Circle of Fifths for Guitar Explained

Published Categorized as Guitar lessons, Theory

The circle of fifths is a handy thing to know for guitar players. A lot of guitarists don’t learn music theory, the musical alphabet, and things like this, but there are advantages to doing so.

Knowing the circle of fifths can really help with songwriting, improvising, transposing, and when you are trying to work out how to play a song by ear.

Once you master the guitar techniques for beginners, you will be ready for any situation where you will have a chance to play with other musicians.

This, and other theories, may come in conversation during a rehearsal, and things go a lot quicker and more smoothly if you know your stuff, rather than them having to sit you down and explain it.

So, here’s how the circle of fifths works.

Circle Of Fifths For Guitar Explained

Table of Contents

Circle of Fifths for Guitar

Thankfully, this is actually one of the easier aspects of theory to understand. But it’s a helpful way to look at it to put it in a circle.

So, let’s first explain what a “fifth” is for those that are unsure.

A fifth

A fifth, sometimes known as a “perfect fifth”, is a note that is 7 semi-tones above the note you just played.

For example, if you start from C, then G is the fifth as it is 7 semi-tones above the C.

C, Db, D, Eb, E, F, Gb, G.

So, if it’s the 7th semi tone why is it called a 5th?

Good question.

It’s a 5th because it’s the 5th note in a diatonic scale. For example in the scale of C major chord, the fifth note is G.

Then, if we’re following the major scale, C major scale is C D E F G A B – the 5th note is G.

The Circle of Fifths

An easy way to remember what the 5ths are is by using a circle of fifths. This is a way to arrange all the notes on the guitar (or other instrument) in a convenient circle that easily shows the fifths.

First, let’s take a look at the 5ths for the 12 notes on the guitar. The first letter below represents the starting note, and the second letter represents that note’s 5th.

C – G

G – D

D – A

A – E

E – B

B – Gb

Gb – Db

Db – Ab

Ab – Eb

Eb – Bb

Bb – F

F – C

And arranging that in a circle we get:

Easy right.

Now Play Through

If you play through this circle of fifths on your guitar, playing the chords for each, you will hear how well these chords fit together.

Fifths are naturally nice sounding when they go together.

You will probably feel as you play that these are very natural chord progressions for you to play. This is because they are very commonly used in songs, so you did have a chance to create chord progressions countless times before even if you are relatively new to the guitar.

Example Use of the Circle of Fifths

One great thing you can use the circle of fifths for is for transposing a chord progression.

For example, let’s say you have a chord progression in the key of C that is C major key, F major and G major keys, but you want to transpose that progression into the key of A.

You could sit down and work this out or you could look at the circle of fifths and figure it out more quickly.

For our example chord progression, we go from C to F to G. On the circle of fifths, that means you are starting at C, going anticlockwise one position to get the F, and then going clockwise one position to get the G.

Circle of Fifths for Guitar chord progression example 1

To transpose this into the key of A (so that the chord progression is the same, but starting on A major key) you simply choose the chords that are 1 position anti-clockwise and 1 position clockwise from A.

So that same notes, same chord progression but starting on A is A Major, D Major, E Major chords.

Circle of Fifths for Guitar chord progression key of A

What About Minor Chords and Seventh Chords etc?

First of all, it’s important to know that relative major key and relative minor key share the same key signature. Once you learn where to position the relative minor keys on the circle of fifths, you will be able to see the minor key signatures.

The same applies when minor keys, seventh chords etc are involved.

For example let’s take the chord progressions – Am, C & D7.

Let’s say you want to transpose guitar chords so that you are starting on Ebm.

The C is 3 positions anti-clockwise from the A, and the D is one position anticlockwise from the A.

Circle of Fifths for Guitar with minors and 7ths 1

So, using the circle of fifths, let’s take our new starting point of Ebm, and pick the notes that are 3 positions anti-clockwise from Eb, and one position anticlockwise from Eb.

Circle of Fifths for Guitar transposing minors and 7ths

So now you have Ebm Gb & Ab7.

The same chord progression but starting at Ebm.

The History of the Circle of Fifths

So, who do we have to thank for this remarkable invention that has gone on to revolutionize and shape the way westerners think about music seemingly forevermore?

There once was a Russian composer and music theorist called Nikolay Diletsky who in the late 1670s published a book called Grammatika which he intended to be a work on composition but which inherently had the rules of music theory in mind.

This treatise on musical composition was especially significant for having been the earliest known version of the now widely known ‘circle’ shape that has come to predominate in diagrammatical renderings of the relationships between certain tonal centers in the world of western composition.

