The Circle of 5ths: A Foundational Music Theory Tool For Guitarists

In this post I introduce the circle of 5ths guitar players can use to improve their knowledge of Major and Minor scales. The circle of fifths is also a critical foundational tool for music theory.

Learning and memorizing the circle of 5ths will have many practical applications for your guitar playing.

It will help you with learning how to play any major or minor scale on the guitar, in any key. By learning the circle of 5ths you’ll be able to instantly know the notes of any major or minor scale. Furthermore, it will help you to understand key signatures. You’ll then be able to change music keys seamlessly!

Imagine, no more needing to look up scale shapes on the internet. 

If you memorize the circle of fifths and combine that with your knowledge of the notes on the guitar fretboard, you’ll be able to play any major or minor scale on the guitar without needing to look up the scale form!

Simple Circle of 5ths

So, what is the circle of 5ths? Here it is:

Circle of 5ths basic
The Circle of 5ths basic chart

This printable circle of fifths chart is a circle containing every note (12 in total) that exists in music.

Beginning from C and going clockwise, you’ll see the next note is G. The distance between C and G is a perfect fifth (C (1), D (2), E (3), F (4), G (5)). 

As you continue clockwise on the circle, the perfect fifth relationship continues, G to D (G (1), A (2), B (3), C (4), D (5)). Hence, the circle of the fifths.

What is the benefit of memorizing the circle of 5ths? 

It will give you the ability to instantly know the notes of any Major or Minor scale. 

For example, I know that the A major scale contains 3 sharps (F#, C#, G#). Therefore I know the full A major scale will be these notes: A, B, C#, D, E, F#, G#. 

How did I know the A major scale contains 3 sharps? The circle of fifths.

Detailed Circle of 5ths

Take a look at this detailed circle of fifths chart:

Circle of fifths detailed
The Circle of Fifths detailed chart

On the right side we have the keys with sharp notes, on the left side we have the keys with flat notes. 

Notice that with every root note, I’ve now added the sharps or flats that are associated with that root note. So for example, the A root note has 3 sharps associated with it (F#, C#, G#).

Also notice that beginning from the top and going clockwise (or counterclockwise), we build on the sharp or flat that existed in the previous key by adding one more note. For example, the key of G has one sharp, F#. The next note, the perfect fifth note, is D. The key of D has two sharps, F# and C#. Then for the key of A (a perfect 5th from D), we build on the previous two by adding one more sharp: F#, C#, and G#. And so on.

For the keys with sharp notes you’ll go: G, D, A, E, B

For the keys with flat notes you’ll go: F, Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, Gb

The key of C has no flats or sharps. 

Memorization tips

There is a lot to memorize in this chart. I recommend coming up with acronyms to help you remember.

Here is how I do it.

For the keys with sharp notes I remembered them by thinking of “BEAD” “GC”. This helps me remember how many sharps are in the key and what they are. 

So by thinking “BEAD” “GC” I knew that B had 5 sharps, E had 4 sharps, A had 3 sharps, etc.

For the sharp notes, I think of the phrase: Fried Car Gets Dad All-the-time. F#, C#, G#, D#, A#. 

So if I see E major, I know it has 4 sharps and those sharps are: F#, C#, G#, D# (Fried Car Gets Dad).

For the flats you can also utilize the “BEAD”, “G”. You’ll have to remember that the key of F only has 1 flat (Bb). 

I combine thinking of “BEAD” “G” along with this rule: “all before and one after”.

For example, I know that Eb has three flats, Bb, Eb, Ab.

I knew the flats from my “BEAD” “G” acronym, combined with the formula “all before and one after”. 

All the flats before Eb are Bb, Eb, and one after is Ab.

This type of formulaic thinking was tremendously useful in my journey of memorizing the circle of fifths.

Further reading

  1. Guitar Fretboard Notes Chart: What The Notes Are & How To Memorize Them
  2. 8 Power Chords Guitar Players Should Know
  3. 14 Bar Chords Guitar Player Should Know (6th string root)
  4. 14 Barre Chords Guitar Players Should Know (5th string root)

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