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The Importance of Guitar Theory and The Circle of Fifths


The Importance of Music Theory.

I have a motto/phrase I like to live by in just about everything that I do as I believe it underlies every serious pursuit in life. That motto is "from the beginning to the end and back". As a guitarist I am most definitely at the beginning although I have been playing on and off for a number of years now. The motto suggests that when I eventually become a good guitarist I will return to the beginning to begin improving my skills in order to become a better guitarist. Within any particular subdivision of playing the guitar such as fretboard mastery, major/minor scale mastery, pentatonic scale mastery and so on. That cycle never ends basically because I view myself as the student to one day become master. And every master is a student.

The motto I mention is built on a foundation that states that: "Advanced techniques are just simple basic techniques or fundamentals played exceptionally well" Stephen Hawkins.

That said, due to my decision to take a more in-depth look at actually learning how to play the guitar really well I found a couple of great resources concerning basic music and in particular guitar theory that I wanted to learn from. Those resources are my current masters or from whence I learn.

In the pursuit of a teacher to follow I look for authenticity along with two simple rules: Does this teach have what I want? or is he where I want to be?, i.e. he has attained the skill level I want to attain for myself either as an end result or a stepping stone to more improvement and two: has he been close to where I am now?. The second rule applies simply because if that teacher hasn't experience what I myself am going through (as a guitarist) then all of his teachings would not be taught from a stance of "Authenticity", (from my own perspective). His lessons would be incongruent with my own specific guitar study and practice needs.

Learn The Science and The Art Will Follow

In my view this guitar theory and theory in general is just as important if not more so as learning to play the guitar itself based on another one of my own personal quotes I discovered whilst brainstorming titles for my own drumming course of lessons (I used to be a drummer but to get where I wanted to be practice became troublesome at best). The quote, motto, title or whatever you want to call it being "Drumming: The Art and Science of Time and Space". You can replace the word drumming with just about every other musical instrument I can think of. Simply because the notes and eventually music you play are each placed in time within a set space.

The art and science of time and space?, mmmh, think about it deeply for a moment and you will discover that to be purely artistic or creative on the guitar or any other instrument you first need to be able to play the instrument which is enhanced by the theory behind the practice and playing. You need to know the science? You cannot pick up a guitar and suddenly start playing it artistically or creatively until you can first play the guitar proficiently enough to allow for creativity to take place. Which is much enhanced by first mastering guitar and music theory in general. The more you master the theory the more you are able to apply it within a much wider range of musical circumstances and possibilities. 

In today's modern world of instant gratification the opposite of what I have just said is often used to promote a specific cause in order to get you off actually doing the work that must be done to become the master of guitar or anything else in life. The big marketers and companies do this because they know that their customers, the public wants things instantly so they make the attainment of an high level of skill sound as easy as possible in order for their company to thrive.

The bad news is that perfecting anything is not easy until after the event and you have eventually mastered that art. It is then easy. Perspective is key. The good news is that everything presently unknown to you can become known, anything known can be practised and over time mastered.


Your 4 Step Process To Achieve Mastery

In just about every pursuit there is a system that needs abiding by. That system is:

  • Theory
  • Practice
  • Perfect Practice
  • Creativity or mastery

I am not a master of either of the above steps yet, in fact I am still learning the theory but as previously mentioned I am at the beginning of my journey. When I reach the end of that journey I will return to the beginning to perfect my knowledge of theory, perform better practice in order to produce greater creativity on the instrument. I cant play perfectly or anywhere near perfect.

Having said that, "I do know a man who can" and who is willing to teach me. In fact I know several masters in their field and here we are speaking of Guitar THEORY. And the more you know it as well as understand it the more your practice will be enhanced as it will be backed by knowledge, essential knowledge required for the time when you begin to get creative with the science you have learned.


So without further ado, lets get down to some basic theory on guitar, but first I strongly advise you to watch this fantastic video on the circle of fifths  (above) that will enhance your ability to absorb this theory as that video gives a great general overview and insights into the circles secrets so to speak. Plus, Brian has tonnes of additional lessons available all revolving around this essential foundational skill set of becoming a great guitarist all with Theory at its centre, which implies a simple truth many overlook. That truth is that the 4 steps I mentioned previously are integrated and inter twinned but must still be practised and understood individually.

Brian takes you on a journey from the beginning to the end (end of every small nugget of knowledge) and back to the beginning in several areas and is the perfect source of guitar theory and knowledge. You can check his stuff out here at Zombie Guitar.

I would also highly recommend a book by Joseph Alexander titled: The Circle of Fifths For Guitarists. It covers everything here and more at a much deeper level giving you an even deeper understanding of these essential theories that make up the circle of fifths and music theory in general. You can get it on amazon for a few bucks and it comes with musical examples and you can download the accompanying audio files here for free.

What we are talking about here is Repetition... The Mother of ALL Skill .


So Let us begin with the important subject of intervals in music:



The Importance of Music Theory.


When we play up the fretboard on any string just one fret at a time we are moving in Half Tones or Semitones. We can call this a scale although it isn’t a very good example of a great sounding musical scale. This simplest version of a scale is called the chromatic scale.

As you move up the chromatic scale starting at any open string you will eventually arrive at an octave above the original starting open string. This octave note is reached every 12 semitones or frets along the guitar fretboard. This is usually marked by two dots on the fretboard.

These are the 12 semitones that form every octave on the guitar.

Two Semitones are equal to a single Tone but this theory isn’t mathematically accurate when you think that 12 semitones are in a single octave yet there are seven individual tones in a full octave, those being:

C - D

D - E

E - F

F - G

G - A

A - B

B - C


So you may ask “shouldn’t there be 14 semitones in each octave”?

Well that would be true except that there isn't a semitone between the notes B and C and E and F.

You can see this clearly in the image of a piano keyboard. There are two black notes grouped together then a space between E and F (two white notes) then there are three black notes grouped together then a space between B and C (two white notes) . This is clear in the image of the piano keyboard below.


Moving up the fretboard on a guitar is exactly the same as moving up the piano keyboard one note at a time hitting all notes up the scale including the black ones.

If you were to miss each black note on the piano you would be playing a scale of tones or the Whole Tone Scale as it is sometimes referred to.

On the guitar the same "Whole Tone Scale" can be achieved by playing each note up the fretboard starting on any open string and moving up the fretboard two semitones apart or a tone each time.


KEY Signatures

As we discovered previously there are 12 semitones within each octave. There are also only 12 Major Keys in which to play the guitar. See the Circle of Fifths image below.

If we draw a circle and divide the circle into 12 equal part and call the top section (12.00 o’clock) the key of C Major, the other 11 keys can be drawn around the circle.

This is where the Circle of Fifths foundational knowledge really begins and in its simplest form describes a simple formula that is traced around the circle in a clockwise direction starting from the key of C Major in position "0" or zero. The 12 o’clock position.

The order of keys around the circle all the way to the 11 o'clock position is as follows:

C G D A E B Gb Db Ab Eb Bb F

(the "b" after G D A E and B means FLAT, or flattened. This will become clearer later)


However, the B Gb Db section of that progression in the lower quadrant all have two names:

B  or Cb (C flat)

Gb or F# (F sharp)

Db or C# (C sharp)


So, the sequence of Major Keys around the Circle is really:

C G D A E B/Cb Gb/F# Db/C# Ab Eb Bb F


These keys form individual Major Scales from the 5th note of the previous starting key.

For example the first G in the sequence: C (G) D A E B Gb Db Ab Eb Bb F...

is found by moving from the root note (C) of the C Major Scale five places up the Scale:

C D E F (G) A B C


The C Major scale being made of all of the white notes on a piano C D E F G A B C.

G then is the Perfect Fifth of C.

Repeating this from the G Major Scale:

G A B C (D) E F# G we see that D is the perfect fifth of G.

Repeating the same pattern from the key of D we again see that the formula holds fast and that A is the fifth of the previous D scale.

