How Do You Practice Guitar With the Circle of Fifths?

The circle of fifths is a divisive subject for guitar players, particularly those who haven’t studied jazz or classical music. Depending on who you ask, it’s either an indispensable tool for learning music or complete waste of time.

I first learned about the circle of fifths when I took a music theory class in high school. At the time, it was just something I had to learn to complete my assignments. Besides learning how to identify key signatures in a piece of written music, I couldn’t see any practical applications for the circle.

Many years later, when I began identifying the gaps in my musical knowledge, the circle of fifths reared its ugly head again.

The circle of fifths is an excellent tool for learning scales and arpeggios all over the guitar neck. Instead of practicing a concept in one key, you can begin transposing ideas into all 12 keys. This helps with learning the fretboard and internalizing the 12 diatonic keys.

Because the notes are laid out in a linear fashion on the guitar, it’s easy to learn a scale or arpeggio and slide the same shape up the neck to transpose it. Move an A major scale up one fret, and it becomes a B-flat major scale.

Practicing with the circle of fifths is like adding weights to your musical deadlift. Instead of moving a scale or pattern to the next fret, try moving it up a fifth or down a fourth. Now keep doing that until you’ve played that pattern in every key.

This will begin to open up the fretboard in ways you never imagined.

How the Circle Works

The circle of fifths is divided into 12 sections. Each section represents one of the 12 notes in the chromatic scale. If we go around the circle in a clockwise fashion, the notes ascend by an interval of a perfect fifth. Going around counterclockwise descends by a perfect fourth.

Unfortunately, the circle isn’t very useful if we stop there. It’s pretty easy to memorize the 12 notes of the chromatic scale. Simply knowing the notes won’t make you an expert musician any more than knowing the alphabet will make you a bestselling author.

The circle of fifths with the key signatures for all 12 diatonic keys. The major key names are written in the outer circle. Relative minor keys are noted in the inner circle.

The circle of fifths is most commonly used to teach the order of sharps and flats. This is important for understanding which notes are in a particular key.

C major has no sharps or flats. Unless you want to play everything in C, you will need to learn your sharps and flats. If you are serious about learning the language of music, you will also need this information for identifying key signatures on written music.

Fortunately, there are some handy mnemonics for learning the order of sharps and flats.

  • Sharps: Fat Cats Go Down Alleys Eating Birds
  • Flats: Before Eating A Donut, Get Coffee First

Learning the order of sharps and flats is important, but it is only half of the battle. The trouble with these memory tricks is that they only help you remember the order of sharps and flats. They don’t help you remember which key has two sharps or five flats.

There is no substitute for learning the key signatures and knowing D major has two sharps and D flat major has five flats. Fortunately, there are a couple easy tricks to quickly identify key signatures.

Flat Keys

For most of the music you will come across, there are six flat keys. One of them doesn’t have “flat” in its name.

The key with one flat is F major. It doesn’t follow the same pattern as the other flat keys, so you will have to memorize it. Sorry.

Each of the subsequent flat keys, will take its name from the second-to-last flat added to the key. For example, the four flats (Bb, Eb, Ab, Db) is the key of Ab major.

It takes practice. The temptation is to read all of the flats and try to name the key for the last flat. You must stop at the second-to-last flat.

This table should help.

KeyBbEbAbDbGbCbFb
FX
B flatXX
E flatXXX
A flatXXXX
D flatXXXXX
G flatXXXXXX

Why does the chart stop at the key of G flat? Because you will rarely, if ever, see the key of C flat or F flat major. You may already know the reason.

The note a half-step below C is usually B. Sometimes, the same note can have a different name. C flat is an enharmonic equivalent to B. We already have the key of B major (it’s the one with five sharps). With few exceptions, B major is easier to read and write,

Likewise, the note a half-step below F is E. The key of F flat is an enharmonic equivalent to E major (the key with four sharps).

Sharp Keys

If you thought the flat keys were challenging, fortunately the sharp keys are a little more consistent. The trick to identifying a sharp key signature is the same for every key.

The last sharp in a key signature will be a half-step below the root note. For example, the key with one sharp (F#) is G major. Four sharps (F#-C#-G#-D#) is E major.

The following table shows each of the sharps in each of the sharp keys.

KeyF#C#G#D#A#E#B#
GX
DXX
AXXX
EXXXX
BXXXXX
F#XXXXXX

Unlike the flat keys, where enharmonic equivalent keys are fairly uncommon, you may stumble across music written in the key of F sharp major. As you may have guessed, F sharp major is equivalent to G flat major. The key signature also includes an E sharp, which is equivalent to F.

The key of C sharp major also throws in a B sharp. While “B Sharps” might be a clever name for a barbershop quartet (Simpsons reference), it’s kind of silly to use seven sharps when four flats would accomplish the same thing.

Fortunately, most composers avoid F sharp major and C sharp major.

Minor Keys

You can find the relative minor for any key by dropping the root note a minor third. For example, the relative minor for B-flat major would be G minor (Bb -> A -> G).

What if you want to identify a minor key by looking at the key signature? Going down a minor third is by far the easiest way. But you can try some other methods. There are different shortcuts for sharp and flat keys.

For flat keys, you can count up a major third from the last flat in the key signature. For example, the last flat the key of A flat major is D flat. Count up like this: D flat -> E flat -> F. The relative minor is F minor.

This trick even works for F major, which has a B-flat in the key signature (Bb -> C -> D minor).

Once again, sharp keys are a little easier. Take the last sharp in the key signature and drop down a whole step. The key of G major has an F sharp. A whole step below F sharp is E. The relative minor is E minor.

Sharps and Flats Reference

The best way to learn the circle of fifths is to dive in head first. Try practicing scales on a single string, going through the circle of fifths. Do the same thing across multiple strings. Practice major and minor arpeggios through the circle of fifths. Get creative.

The more you practice in all 12 keys, the more you will begin to internalize the notes for each key. Over time, you will find yourself hitting fewer sour notes when improvising a solo.

If you’re still having trouble, the following chart might help you to better understand how the sharps and flats fit into each diatonic key.

Root234567
CDEFGAB
GABCDEF#
DEF#GABC#
ABC#DEF#G#
EF#G#ABC#D#
BC#D#EF#G#A#
GbAbBbCbDbEbF
DbEbFGbAbBbC
AbBbCDbEbFG
EbFGAbBbCD
BbCDEbFGA
FGABbCDE

One thought on “How Do You Practice Guitar With the Circle of Fifths?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s