Little is known about Diletsky’s life overall and yet this central mode of compositional approach has come to be so ubiquitous that almost all in the western world know it without knowing it. How can something so ubiquitous as to be felt by even the average music listener be so anonymous?

A fellow theorist of his, Ioannikii Trofimovich Korenev, claimed that he was a resident of Kyiv and this has been about all that any researchers can muster when attempting to validate claims of Dilsetsky’s Ukrainian origins. This information is likely true for they were both well acquainted, but even still it seems a little insane to not know these things about the godfather of the circle of fifths.

Diletsky is believed to have moved to Vilnius before 1675 as this was the year a piece of work of his (‘The golden toga’) was published there, a text which, like many of the details about his life, is all but lost to the sands of time.

After, he lived in Smolensk where in 1677 the first surviving version of the Grammatika was written, moving afterward to Moscow where the following two versions of the work appear to have been written in 1679 and 1681. It is presumed that he died soon after this point.

Some Music Theory

Each aspect that can be seen on the circle of fifths above corresponds to a note, a chord, and a key.

When we talk of a key in music, we are referring to the relative tonal center of the music at hand. There are likely more examples than not of music with a veritable tonal center, where the melody and harmony will revolve around a single note or chord which we call the tonic and which is, in western classical theory, given the designation ‘I‘.

From this tonic note, we can build the scale that is used to compose the melodies and harmonies in the tonic key. In western classical harmony, these scales are more often than not either major or minor, and, in order to retain this major or minor tonality, scales will feature accidentals, a way to augment or diminish a note through sharps and flats respectively and in relation to the C major scale, which is supposed to have no accidentals: C – D – E – F – G – A – B – C.

So, in trying to find the key, we are essentially looking for how many sharps or flats there are in the stave, the key signature. These will be indicative of how many sharps or flats there are in the diatonic scale of the key, whether in a major key or a relative minor key.

All of this can certainly feel like a lot to be taking in at once, but thankfully these kinds of things are a little easier on the guitar. On a piano, because of the inherent formation of the keys, the shapes will change depending on which note you are starting from. Alternatively, on a guitar, the shapes that the fingers are tracing in order to sound out the major or minor scales will stay the same because of the way the fretboard is structured like ceaseless rows of sameness.

Looking at the Circle of Fifths in the Eye

Circle of Fifths Sticker - Sticker Graphic - Auto, Wall, Laptop, Cell, Truck Sticker for Windows, Cars, Trucks

So, now that we already know that the circle of fifths is essentially a way for us to understand chromatic harmony, we can look at it in the eye and see it as it is: simply a visual way to illustrate the relationships between the 12 notes of the chromatic scale that is such an integral part of western classical harmony, deriving its name from the clear fact that, in circling clockwise around it, we are by each step ascending in pitch by the interval of a fifth.

Try it for yourself and see how simple and unassuming the circle of fifths can truly be! Pick a note from the outer ring and trace your finger sequentially clockwise and you will see that they are always ascending by an interval of a fifth.

The simplicity of the circle of fifths is, however, deceptive for not only do the characters around the circle of fifths correspond to certain notes but they also represent different keys and key signatures, hence why you will see in some renderings of the circle of fifths a stave with a treble clef and the corresponding sharps or flats of each key signature laid out on each respective stave. C major, of course, is without accidentals (sharps or flats).

Key Signatures

The circle of fifths is an inherently visual way to exhibit the relationship between all the notes in the chromatic scale that western harmony prizes above all else. This visual way is punctuated atop by the C major. In almost every rendering of the circle of fifths the C note, key, and scale will be at the very top of the circle.

Since C is more or less the center of western tonality, it is without any accidentals (sharps or flats); or perhaps it is the other way around, that this is the centre of western tonality because it does not have any accidentals?

No matter which, it has been deemed a neutral key, the veritable center of this tonal spectrum. Straying from this center, though initially overwhelming, could not be much simpler.

Moving either left or right, you will begin to accrue sharps or flats in each respective direction, meaning that straying in one direction or the other will follow a predictable enough pattern, especially if we consider that moving clockwise on the circle will result in each subseuent note ascending in fifths, hence the entire title of the circle.

At this point, I suppose it is worth mentioning that while a key signature can feature sharps or flats, it cannot include both simultaneously, for they would cancel each other out.

Of course, this is not to say that there is not crossover between the two for there very much is! You will have noticed that there are certain sharps where flats might be and certain flats where sharps might be. Owing to the way the system is set up, there exist moments of collision between notes.

This means that if I were to call a Gb an F# I would not be wrong. Whether or not the median note between G and F is an F# or Gb depends on the key of the song at that present moment.

