Applied Guitar Theory: 4 – Circle of Fifths

What to Practice

On Paper

Open the PDF linked, below, and print out about a billion copies:

Blank Neck Diagrams (PDF)

Keep some of these with you at home, school, work or anywhere you might be hanging out. Any time you find yourself with nothing to do, grab a sheet and plot out some major scales. Plot out at least one diagram for the major scale in each key. Do both F♯ and G♭. Plot the entire scale up and down each string so the notes of each key cover the entire fretboard. This is how you eventually want to be able to see any scale – as a map covering the entire fretboard.


Grab Your Guitar

With note names, the whole step and half step pattern, key signatures and, now, the circle of 5ths, you have all the tools you need to work out the major scale in every key covering the entire fretboard. This is what you need to start working toward if you want total freedom to play anything, anywhere on the guitar. It may take you half a lifetime to get this all down, but it’s worth the effort. Many players find themselves stuck in a few locations on the fretboard or always playing things in a couple of well-worn keys. They eventually wind up bored, frustrated, and feel like they are spinning their wheels unable to improve their playing. The cause for this almost always comes back to a failure to learn and practice the basic scales covering the entire fretboard in every key.


Scale Patterns

There are many ways to approach learning scales on the guitar. Most people get ahold of a book on scales or visit a website or youtube channel that divide the scale into five or seven different finger patterns. Each pattern covers a section of the fretboard and placing all patterns end-to-end on the guitar neck covers the entire fretboard. Which patterns you prefer comes down to stretching the fingers to reach the notes versus moving the hand to reach the notes. If you’re inclined to learn the scales in patterns, I present the most popular methods in the Chords, Scales, Arpeggios lesson. Some of the things covered in that lesson will not make any sense if you jump ahead at this point, though. I would strongly recommend that you work through each of the following chapters in order, instead,


No Patterns

If you choose to forego learning a pattern system, I recommend two ways to approach scale work:

  1. up and down the single strings following the w/h pattern.
  2. across the strings from octave to octave.

Once we’ve had a chance to go over the theory of chords, a third method will present itself — seeing the notes of the scale relative to the notes of the chord associated with the scale.

Even if you choose to learn a pattern system, work in these three areas is well worth the effort. Most people who learn patterns will eventually have to spend even more time learning to break free of those patterns. If you take a more holistic approach from the beginning, you will avoid the pitfall of getting trapped into pattern playing while gaining the benefits that patterns offer for organizing the notes of a scale on the fretboard.


Use the Circle

When it comes to learning and applying scales on the fretboard you need to work the scale in all keys following a systematic approach. The best systematic approach is to use back-cycling around the circle of 5ths. This means that you play each new key from the 4th of the previous key in this order:

C — F — B♭ — E♭ — A♭ — D♭ — G♭ — B — E — A — D — G

There are good reasons for doing this. One important reason is that this order of keys is used quite often for composing songs. Another important reason is that this order will help to avoid what I call the “chromatic trap.” The nature of the guitar fretboard lends itself too well to working scales chromatically through the keys. Chromatic meaning that you play the scale in one key then move everything up or down one fret to play the next key. Working chromatically give a false sense of being able to play in all keys. Our eyes naturally gravitate to the keys that coincide with the fret markers and keys that we tend to play in most often. Working chromatically tends to lull us into thinking that we don’t really have to pay attention to what we’re doing with scales. All we have to do is move the scale up or down a fret or two to play in a different key. Unless you spend quality time working in all keys and paying attention to the notes you need to use, you will not be prepared for when you need to put this knowledge to work in a playing situation.





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