The Circle Of Fifths On Guitar – Lesson 1

For beginning guitarists, and musicians in general, the Circle of Fifths looks very overwhelming. It sounds theoretical and abstract. Almost like a scary Pagan magic spell.

Now, while there is an obvious theoretical element to the Circle of Fifths, it’s more of a visual presentation of the actual theory, like a graph or a table. A cheat sheet to make music theory less hard. Something that can be used to your advantage.

So don’t be too scared to delve into the Circle of Fifths. It is designed to make your life easier.

This is part 1 of this lesson. This part will be about how to read the circle and make it yourself. In lesson 2, there will be more practical applications.

Fifths

First things first, what’s a fifth?

A fifth is an interval. An interval is a distance between two notes. If you take a major scale, the fifth is the fifth note from the original note, the original note being 1 and the fifth note being 5.

If you were not to play in a major scale and just took all the notes available, the fifth would be the eight note from the original note, the original note being 1 and the fifth note being 8.

But we refer to this interval as a fifth because we always use them in the context of 7-note scales (like the major and minor scales).

What Does A Fifth Look Like?

A fifth is really easy to find on a guitar:

-Go up one string
-Go up two frets

Another way to find a fifth:

-Stay on the same fret
-Go down one string

As long as you stay on the lowest 4 strings of your guitar this will always be the same.

The Circle Of Fifths

There are 12 notes in Western music.

When we place these notes on the circle of fifths, these they are not placed as they appear above. We place them in order of fifths:

(Click on picture for bigger size and better quality)

Why? At first look, this looks super random and very complicated. But when you start to analyze it, there’s a very logical system:

-We put C on top of the circle (12 o’clock)

-The fifth of C is G (1 o’clock)
-The fifth of G is D (2 o’clock)
-The fifth of D is A (3 o’clock)
-The fifth of A is E (4 o’clock)
-The fifth of E is B (5 o’clock)
-The fifth of B is F# or Gb (6 o’clock)
-The fifth of F# is Db or C# (7 o’clock)
-The fifth of Db is Ab or G# (8 o’clock)
-The fifth of G# is Eb or D# (9 o’clock)
-The fifth of Eb is Bb or A# (10 o’clock)
-The fifth of Bb is F (11 o’clock)
-The fifth of F is C (12 o’clock)

We started at C and we ended at the same C. That’s a perfect circle, almost like a clock. Moving through all 12 notes in fifths, every note makes one appearance. There are no repetitions, and no notes are left out.

If you were to go back counterclockwise, you would be moving in fourths. That’s why you’ll hear the name “Circle of Fourths” as well as the name “Circle of Fifths” sometimes.

There are many, many practical uses to the Circle of Fifths. But first, I want to give you some tips on how to memorize where to place the notes on the circle of fifths.

Caroline Got Drunk (Memorizing The Circle Of Fifths)

At this points, we’re ignoring the sharps and flats. We’re only focusing on the letters. And the easiest way to remember a long list of letters is by making mnemonics.

First, we’ll do the right half of the circle (from 12 o’clock to 6 o’clock). The letters are CGDAEBF.

We can remember this with the mnemonic: Caroline Gets Drunk And Eats Butter Flies.

If you have a friend whose names starts with the letter C, by all means… use that name. That will make it a lot funnier and memorable for you.

Now let’s do the left half of the circle (from 12 o’clock to 7 o’clock in opposite direction). The letters are CFBEAD.

The mnemonic I use for this is: Caroline Fondles BEADs

B, E, A, and D are just the last 4 notes (10, 9, 8 and 7 o’clock).

Now, all we have to do is add sharps and flats.

-There’s only one sharp (#), and it appears at 6 o’clock (F#).
-There are four flats (b), and they all appear in the word BEAD on the left side.

I really advise you to take a few minutes to memorize this system. Once you know how to do it, it will really stick to you. And it’s so invaluable to be able to make your own Circle of Fifths.

Flat Side Of The Clock / Sharp Side Of The Clock

-The scale of C major has no sharps or flats. It’s located on 12 (or 0) o’clock.
-The scale of G major has 1 sharp. It is at 1 o’clock.
-The scale of D major has 2 sharp. It is at 2 o’clock.
-The scale of A major has 3 sharp. It is at 3 o’clock.
-The scale of E major has 4 sharp. It is at 4 o’clock.
-The scale of B major has 5 sharp. It is at 5 o’clock.
-The scale of F# major has 6 sharp. It is at 6 o’clock.

On the right side, the amount of sharps is equal to the position on the clock.

-The scale of C major has no sharps or flats. It’s located on 12 (or 0) o’clock.
-The scale of F major has 1 flat. It is at 11 o’clock.
-The scale of Bb major has 2 flats It is at 10 o’clock.
-The scale of Eb major has 3 flats. It is at 9 o’clock.
-The scale of Ab major has 4 flats. It is at 8 o’clock.
-The scale of Db major has 5 flats. It is at 7 o’clock.

On the left side, the sum of the flats and the position on the clock will always be 12 (Eb has 3 flats and the clock is at 9 0’clock. 3 + 9 = 12).

The left side is usually seen as the flat (b) side, and the right side is usually seen as the sharp (#) side. That’s why the notes are written down this way. But we know an F# is not just an F# but also a Gb. Adding all the notes to the circle, it looks like this:

Outro

This lesson we talked about:

-What are fifths?
-What notes are on the Circle of Fifths?
-How are these notes positioned on the Circle of Fifths?
-How can we make the Circle of Fifths ourselves, using mnemonics?
-What is the relationship with the position on the circle and the number of sharps and flats?

In lesson 2, we’ll look at how we can practically use the Circle of Fifths to our advantage.

If you have any questions or comments, feel free to leave them below.

Happy strumming,

Timo

2 thoughts on “The Circle Of Fifths On Guitar – Lesson 1

  1. I’m not exactly a beginning guitar player but certainly not an intermediate or advanced. I have heard of the circle of fifths several times and simply couldn’t grasp what I was being shown. Your explanation finally got it through to me. Now I understand what it is, I just need to understand how to use it to become a better player.

    Thanks for the simple and clear explanation of what is to me at least a very complicated subject.

    1. Hello Ian!  

      Great to hear it’s finally making sense to you right now! 🙂 I posted a second lesson, which is more practical. You can find it here

      Good job on your process!

      Timo

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