The Importance of Practising Using the Circle of 5ths

by James Stelling

Most of us guitarists start learning in a similar way. We learn chords by remembering shapes giving no concern to what notes might comprise those shapes other than ‘this is C’ or this is ‘Am’. Some of us later look to conciliate our practical and theoretical knowledge and others don’t. Those of us who do end up being way more comfortable in ‘guitarist’s keys’ (as I’ve heard many a pianist describe them) and not so comfortable in the keys less prevalent when we were learning open chords and basic rock songs. In other words flat keys and keys with a lot of sharps in them.

For example, how many guitarists could play you a G major chord within a nanosecond of you asking them? All but the freshest of beginners generally. How many guitarists could play you a Gb major chord with the same relative ease? Maybe 10% would do it. The other 90% would vary between struggling to convert F# to Gb to not being able to do it at all.

Why am I bleating on about this? Because, any degree of unfamiliarity when trying to select an Abm7 chord is going to see you struggle to make your way through a song containing one, or limit your options when improvising over one. This is true for all chords of all types but it is a common problem amongst guitarists to not be able to quickly deal with flats and to a lesser extent sharps.

The easiest and most musical way to combat this issue is to practise everything you learn through the circle of 5ths. This will assure that every chord voicing or lick that you know will be just as accessible to you in Db as it is in D. It will also assure that your knowledge of the notes across each string improves as you continuously look for unfamiliar root notes from which to build your licks/chords.

So why the circle of 5ths? Well music very often moves around the circle of 5ths.

C – F- Bb – EB – Ab – Db – Gb/F# – B – E – A – D – G – C

Any given note is the V of the note to the right of it. For example Ab is the V of Db, B is the V of E etc

Autumn Leaves – a very common Jazz standard does this diatonically:

Cm7 – F7 – Bbmaj7 – Ebmaj7 – Am7b5 – D7 – G-7 – G7 – Cm7 etc

So if you practise your chord voicings and licks through the circle of 5ths you will be used to moving through keys in a way that is very commonly used in chord progressions and you will be as familiar in the keys that are historically difficult for guitarists as you are in the easier ones.

So next time you learn a new lick or a new chord voicing first play it in C, then F, then Bb, the Eb etc until you arrive back at C. Do this every time you learn something new and you will start to become much more versatile a guitarist.