Minor Keys

Thus far, there has only been mention of major keys and this is for a very good reason – think about how overwhelming the circle of fifths can seem at first and then add onto that the notion of attempting to understand it in both major and minor tonality!

That being said, though it might at first seem overwhelming, it really is no more complicated than all that you have already absorbed.

The Circle of Fifths Poster for Guitar and Piano- Reference Guide for Beginner to Learn Harmony and Music Theory, Guitar Chord Posters, Laminated Guitar Wall Chart (Size: 8.5”x11”)

Thankfully you can fit this new minor circle of fifths inside the original major key circle of fifths, all thanks to the magic of the relative minor. These so called relative minor keys will share the same key signature as their relative major brethren for they share all of the same notes. What separates them is the tonic or root note, the relative major prizing the minor 3rd of the relative minor instead.

This means you can very easily work out the relative major or relative minor of any key on a guitar.

Say you have a key signature of B major and you want to work out the relative minor: take the root note on the low E string at the 7th fret and move down 3 frets until you reach the Ab on the 4th fret, et voila!

Relative B major --> Relative Ab minor
Relative B major –> Relative Ab minor

The same goes for the calculation of the relative major of a minor key signature, though this time it is worked out the other way around. This time, let us say that we have a minor key signature of F#m. From the root note on the low E string at the 2nd fret we simply move up 3 frets to the A on the 5th fret and then we have an A major chord.

Relative F# minor --> Relative A major
Relative F# minor –> Relative A major

What is the Circle of Fifths Good for?

A whole lot actually!

  • You can easily use the structure and the reliable logic of the circle of fifths to find the key signature of a song based on the information you already have. Seeing as the circle of fifths is inherently set up to function in a certain way it can be relied upon to do its job and to be depended upon when needed in certain circumstanes like this.
  • Now that you have found the key signature, you can very easily work out the subsequent scale right off the stave, reading the key signature and the subsquent flats or sharps and implementing them.
  • You can also read the scales straight from circle! If you pick your root note and then count seven notes clockwise from the note immediately counter clockwise in the circle, then you can find all the relevant notes of a scale (just not necesarily in the right order).
  • The circle of fifths is best known as a composition tool, allowing budding composers to quickly and easily see which chords work with which other chords so that they can compose and write songs in established formats or simply bounce off the circle to see which established notions of compostion they prefer.

Final Tones

So, there you have it!

Hopefully, your curiosity about the circle of fifths has been satiated and you are feeling a little more able to tackle a topic like this that might previously have been rather overwhelming. When approached calmly and thoughtfully, these kinds of things can be dealt with reasonably and shown properly as what they are.

The circle of fifths is no big bad monster but rather a way of understanding something created by big bad monsters.

FAQs Circle of Fifths

What is the circle of 5ths and why is it important?

The circle of 5ths is a visual tool to help understand the inherent relationships that have formed between the 12 chromatic notes so prized by western classical harmony and beyond. Initially invented by Nikolay Diletsky in late 17th century Russia, this methodology has since come to inhabit an integral place among those who still pledge allegiance to the western classical tradition that has stoked the flames of countless compositions in recent memory. Though I do not personally believe it should be strictly adhered to, it is undoubtedly a useful tool in understanding the relationships between certain notes, key signatures, and chords established within the bounds of western music theory.

Should I memorize the circle of fifths?

No one is going to tell you to do anything that you do not want to do, or at least they should not. Though I do not personally believe it should be strictly adhered to, it is undoubtedly a useful tool in understanding the relationships between certain notes, key signatures, and chords established within the bounds of western music theory. In this way, it can be useful to at least know a bit about what the circle of fifths has to offer and what it attempts to prescribe to those who do use it.

What is a circle of fifths in music?

The circle of 5ths is a visual tool to help understand the inherent relationships that have formed between the 12 chromatic notes so prized by western classical harmony and beyond. Initially invented by Nikolay Diletsky in late 17th century Russia, this methodology has since come to inhabit an integral place among those who still pledge allegiance to the western classical tradition that has stoked the flames of countless compositions in recent memory. Though I do not personally believe it should be strictly adhered to, it is undoubtedly a useful tool in understanding the relationships between certain notes, key signatures, and chords established within the bounds of western music theory.

By Nate Pallesen

Nate is just your average (above average) guitar player. He's no Joe Satriani, Jimi Hendrix or Jimmy Page - wait this site is about acoustic guitars (sorry) He's no Django Reinhardt, Chet Atkins, or Michael Hedges, wait? who!? He's no Robert Johnson, Eric Clapton or Ben Harper - more familiar? Anyway you get the point :-)

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