Running in Circles
BY ANDY ELLIS
• Learn how to navigate the
Circle of Fourths and Fifths
• Conquer unfamiliar keys and
their diatonic chords
• Play iim–V–I cadences in
all 12 keys
may be to reach for a capo. And there’s nothing wrong with that, assuming you stay in one
key for the entire song.
However, when you tackle music that has
several key changes in it, a capo loses most of
its advantages. Really, there’s no substitute for
being able to navigate all 12 keys using nothing but your bare hands.
Fig. 1 shows our secret weapon for mastering all 12 keys on the guitar. This simple and
ingenious wheel—officially called the Circle
of Fourths and Fifths—can reveal all kinds
of music-theory secrets, once you understand
how to use it.
For starters, put your finger on C, right up
there at 12 o’clock. Go ahead—touch it, no
one’s watching. From C, our starting point,
the 11 other notes of the Western music
system are arrayed around the outside of this
circle. If you travel counterclockwise (CCW),
each note is a perfect fourth from its predecessor. So, F is a fourth away from C, B% is a
fourth from F, E% is a fourth from B%, and so
on. All the way around the wheel.
Move clockwise, however, and our 12
notes are separated by a perfect fifth—G is a
fifth away from C, D is a fifth from G, etc.
Now you know how to immediately find
the tone a fourth or fifth away from any given
note. Simply touch your target note and shift
one click CCW (fourth) or CW (fifth). Voilà.
This also works for chord roots, so now you
can easily locate the major chord a fourth
away from B% (yes, that’s E%).
But that’s not all. When we use the letters
around the outside of the wheel to represent
the 12 major chords, we can see their respective relative minors parked right inside the
circle. Cool! If you need to know the relative minor chord for B major, find B on the
wheel, slide inside, and there you are: G#m.
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sound clips of
Do you ever feel trapped on the fretboard? Comfortable in certain keys, but utterly
lost in others? If so, you’re not alone. I’ll bet
most of us happily cruise along in the keys of
C, G, D, A, or E, yet sputter out when play-
ing in E%, D%, and A%. Barre and power chords
are pretty easy to deal with—just slide them
to the right fret, follow familiar fretboard
patterns, and you’re in business. But when it
comes to creating an artful accompaniment in
one of those “dusty” keys ... well, the best plan
Our wheel (or cycle chart, as it’s sometimes
called) has several other surprises in store.
Perhaps the most significant for chord hounds
is the pattern shown in Fig. 2. Here we see
the I chord at the 12 o’clock position, with
the IV (CCW) and V (CW) chords displayed
on either side. Directly inside are the vim
(relative minor to I), the iim (relative to the
IV), and iiim (relative to the V). Sweet—this
maps the location of six of the seven diatonic
chords in a major key.
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