• Jay EuDaly

Circle of 4ths vs Circle of 5ths?

The amount of confusion I see among guitarists concerning the Key Circle is massive. Here’s one reason why:


If you google “Key Circle” and click on “Images” this is what you’ll see:

As can be inferred from all these images, the Key Circle is very deep and has multiple functions (see, The Key Circle, Giant Steps and Physics), however, I want to focus on one aspect:


Every single google image in the screenshot above calls it a “Circle of 5ths.”


If you start at the top (C) and move clockwise it is indeed a Circle of 5ths.

However, if you move counterclockwise it is a Circle of 4ths:

So why is it called “the Circle of 5ths” in every single instance in the Google results above instead of “the Circle of 4ths?”


Well, there are many reasons. Some have to do with ascertaining key signatures, &/or perhaps because the interval of a 5th is the most consonant (after the octave) because of, well, physics; it’s the first interval after the octave in the harmonic overtone series…blah, blah, blah.


When it comes to your typical, self-taught guitar player, understanding key signatures, reading music, the harmonic overtone series and any number of other functions for the Key Circle are abstract, irrelevant and shrouded in mystery because of the nature of the guitar. It’s a non-linear instrument and therefore it’s confusing to apply the mathematics and logic of music to it.


Gross overgeneralization here: Guitar players are notoriously musically illiterate; they don’t understand music theory, chord construction, diatonic harmony and modes. They can’t read music and so have developed their own written tablature that no one else understands or uses. They play by pattern and rote without understanding what they’re doing. I’ve ranted about this before in Inbred Guitar Culture.

All this and more is why guitarists find the Key Circle confusing and irrelevant.


I’d like to rectify that situation. It’s not complicated. Applying the Key Circle to the guitar begins with assigning its primary function as being a cycle of 4ths rather than a cycle of 5ths. That is the key to unlocking your understanding of the guitar neck.


Why? Because the guitar is tuned in 4ths.


The first thing I have students do is use the Circle of 4ths (follow the arrows) as a mechanism to memorize the names and locations of 12 notes (13 counting "C" twice) on the 6th and 5th strings:

Then, through a pattern of octaves, these 12 notes are extrapolated out to the entirety of the guitar neck. I also use the Circle of 4ths to ensure that everything is practiced in every key.


If what I've said piques your interest, you can download my 5-Lesson Foundational Series for free with no obligation or commitment and see for yourself:

Now, it's just as easy and valid to use the Circle of 5ths for the same purpose. Here's an example of a guitar teacher doing just that; using the Circle of 5ths and a pattern of octaves to locate every note everywhere on the guitar neck, as well as using the Circle of 5ths to practice in every key. As far as that goes, we are similar. Six of one and a half-dozen of the other.