The circle of fifths is a musical tool that has been used by musicians throughout time learn music relationships. You’ll learn here about the circle of fifths for guitar.
Guitar players can use the circle of fifths to better understand music theory topics that would otherwise seem complicated.
In this article you learn some general ideas about this important concept.
Pro Tip: To get more details on this and other topics, all these concepts are explained in depth on Guitar Theory Revolution.
What is the Circle of Fifths?
The circle receives this name because the notes are presented in a circle, and the sequence of adjacent notes is separated by an interval of a fifth.
The circle starts with the C note on the top, from which follows the next note, G, which is a fifth higher than C.
Using this structure, the circle continues moving a fifth in each step, which gives the sequence of C, G, D, A, E, B, F# (one can go higher, but the remaining notes have enharmonic.
Going in the other direction, you have notes that start a fifth below the current note. These are C, F, Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, and Gb.
The circle of fifths for Guitar Players
The first important use is to determine common sequences of chords. When doing this, the circle is usually followed in counter-clockwise direction.
For example, stating with the note B, a great sequence is B, Em, Am, Dm, G, C, F, C. This sequence, except for the last chord, follows the cycle of fifths.
Another use of the circle of fifths is in determining the notes for any fret in the guitar.
For example, if you start in the G note in the first string (3rd fret), you can go up to D, then A (moving to the 2nd fret), then E, B, and finally F#.
The circle of fifths provides and excellent way to determine the exact notes in the fretboard, starting from any note that you already know. This happens because the interval between strings in the guitar is a forth, with the exception of the interval between the 2nd and 3rd strings, which is a half tone smaller.
You need to remember that, when going between the second and third strings you need to compensate for this difference, by moving a fret down when down in the scale, and increasing one fret when going up in the scale.
Determining Note Accidents
Another way to use the circle of fifths for guitar is to determine the accidents contained in a major or minor key. This is in fact the main use for pianists and other musicians who need to remember the accidents in a key.
In the guitar, this is not so important because guitar players can just use the shape of a chord or scale and move it around the neck of the guitar. However, it is still important to have this knowledge, especially when reading music in standard notation.
The number of accidents, sharps or flats, increase as we move in the circle of fifths. Going in clockwise direction, we increase the number of sharps. So, the key of C major has zero sharps or flats, but going to G you’ll get a sharp note on F. Going to D you’ll get sharps on F and C. Going to A major you will have sharps in F, C, and G.
The same thing happens when going in the counter clockwise direction, but with flats. Going from C major to F major, we have only one flat, in B. Now, moving to B flat major, we have B and E flats. Moving to Eb, you will have flats in B, E, and A.
Again, both the direction of the move, as well as the flat notes will follow the circle of fifths.
You can find more information about the circle of fifths in this video:
Here is another video that may also be useful to understand the circle of fifths: