whole tone scale = C-D-E-F#-G#-A#
- Every note in the whole tone scale can act as the tonic of the scale.
- You can also look at the scale as two augmented triads separated by a whole tone. For example, the C whole tone scale has the notes that are in the C and D augmented triads.
- The most “unique” notes in the scale are the lowered and raised 5ths (♭5, #5) similar to a 7alt chord but with a 9 as opposed to altered 9ths (b9, #9) that is common with altered 7ths.
- The scale is defined with the intervals of 1-2-3-#4-#5-♭7, but I prefer 1-2-3-♭5-#5-♭7. That is why I’ll be using the notes C, D, E, G♭, G# & B♭ when covering the C whole tone scale.
- And finally, it’s common to hear the whole tone scale in movies and TV shows during fantasy, flashbacks or dream scenes.
That should do it for the basic definition of the scale, but let’s look at some practical points.
Application of the whole tone scale
#1) The scale adds tension but has no resolution. There are no half steps like in the major scale, so you get the “outside” sound of the scale when played over a chord progression.
#2) Because of the root, 3rd & ♭7 of EVERy chord built from the scale, you can add tension using the scale over dominant 7th chords – 7, 9 & 7#11 chords would be best.
#3) The scale is ideal over +, 7#5, 9#5, 7♭5 and 9♭5 chords.
#4) You can use the scale over dominant 7ths and the 7alt chords mentioned above starting on any scale degree assuming there is not a ♭9 or #9 in the chord. For example, use the scale over C7, D7, E7, F#7, A♭7, and B♭7 chords, or 7♭5, 9♭5, 7#5 & 9#5 chords in those same keys.
#5) Use the D♭ whole tone scale for the other 6 keys for dominant and altered 7th chords.
#6) Try it over a V7 to IV7 change in a blues tune, and combine it with the Dorian mode & the blues scale.
#7) Play “boxes” or 1-octave shapes for short runs, but use 2-octave shapes for longer sections. As I’ve mentioned in other articles, boxes, are just easy to grab & play groupings of notes.
#8) I haven’t tried it, but the advanced use of the scale is to use it over minor chords a semitone below the chord.
Chords built from the C whole tone scale
Both augmented and major flat 5 chords (dominant 7 flat 5 chord or just 7♭5) can be built from the notes of the whole tone scale. You only need to look at one note because every other note builds the same chords.
There are 2 base chords: the augmented triad and the chord that has a major 3rd and diminished fifth. No one knows what to call that second “chord” type, but I like maj ♭5. That is the chord name used in a Pink Floyd song (see below).
Below is a table of all the C chords that can be built from the C whole tone scale. Remember that every other note of the scale builds the same chords.
|Chord Name||1st Note||2nd Note||3rd Note||4th Note||5th Note||6th Note||Equal Chord1||Equal Chord2||Equal Chord3|
|C9b5b13||C||E||Gb||Bb||D||Ab||Gb9b5b13||E & Bb9b5b13||D & Ab9b5b13|
Let’s look at the augmented chords first since they are most often associated with the whole tone scale.
Augmented triad and 7th chords from the whole tone scale
You can build an augmented triad, an augmented 7th chord, and an augmented 9th chord from the scale. I like to notate them as:
+ or aug = augmented triad = 1–3–#5
7#5 = augmented 7th = 1–3–#5–♭7
9#5 = augmented 9th = 1–3–#5–♭7–9
You’ll also see aug7, +7 and 7(#5) for the augmented 7th chord.
The aug triad and 7#5 chords are mostly used in place of the V chord.
Try arpeggiating an augmented triad on the last V7 chord in a blues turnaround. For example, try an Eaug as x-7-6-5-5-x and let it ring out for the remainder of the measure. Or try an arpeggio of an E7#5 chord sliding from the ♭7 to the root at the end of the riff.
All 3 augmented chords normally resolve to a perfect fifth (P5) below – so acting like a V chord. And they resolve to both the major and minor tonic chord.
