Composer, author, lecturer, guitar teacher

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).

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5 responses

  1. Michael Bonett

    Even songs in Bb Gb and Db are rare in guitar pop music. California Girls, Born in the USA, Calling Elvis, Have a Nice Day, Yellow, It ain’t over till it’s over, God put a smile on your face. None were found with a D#bm=Ebminor chord. Need to look further.

    February 9, 2012 at 12:36 pm

    • Hello Michael,
      Yes I agree. The flat keys become uncomfortable on the guitar quicker than the sharp keys. To my guitar students I usually define guitar-friendly keys as from F-E inclusive. ‘Born In The USA’ is in deed in B but only uses B and E and thus sidesteps the barre-issue.

      February 9, 2012 at 12:58 pm

  2. Michael Bonett

    I mean B

    February 9, 2012 at 12:36 pm

  3. Michael Bonett

    I found something but usually guitar songs tune down to get this chord or use a capo. Or it is a piano/keyboard not a guitar song. A pure use of the chord on guitar without manipulation from standard tuning on a U tube video? Probably a rare event for a guitarist. Let me know what you think of the below songs anyways.

    Guitar + Capo

    Artist: The Kooks Title: Naive Album: Inside In/Inside Out (2006)
    Chorus:
    E B Ebm7
    I know, she knows that im not fond of asking
    ————————————————————
    Luka-Suzanne Vega
    D#m C#
    If You Hear Something Late At Night
    D#m C#
    Some Kind Of Trouble, Some Kind Of Fight
    ————————————————————————————-
    The Kooks – Ooh La
    – – – – CAPO 1ST FRET – – – –
    Am F G Dm
    And ooh la, she was such a good girl to me
    ————————————————————————————-
    Hanging By A Moment- Lifehouse
    Capo 1st Fret
    Bridge
    F G Dm
    There is nothing else
    ————————————————————————————-
    Keyboardy

    Glory Box – by Portishead
    Verse:
    Ebm C# Cmindim B
    I’m so tired, of playing, playing with this bow and arrow,
    Chorus:
    Ebm C# C
    Give me a reason to love you,
    ————————————————————————————-
    Spice Girls 2 Become 1 Key: F#
    Verse 1:
    Ebm C#/F
    Candle light and soul forever
    ————————————————————————————-
    …SUPERSTITION… by Stevie Wonder
    *from ‘Talking Book’ (1972)*
    *CAPO 1st FRET*
    (Original Key: Ebm)
    ——————————————————————————–
    I JUST CALLED TO SAY I LOVE YOU – Stevie Wonder
    C# C#m7 C# C#
    covered candy hearts to give a-
    Ebm Ebm Ebm(M7) Ebm(M7)
    way … no first of
    Ebm Ebm Ebm(M7) Ebm(M7)
    spring… … no song to
    Ebm7 Ebm7 Ebm(M7) Ebm(M7)
    sing… …here’s
    Ebm Ebm7 Absus4 Ab
    just another ordin- ary

    February 9, 2012 at 1:35 pm

  4. Michael Bonett

    Do You Believe In Love Chords – Huey Lewis And The News
    Verse
    B Ebm
    I was walking down a one way street Just a looking for someone to meet One

    Sweet Talkin’ Woman By: Jeff Lynne/ELO
    C
    I was searching (searching) on a one-way street,
    Am F
    I was hoping (hoping) for a chance to meet.

    February 10, 2012 at 7:52 pm

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