D E F# G (A) B C# D


This formula continues all the way through all of the 12 Major Keys right through to the 11 o'clock position which is the key of F Major

If you play an open E A D G B or E string followed by the note at the seventh fret you will discover that this is a perfect fifth. You may recognize that this pattern is used in the Steely Dan song "Ricky Don’t Loose That Number" to great effect as well as hundreds/thousands of other songs.

Power Chord 5ths

A perfect fifth can also be found from any note on the low E string on the next string down (A String) and 2 frets up from the starting note. This is commonly known as the power chord shape.

Also (from the 5th string) the same fret one string up is a fifth. For example, C on 3rd fret 5th string and G on 6th string third fret form a fifth.

Because the fifth is the most important sound in music you should practice ascending and descending from G on the low E string up to the 15th fret using: Power chords v1 and v2 as previously mentioned, Major chords (5th and 6th note rooted - then moving from one to the other for different string roots), the same with minor and dominant 7th chords. This is covered in more depth in the Joseph Alexander book I recommended earlier.

Before reading further you should reread this post as many times as you need to in order to completely understand what I am saying. As mentioned earlier I am a student of this knowledge still but the facts here are correct so don't be put off knowing I am the student and so still learning this stuff. I have gone over it many times in order to embed the knowledge more deeply. Saying that, "Knowing" is far different than "Remembering"? I am presently still working on the memorization.

In fact, I wrote this post to help me remember and made it as matter-of-fact as possible in order to keep reading over it to get it embedded in my own mind.



The Order of Sharps

An easy way to remember the order of sharps for keys using sharp notes is by adopting the following pattern: Again this is covered more deeply in the Joseph Alexander book mentioned earlier. I highly recommend that book after spending a little time reading this article. This is also covered in Brian Kelly's video mentioned at the beginning of this post.

Just as Brian Kelly's video (mentioned above) is a great beginning to this post, this post is a great beginning to the Joseph Alexander book. Each integrates with the other to form a solid foundation in guitar and music theory revolving around the circle of fifths.

Where was I?

Aaah, An easy way to remember the order of sharps for keys that included sharp notes is by adopting the following pattern:

On the low E and A string using: 3rd, 5th and 7th frets, or the notes:

A String -      C             D             E

E String -      G             A             B


Then by using this second pattern or sequence of numbers superimposed on the above pattern you can instantly see the corresponding letters and numbers represent the key and the number of sharps within that key. For example, take the note G on the pattern with the letter or note names then looking at the corresponding pattern using numbers we see that there is 1 sharp note in the key of G.

A String -      0              2              4

E String -      1              3              5


So, the top grid contains the key and the bottom grid contains the number of sharps in the corresponding key

As mentioned G has 1 sharp, A has 3 sharps, D has 2 sharps and so on.

Then, by knowing the order of sharps, we can easily remember which notes are sharpened in a particular key. The order of sharps is:

F# C# G# D# A# E# B#

So the 1 sharp in the key of G is F#.

The 3 sharps in the key of A are: F# C# and G#.


This sequence is formed from the basic foundational theory that you should always sharpen the 7th degree or note of the new scale that we created from each previous key by starting a new scale on the 5th degree of the last key or scale we created.


The Relative Minor Key

A relative minor scale is found by moving 6 notes up the major scale to begin another scale (the relative minor key).

For example: C Majors relative minor is discovered by counting up 6 notes from C, i.e. C D E F G (A). So, A minor is the relative minor to C Major.

However, the pattern of tones with a minor key/scale is completely different from the Major scale/key pattern. This lends a sadder sound to the minor key than the happier/upbeat sound of Major keys.

Here are the two note patterns (patterns of Tones and semiTones) of both major and minor keys for your examination.

T T sT T T T sT  - Major Key Pattern as opposed to:

T sT T T sT T T  - Minor Key Patter.

The distance between the 1st and 3rd notes in the Major scale is two tones: or a Major 3rd.

However, the distance between the 1st and 3rd notes in the Minor scale is one and half tones or a Minor 3rd.