Here are the augmented chords that can be built on the note C from a C whole tone scale:
Caug = C–E–G# = 1–3–#5
C7#5 = C–E–G#–B♭ = 1–3–#5–♭7
C9#5 = C–E–G#–B♭–D = 1–3–#5–♭7–9
Every other note builds the same chords:
D: D+, D7#5, D9#5
E: E+, E7#5, E9#5
G♭ (or F#): G♭+, G♭7#5, G♭9#5
A♭ (or G#): Ab+, A♭7#5, A♭9#5
B♭ (or A#): B♭+, B♭7#5, B♭9#5
Note that the 9#5 chord is equal to the 9♭5hord on the ♭7, e.g. C9#5 = B♭9♭5.
You can also build the 7#5 chord on the tonic of the altered scale and the 5th degree of the melodic minor scale.
Closed and open E augmented 7th chords from the whole tone scale (7#5 & 9#5)
Check out my article on Augmented scale guitar chords for closed and open Augmented triad shapes. In that article, I include songs that use the aug triad. Here is a chart of the symbols on my chord blocks:
Here are 12 closed augmented 7th chord voicings and 6 open E chord shapes. I chose E for the augmented 7ths and 7♭5’s as a substitute for E7 chords for songs in the key of A major or A minor.
My favorite closed 9#5 chords are #1 & #3. I like every 7#5 shapes except #6. I like all 3 E7#5 shapes, but none of the 9#5 shapes.
Here are some song examples that use an augmented 7th chord (7#5 chord & one 9#5):
Sting: Mad About You
Grateful Dead: Till the Morning Comes
Stevie Wonder: If You Really Love Me, My Cherie Amour, Send One Your Love
Beach Boys: I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times, Orange Crate Art (also has a 9#5 chord)
Beatles: From Me To You
Allman Brothers: Stormy Monday (their version)
Silverman’s Folk Song Encyclopedia: Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair page 129 Vol I. And from Vol II: Jim Crow Blues page 21, I’m Certainly Living A Ragtime Life page 37, Bill Bailey page 73
7♭5 chords from the whole tone (WT) scale
Most jazz guys know you can build a 7♭5 & 9♭5 chord from the WT scale. I suggest that the major ♭5 chord is the base of 7♭5 chords. I include one other ♭5 chord, from the scale: the 9♭5♭13.
I do not have any chord voicings for the maj ♭5 chord because I don’t see the need for it (I don’t see it as a valid chord). Either play a 7♭5 or an add#11 chord. The add#11 is a nice dissonant chord. But if you need to play a maj ♭5 chord, just find a major triad shape and lower the perfect fifth by a half-step.
There are some scales like the Altered scale where you have an option of a major or minor 3rd and diminished or augmented 5th. I assume the maj ♭5 chord is similar given the option of the IV in a major key. The note F in C major has a perfect 5th C and a diminished 5th B (usually notated as #11). So you can build a Fmaj♭5 and Fmaj7♭5 chord.
Now I’ve never seen the 9♭5♭13 chord mentioned anywhere, though I’m willing to bet piano players stack the whole tone scale to play all 6 notes (1-3-♭5-♭7-9-♭13).
Here are those chords based on C:
Cmaj ♭5 = C–E–G♭ = 1–3–♭5
C7♭5 = C–E–G♭–B♭ = 1–3–♭5–♭7
C9♭5 = C–E–G♭–B♭–D = 1–3–♭5–♭7–9
C9♭5♭13 = C–E–G♭–B♭–D–A♭ = 1–3–♭5–♭7–9–♭13
And like the augmented chords, every other note builds the same chords (I’m skipping the maj ♭5):
D:D7♭5, D9b5, D9♭5♭13
E: E7♭5, E9b5, E9♭5♭13
Gb (or F#): Gb7♭5, Gb9♭5, G♭9♭5♭13
Ab (or G#): Ab7♭5, Ab9♭5, A♭9♭5♭13
Bb (or A#): Bb7♭5, Bb9♭5, B♭9♭5♭13
You can also build a 7♭5 chord on the tonic of the altered scale and the 4th degree of the melodic minor scale. The 9♭5 can also be built on the 4th degree of the melodic minor scale.
