39. The Circle Of Fifths

There are many different looking versions of the circle of fifths diagram. I am using one that appears as a clock:













I like guitarists who are not familiar with the circle of fifths to start by focusing on the positions of C (noon) and the “keys” of G, D, A and E (1,2,3 and 4 o’clock).  Think of a key as a major scale that chords and melodies are made from.


These first 4 “sharp” keys are the most favored keys by guitarists, mostly because of the harmonious sounds of the open guitar strings with the chords that are made from those scales.


These are the sharp keys, in order:


C  No sharps, no flats


G  One sharp,  F#


D   Two sharps, F# and C#


A   Three sharps, F#, C# and G#


E    Four sharps, F#, C#, G#, and D#


B    Five sharps, F#, C#, G#, D# and A#


F#   Six sharps, F#, C#, G#, D#, A# and E#


Note that as a sharp is added, the clock moves a fifth each time, thus the name cirle of fifths. Also note each new sharp is added at the 7th degree, known as the leading tone of the major scale, since it leads back to where the scale began, at the octave. The “old” sharp (the note that was previously sharped) is applied in the subsequent key with each new sharp. As more than one sharp is added, all old sharps are added in addition to the new one.



1          2          3          4          5          6          7          8

C         D          E          F         G          A          B          C


G        A          B          C        D          E          F#      G   (Key of G, 1 sharp)


D        E          F#        G         A         B         C#      D  (Key of D, 2 sharps)


A        B          C#        D        E          F#      G#    A  (Key of A, 3 sharps)



The circle of fifths functions as a mnemonic, a tool to help the musician as a reference and memory builder until the contents are known. In time, music itself provides a superior context for memorization.

Sharp keys are on the right side of the clock, flat keys on the left. This time, focusing on the flat (left) side, we see the following:


C    No sharps, no flats


F     One flat, Bb


Bb   Two flats, Bb anf Eb


Eb   Three flats, Bb, Eb, and Ab


Ab   Four flats, Bb, Eb, Ab and Db


Db    Five flats, Bb, Eb, Ab, Db and Gb


Gb    Six flats, Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, Gb and Cb


The keys of F# and Gb are the same. They are called enharmonic equivelents.

I have not listed the key of 7 sharps (C#) and the key of 7 flats (Cb), since they are rarely used.


Much material has been published on this subject.  I am only emphasizing that guitarist may derive the greatest value from the circle of fifths by concentrating their efforts on the first five “sharp”keys to start.


© 2012 Jim Greenfield