Between the 7th note and following root note in a Major key there is one Semitone

Between the 7th note and following root note in a Minor key there is one full Tone (Because the 7th degree is always flattened in a minor key)

To find a relative minor on the guitar fret board play a note on the low E string and move up 10 frets or go down 2 strings (D String) and down one fret.

Moving from a minor to find its relative major move up 3 notes: i.e. A B (C). So, C is the relative major to the A minor key as we have previously discovered.

Or on the fretboard up 3 frets (4 frets including the starting note/fret whichever way you wish to look at it).


Major/Minor Intended Key

Because a relative Major and Minor pair have exactly the same key signature to find which key the tune is actually in you can look at the first chord in the music.

For example, if the key has one sharp (G Major or E minor)...

If the first chord is Em then the music is in E Minor but if the first chord of the music is G major the music is in the key of G.


Circle of Fourths

Moving counter-clockwise from C we move 4 steps up the C Major scale C D E (F) and we do the same anti-clockwise all around the circle. We then arrive in steps as follows:


F, (the 4th degree of the C Major Scale), C D E (F) etc

Bb, (the 4th degree of the F Major Scale),

Eb, (the 4th degree of the Bb Major Scale),

Ab, (the 4th degree of the Eb Major Scale),

Db, (the 4th degree of the Ab Major Scale),

Gb, (the 4th degree of the Db Major Scale),


...and so, the order of flats is: Fb, Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, Gb.

But the pattern of the new scales is T T T sT T T sT

We need to flatten the 4th degree by a semitone to correct this so that it forms a proper Major scale which consists of:

T T sT T T T sT (as mentioned earlier in this post).


An interesting thing to note about the order of flats is that they are opposite to the order of sharps mentioned earlier.

Bb Eb Ab Db Gb Cb Fb


It's opposite to the order of sharps which is:

F# C# G# D# A# E# B#


You can see this simple string sequence of notes on the first and second frets (B String) to easily remember the order of flats:

E String --

B String --          Db

G String -- Ab

D String -- Eb

A String -- Bb

E String -- F


Played on first fret: F, Bb, Eb, Ab

Played on second fret: Db

From the first flat (F) down the strings the sequence is numbered 1 2 3 4 5..

...which represents the number of flats in that key:

EG: Db has 5 flats, Fb, Bb, Eb, Ab and Gb.

Take a long look at the circle of fifths diagram above to clearly see:

  • The order of Major keys
  • The order of minor keys
  • The order of Sharps
  • The order of flats
  • The relative major/minor pair
  • The circle of fourths


Again see Brian Kelly's video above to help memorize this important knowledge.

Learn them study them and memorize them. Concentrate on one part at a time until you have it locked in then move to the next part/fact. Then when you have it all memorized... keep going through the process until you have instant recall. This will take time, effort and discipline but the results will help immensely when it comes to learning songs, practising the guitar and working with other musicians etc.



Enharmonic Keys/Notes

The lower 3 keys of the circle have two key names. 

Db C#

Gb F#

B  Cb


Some notes are enharmonic or have the same name: i.e.

D# - Eb

F# - Gb

G# - Ab

A# - Bb


The distance between E F and B C is only a semitone so it’s rare to see the notes E# or Fb, B# or Cb. The time they are used is when those notes are in the 7th degree and so must be sharpened or flattened as touched upon earlier and covered more deeply in Joseph Alexander's book.


Dominant and Subdominant Chords

-Dominant chords or keys are written from the 5th of the current scale.

-Subdominant chords or keys are built from the 4th note of the scale.


The dominant chord/key of A is E. 

The Subdominant chord/key of A is D


In other words:

-The dominant chord or key is One Step clockwise around the circle of fifths/fourths.

-The subdominant chord/key is One Step counter-clockwise around the circle of fifths/fourths.


You can clearly see this in the above circle of fifths diagram

So, if someone were to instruct you to "Modulate to the Subdominant" whilst within the key of A Major this simply means moving counter-clockwise one step.