Additional notes on these 7♭5 chords
7♭5 chords are unique because their 2nd inversion equals another 7♭5 chord built on the ♭5, e.g. C7♭5 = G♭7♭5. Try sliding a 7♭5 chord up or down 6 frets and it’s the same chord with the same notes just with a different note in the bass.
The 7♭5 chord contains 2 tritones and it can resolve to 2 different keys: C7♭5 \ G♭7♭5 resolves to both F and B. But that chord also resolves up a whole step nicely: C7♭5 to D and G♭7♭5 to A♭.
A good substitute for a dominant 7th chord is a 7♭5 a ♭5 away, so try a G♭7♭5 in place of a C7 chord.
The 9♭5 chord equals a 9#5 on the 9, e.g. C9♭5 = D9#5. Or you could say the 9#5 equals a 9♭5 on the ♭7.
As a result of those chords equalling each other, there are 2 repeated shapes for 9♭5 guitar chord shapes that are shown above for the 9#5 shapes. They are shapes where the root is not in the bass, so they can be either chord.
Last but not least there is the 9♭5♭13 chord which is an interesting chord that I came up with by adding every note of the whole tone scale. Since it has every note in the whole tone scale, there can only be 2 of them: C & D♭.
And since 9♭5♭13 chords are made up of 3 tritones, they resolve beautifully to 6 different keys by a half-step above each chord tone (or below each chord tone). So a C9♭5♭13 chord (all the notes in a C WT scale) resolves to D♭, E♭, F, G, A, & B (all the notes in a D♭ WT scale!)
Closed and open E dominant 7 flat 5 chords (7♭5, 9♭5, 9♭5♭13)
I have 13 total closed 7♭5 voicings and 7 open E 7♭5 chords built from this scale. My favorite 7♭5 shapes are #1 & 3. #6 7♭5 is kind of a repeat of #4, and for #8 it’s tricky making sure th open G string doesn’t ring out. I like #3 9♭5, the 9♭5♭13 and E9♭5♭13, but I don’t like any of the other shapes.
1) I marked the 1 and the ♭5 of the 7♭5 chords as root notes since they both are\can be the root of the chord.
2) For the #2 7♭5 shape, you can bar the root & ♭7 with the 1st finger as a different fingering.
3) #2 of the 9♭5 is pretty difficult to hold so #1, #3 and #4 are better options.
4) The closed 9♭5♭13 closed chord is difficult to hold but it sounds amazing!
5) I also included the only E♭9♭5♭13 chord which is from the D♭ WT scale. The open E and E♭ 9♭5♭13 chords are the ONLY open chord shapes possible.
Here are some songs I found that use flat 5 chords:
Pink Floyd: maj ♭5 in Great Gig in the Sky
Sting: 7♭5 in Seven Days
Beach Boys: 7♭5 in When I Grow Up, 9♭5 in Orange Crate Art
Use 7#5 and 7♭5 chords when you want a different sound than your standard dominant 7th chords. It may not be something you like, but you won’t know until you give them a try. If you don’t like the sound of the chords, don’t use them. But give the scale a try for some unique riffs.
For some nice licks, check out the Jamie Holroyd Guitar website article on the whole tone scale. I used some of his licks and made some tweaks of my own.
Read my article Chords From Scales for a list of all the 7#5 and 7♭5 chords. That article also includes the 70+ chord types I have voicings for and part of the reason I named my site Every Guitar Chord!
“It’s your mind, it’s your creativity, it’s your guitar, and most importantly, it’s your music – do what you want to do (just make sure it sounds good)”. ~ quote by Kernix