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 playing
in Eb, Db, and Ab. 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
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.
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, Bb is a
fourth from F, Eb is a fourth from Bb, 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 Eb).
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.
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.
And this pattern holds true anywhere
you rotate it on the wheel. Simply shift
the pattern CCW or CW and align the I
with whichever note represents the I chord
of your chosen key. Try it: What are the
diatonic chords in the key of A? Mentally
align the I to A, and you’ll find the IV
(D), V (E), iim (Bm), vim (F#m), and
iiim (C#m) all conveniently clustered
around the I.
Just remember, don’t think “left” and
“right,” but rather “counterclockwise” and
“clockwise.” This is crucial for making the
wheel work properly.
Okay, that’s fun and useful. But how
does the wheel apply to our fretboard? One
answer is, it allows us to trace important
progressions in every key, thus giving us a
way to mindfully practice moving from one
key to another—all around the wheel until
we return to our starting point.
This is important: If we play chords bigger
than triads (four-note 7th chords, for
instance, or extended harmony like 9th, 11th,
and 13th chords), assuming we stay strictly
within our key, the iim will always be in the
minor 7th family (which includes minor 9,
for example), the V chord will be a dominant
7th type (or dominant 9, 11, or 13), and the
I chord will be a major 7th type (or larger).
Check out Fig. 3
, a iim-V-I progression
in the key of C. Here we have a classic jazz
cadence: Dm7–G13–Cmaj7. This is what
jazzbos call a “two-five-one.” This progression
lies at the heart of hundreds of standards
and jazz tunes—the way a I–IV–V progression
lies at the heart of blues (“let’s jam a
one-four-five in the key of C”). Going back
to Fig. 2, trace this iim-V-I movement with
your finger and observe its triangular shape.
We’ll be replicating this shape all around the
Circle of Fourths and Fifths.
or download example audio
Using the wheel to work out a iim–V–I
cadence in six keys, I came up with the progression
in Fig. 4
. If you eyeball the music,
you’ll see that we’re rolling CCW around the
wheel, playing through the keys of F, Bb, Eb,
Ab, Db, and Gb. (I stopped at six keys simply
for space considerations. You can continue
moving CCW all the way around the wheel
until you return to the key of F. It’s a great
workout for your fingers and ears.)
or download example audio
To keep things interesting, I added some
rhythmic variations and a few single-note lines
to connect the last chord in one key to the
first chord of the next. As you play this 12-bar
passage, go slowly. Listen for the underlying
harmonic movement within each key, as well
as how one key jumps to the next. It’s more
important to focus on the sounds than to nail
the chord changes in tempo. Start by tuning
into the root motion and go from there.
Next month, we’ll find more ways
to work out with our training wheel.
Meanwhile, try cycling through a few iim-
V-I progressions of your own.
is a veteran guitar journalist
and Senior Editor at PG
in Nashville, Andy backs singer-songwriters
on the baritone guitar, and also
hosts The Guitar Show
, a weekly on-air
and online broadcast. For the schedule,
links to the stations’ streams, archived audio
interviews with inspiring players, and more,