Basics of the Circle of Fifths on the Guitar - dummies

By Desi Serna

No discussion on how to play the guitar would be complete without mentioning the circle of fifths, sometimes called the cycle of fifths. In music theory, the circle of fifths represents relationships between the different key signatures. Knowing how to move in fifths and recognizing songs that use chord progressions that follow this pattern is very useful for guitar players.

The circle of fifths can work two ways: moving up by 5ths or moving down by 5ths. Look at the ascending version first. If you start on an F major chord and play its V chord, C, you move up a 5th: F-G-A-Bf-C, 1-2-3-4-5.In a similar way, a 5th above C is G, and so on.

If you continue in this manner, you can cycle through all 12 possible roots and return to where you started — F major. Here is the complete circle of ascending fifths starting on F.

[Credit: Illustration courtesy of Desi Serna]
Credit: Illustration courtesy of Desi Serna

You can see an example of how to play these at Ascending 5ths.

You can also play through the circle of descending 5ths. Start on F and count down five to get to Bf. In other words, just play backward.

The circle of fifths is useful for playing chord progressions. Start on any chord, play its dominant, or V chord, and cycle through all 12 chromatic chords. Use either the ascending 5ths version or the descending one.

Here is one way to build a circle progression based on 5ths. Here, the tonic is E, the goal of the progression. A sequence of ascending 5ths precedes it, starting with C.

[Credit: Illustration courtesy of Desi Serna]
Credit: Illustration courtesy of Desi Serna

Many songs feature circle chord progressions. Here are just a few examples:

  • “Hush” by Deep Purple has the 5ths progression: Af-Ef-Bf-F-C during the “Nah, nah-nah-nah, nah-nah-nah, nah-nah-nah” section.

  • “Time Warp” from the film The Rocky Horror Picture Show has the progression F-C-G-D-A during the chorus “Let’s Do the Time Warp again.”

  • The bridge of “Here Comes the Sun” by The Beatles moves in 5ths with C-G-D-A-E.

How to apply the same circle to fourths

The circle of fifths is also a circle of fourths! In C major, C to F is a descending 5th (C-B-A-G-F, 1-2-3-4-5), but you can also count up to F (C-D-E-F, 1-2-3-4). Both are correct. Classical musicians usually talk about the circle of fifths, while jazz and popular musicians often talk about the circle of fourths.

Here are some songs that use sections of this 4th pattern:

  • “Country Boy” by Ricky Skaggs has a solo section that moves in 4ths: E7-A7-D7-G7.

  • The opening to “Light my Fire” by The Doors is built from the progression G-D-F-Bf-Ef-Af-A. Starting with the F chord through to Af, you have an ascending cycle of fourths progression.

The potential of the circle of fifths/fourths is to cycle through all 12 possible chromatic pitches. However, you can also move up by 4ths through the chords of a particular key while keeping to diatonic (major scale) chords. For example, you can cycle through the C major scale through its seven possible diatonic chords by ascending 4ths, as shown here.

[Credit: Illustration courtesy of Desi Serna]
Credit: Illustration courtesy of Desi Serna

Here are some songs that use the circle of fourths to cycle through a particular key while keeping to diatonic chords:

  • “Still Got the Blues” by Gary Moore and “I Will Survive” by Gloria Gaynor are built on the circle of fourths in A minor: Am-Dm-G-C-F-Bm7f5-E7. The final E7 chord is from A harmonic minor and leads back to Am to start the progression again.

  • “Wild World” by Cat Stevens uses Am-D-G-C F-Dm-E7, almost all 4ths.

Sometimes songs move through the circle of fourths by using a combination of diatonic chords and secondary dominants. For example, “Still the Same” by Bob Seger has the changes Em-Am-Dm-G during the verse and E-A-Dm-G in the chorus. In the chorus, you see the secondary dominants E and A. Both sets of chord changes move in ascending 4ths.

Here are two more examples of circle of fourths progressions, which include secondary dominants:

  • “Rocky Raccoon” by The Beatles uses the progression Am7-D7-G7-C. A C/B chord
    (C with B in the bass) leads back to Am to begin the cycle again.

  • “No Matter What” by Badfinger moves in 4ths, starting on Fsm7: Fsm7-B7-E7-A7-D7. This section of the song finishes off with Bm and A and features some chromatic voice leading.