The chord that dare not speak its name …
… which is … D#m. I’ve been playing a couple of songs recently which feature this chord and it suddenly struck me what an odd case it is on the guitar. I decided to have a think about why this should be. It’s a chord which guitarists don’t use that often, and nor do songwriters writing on the guitar. Musicians who play and write on the piano may wonder what the fuss is – it’s just another chord, right? Well, on the guitar not all chords are equal. This is for a number of reasons – including the ease of playing, the number of open strings, etc. I discuss this in the early chapters of my book Chord Master.
D#m has the highest-pitched root note of any minor chord on the guitar. The root note is on the fifth string at the sixth fret – this is the lowest available D# – but this is also the 11th fret on the sixth string! Almost an octave higher than the guitar’s lowest note, E. When it comes to resonance, D#m stands at the opposite range of the spectrum to Em (022000) or Am (x02210).
[By the way, if you’re not familiar with this chord shorthand, x = a string not played, 0 = an open string played, and the numbers are then frets. It goes from the lowest pitched string to the highest 654321, EADGBE]
The usual way to play D#m is with an Am shape (x02210) turned into a barre chord and moved to the sixth fret (x68876). There’s nothing difficult about this, but it is unusual in placing you a fair distance from the comfort zone of the first position and all the easy open string chords. To get to an open string chord involves a significant change of position. The chords that D#m belongs with are likewise mostly barre chords in the middle of the neck.
D#m first appears in the key of B major as chord III, then in F# major as VI and then in C#major as II. Thinking about its enharmonic equivalent of Ebm (the other way of writing it) it first appears in the key of Db major as chord II, Gb major as chord VI and Cb major as chord III. You might also use it as a IVm in Bbm major and a Vm in Ab major. Most of these keys are extreme sharp or flat keys – and the guitar doesn’t like them because it isn’t at its most resonant in them – loss of usuable open strings, lots of barre chords. When guitarists write songs in these keys it is often by the default of either using a capo to get rid of the barres or by detuning a semitone. Detuning the guitar by a semitone gives you D#m with an Em shape. If you capo at the first fret you can treat D#m as a Dm chord and proceed from there; with the capo at the sixth fret it will be Am.
Its the very awkwardness of D#m which offers some interesting possibilities for songwriters on the guitar. Think of it as a jumping-off point that might lead to an exotic chord sequence, or a sequence in a difficult key that could be released into an easy key in going from a verse to a chorus. If you find ways of connecting it to freindlier open string chords you may stumble on an exciting progression.
Some songs that use D#m: George Harrison ‘Awaiting On You All’ (in B), David Bowie ‘Lady Grinning Soul’ (first chord of the chorus), The Jam ‘Going Underground’ (chorus), The Beatles ‘If I Fell’ (first chord).