Diatonic Enhancement of Static Harmony (DESH)

This is one of those scary sounding music theory terms that can put a lot of people off before they even start. Fear not, though, as it’s quite a simple concept which has been used by composers & songwriters as diverse as J.S. Bach and Percy Sledge via David Bowie. It also happens to be one of my favourite techniques for writing a killer chord progression.

So… what’s it all about then? Well, in essence, it involves writing a chord sequence which allows you to plot a descending bass line which moves down a scale. Take this example:

|D A |Bm D |F#m |A | (click HERE to listen)

Those of you with a keen ear might already know what it is, but let’s put a bass line under it which will make it a little more obvious. Here’s how it works…

First of all, look at the chords, not as shapes that you put your fingers into on the guitar, but as collections of notes. This gives us the following:

D = D+F#+A

A = A+C#+E

Bm = B+D+F#

D = D+F#+A

F#m = F#+A+C#

A = A+C#+E

All I have to do is place a D note under the D chord; a C# note under the A chord; B under the Bm, and an A note under the second D chord. This will give me a bass line which descends from the root note of the “parent scale” (D major) to the 5th, creating a very recognisable sound. Click HERE to hear this.

For anyone who still doesn’t recognise this yet, here it is again with a melody line on top (click HERE).

Bob Marley was another fan of DESH, and he used it in this next tune. Take a look at this chord progression:

|C G |Am F |C F |C G | (click HERE to listen)

On it’s own this is basically just the chord sequence from The Beatles “Let It Be” (albeit with a couple of chords placed in reverse order). But put the descending bass line underneath it and suddenly it becomes much more recognisable as “No Woman No Cry”. The bass descends like so:

  • C (under C chord)

  • B (under G chord)

  • A (under Am chord)… and a short linking G note taking us to…

  • F (under F chord)

  • C (under C chord)

  • F-E-D descending run (under F Chord)… taking us back to…

  • C (under C chord)

Here’s what it sound like with the bass line. Much more recognisable as the song, don’t you think? (click HERE). And here’s what it sounds like with the melody (click HERE).

You simply cannot talk about the use of DESH in popular music without mentioning “Whiter Shade Of Pale”. It is, perhaps, the definitive example of this technique at work in a classic rock tune. Procul Harem came in for a lot of flak for supposedly “borrowing” this tune from JS Bach’s “Air on a G String”. But I’ve always thought this to be a little unfair… a bit like saying that Stevie Ray Vaughan ripped off Glenn Miller when he wrote “Love Struck Baby”… it’s a 12 bar blues, the same as Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood”, so you could easily point out the similarities. That’s missing the point though: Both parties used an existing, well established progression as the basis for their own original tunes. The same is true of JS Bach vs Procul Harem, in my opinion… but I digress.

Anyway… here’s the basic chord progression for Whiter Shade Of Pale:

|C G |Am C |F C |Dm F |

|G G7 |Em G |C F |C G | (click HERE to listen)

And here it is taking descending bass line into account:

|C G/B |Am C/G |F C/E |Dm F/C |

|G G7/F |Em G/D |C F |C G | (click HERE to listen)

As you can see there are not one, but two, descending bass lines happening here:

C to B to A to G to F to E to D to C in the 1st 4 bars (a complete cycle of the C major scale in the bass).

And G to F to E to D to C in the 2nd half of the tune – the bass descends from the 5th note of the C major scale (G) to the root, a C note. It is this movement generated by the bass, which is (in my opinion) as important, if not more so, than the melody when it comes to making the piece of music sound the way it does. Click HERE to hear the chord progression with the bass line & melody together.

Once you switch on to the fact that you can use a bass line to steer a chord sequence like this, you can have some great fun. Here, for example, is a little thing I came up with in next to no time. For the 1st 4 bars, I’m descending mainly chromatically – A to G# to G to F# to F to E to D, then back up to E again. For the next 4 bars, I use the same principle to ascend: A to B to C to C# to D to D# to E to G#. This chord progression weaves through many different keys & all I’m doing really is looking for a chord that I can link to next which will allow me the bass note I need. To explain the way this tune meanders around all the keys that have even a tenuous link to the A minor tonality is beyond the scope of this blog post, but trust me… it works! Click HERE to check for yourself.

|Am G#aug |G D/F# |F C/E |Dm E7 |

|Am G/B |C A/C# |G/D B7/D# |E G#dim7 | Am

Now… get busy with the DESH!

Until next time… Have Fun!

John Robson Guitar Tuition

John Robson… Guitarist


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