For example:

A - D

E - A

G - C


or "Modulate to the Dominant's Relative Minor" meaning modulate to the Dominants relative minor or move clockwise one step then to that Keys relative minor rather than the major key.

In the key of A the Dominant is E and the relative minor to E is C#m

You should now be beginning to see the importance of memorizing this vital musical diagram.



To end this post I would like to make you aware of another memorizing trick to help remember the circle of fifths diagram and that is an addition to Brian Kelly's "B.E.A.D" short cut. Here it is:

Starting from C and moving in a zig-zag fashion clockwise around the circle from Major to Minor keys, then minor to its relative Major key then repeat this pattern notice that you simply skip a note each time to arrive at the major/minor whichever is the case.

For example, from C we skip D and move to Em, from Em to G (the relative pair) then from G we skip A to Bm, from Bm to D and so on. The more intimate you become with the basic memorization the more this zig-zag pattern will help assist instant recall.

The pattern goes (clockwise) like this:

C - Em

Em - G (pair)

G - Bm

Bm - D (pair)

D - F#m

F#m - A (pair)

A - C#m

C#m - E (pair)

and so on...


Just about everything in music and in life is formed from patterns, the universe itself creates patterns as it expands leaving in its wake million upon million of patterns, each with their own patterns contained within. when learning this stuff whether it be the circle of fifths, the guitar fretboard look for the patterns and they will show themselves to you with a little focus and digging.

I hope you enjoyed this article as I enjoyed creating it as a personal tool for myself to read over and over to further integrate the secrets it contains. Then one day it won't have any secrets as they will all be revealed over time.

So be patient, backed by determination and self discipline to keep going over this essential knowledge to put it to use later as it becomes integrated with your own mind and please don't forget to watch Brian Kelly's video several times over along with reading this article over and over and a picture will begin to emerge of the circle of fifths and music theory in general within your own mind.

Also as a supplement, get yourself a copy of Joseph Alexander's book from amazon or search the web for it and get yourself a copy. It will dig deeper into what you have discovered in this article to help you gain complete knowledge and mastery of the circle of fifths.

Please register at 4eLife and share this article if you know anyone else who could benefit by it.

I wish you every success.

Stephen Hawkins

Please Note: I am not affiliated with any of the resources mentioned here.


Fact Based Recapitulation.

There are 7 tones within an octave.

There are 12 semitones in an octave.

There are no sharps or flats between B and C or E and F.

There are 12 major keys each with its relative minor key which is found 6 tones up from the starting root note.

The Major key is comprised of: T T sT T T T sT.

The Minor key is comprised of: T sT T T sT T T.

A Major 3rd in a Major Key is the distance between the 1st and 3rd notes of the key. It is two whole tones. 

A MInor 3rd in a Minor Key is the distance between the 1st and 3rd notes of the key. It is one and a one half tones.

In a Major Key there is a semitone between the 7th note and the following root note.

In a Minor Key there is an whole tone between the 7th note and the following root note. Because the 7th degree of a Minor key is always flattened.

A relative minor key is found by counting 6 notes up from the root note of the current major scale.

A relative major key is found by counting 3 notes up from the root note of the current minor scale.

You can discover the  intended major or relative minor key from the first chord of the song.

The circle of fifths is comprised of keys that are found from the 5th degree of the previous key/scale. C D E F (G) A B C.

The order of flats is: Fb, Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, Gb. Cb,

The order of sharps is: F# C# G# D# A# E# B#.

Some notes are enharmonic or have the same name: i.e. D# - Eb, F# - Gb, G# - Ab and A# - Bb.

The dominant chord or key is One Step clockwise around the circle of fifths.

The subdominant chord/key is One Step counter-clockwise around the circle of fifths/fourths.

The keys of the circle of fifths are: C G D A E B Gb Db Ab Eb Bb F.

The keys in the Lower quadrant of the circle of fifths have two names. B/Cb Gb/F# Db/C#

Stephen Hawkins 20.07.2018 0 441
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