How to use the Circle of Fifths

Circle of Fifths Explained for Guitarists: An Easy Way to Understand and Use It

If you’re like me, the first time you saw the circle of fifths you were like “No thanks, I’ll pass!”

Many guitar players shy away from learning music theory but it seems too complicated. We’d rather just focus on playing our guitar and learning by ear (which there’s certainly nothing wrong with that!).

But here’s the thing – you learn music theory by default almost every time you pick up your guitar. You know what an E minor chord is, right? You know that the chords C and D sound good when you play a G, right?

That’s essentially music theory!

So why not take it to the next level? Especially if it’s going to help you write better riffs and songs!

The truth is theory doesn’t have to be looked at as some complex equation of the unknown. And in this post, I’m going to provide you with an easy and simple way to understand and use one of the best theory-based tools for writing music: the Circle of Fifths!

Here’s what you’ll learn:

  • What is the circle of fifths? (we’ll start with the basics)
  • How to use the circle of fifths for songwriting
  • How to turn riffs into songs and connect progressions
  • Examples that you can use

Video Lesson: Circle of Fifths with Examples (Guitar Progressions)

What Exactly is the Circle of Fifths?

Let’s start with the basics. In layman’s terms, the circle of fifths shows you which chords go together to form a progression with a particular key.

This can also take your songwriting to the next level, and that’s what we’re going to get into below. But first, let’s talk about the nature of the circle of fifths and why all of these chords are listed the way they are.

  • The notes in the outer edge of the circle are major chords
  • The notes inside of the circle are minor chords
  • The major chord are listed in relation to their surrounding chords (these are determined by being the 5th note in the key of the chord chosen).
  • Each minor chord is the respectve minor below that major chord

Now, let’s get more into how each chord on the circle of fifths chart relates to one another below.

How to Guitar Players Can Use the Circle of Fifths

Circle of 5ths metal songwriting

The most common problem guitar players have is we’ll come up with this killer riff. But we’re not sure where to go or what to play after that. And that’s where this tool can be powerful.

Here’s how the circle of fifths can work for guitarists:

  • Essentially, you can pick any major chord and then use the chords or notes listed before and/or after that chord with the chord chosen.
  • That same major chord will have its respective minor chord below it, which you can use as well.
  • And the minor chords work the same way as the major chords.
  • If you choose a minor chord to work with, you can use the chords or notes to the right and left with that chord.

Basically, you can choose any one chord to work with and you automatically have six total chords (or notes) that you can play with that chosen chord. You’ve got a major and minor that work together. And you can use the chords (or notes) that are to the right and left of each one of those chords.

For example, let’s say you just wrote a killer riff in the key of A minor (we’ll start with a minor chord since we’re playing metal here!). Here’s what you’d have to work with:

  • A minor (you’re starting point, or your main key)
  • E minor (to the right of A minor)
  • D minor (to the left of A minor)
  • C major (the respective major)
  • G major (to the right of C major)
  • F major (to the left of C major)

Pretty easy, right? See the circle of fifths really isn’t difficult to understand at all.

Examples of Common Metal Guitar Progressions Using the Circle of Fifths

Circle of 5ths metal songwriting

Assuming that you’re in standard tuning, one of the most common keys for metal guitar players is E minor. It’s the lowest note on the guitar and, of course, produces the heaviest sound.

So here are all of the chords (and notes) that you can play in the key of E minor:

  • E minor (you’re starting point, or your main key)
  • B minor (to the right of E minor)
  • A minor (to the left of E minor)
  • G major (the respective major)
  • C major (to the right of G major)
  • D major (to the left of G major)

***We go much deeper into turning your riffs into progressions, progressions into songs, and every aspect of songwriting in our course Metal Songwriter’s Forge.

Now, let’s move everything over just one chord and play in the key of B minor. The cool thing is this is going to put us in a key playing some different chords.

  • B minor (you’re starting point, or your main key)
  • F# minor (to the right of B minor)
  • E minor (to the left of B minor)
  • D major (the respective major)
  • A major (to the right of D major)
  • G major (to the left of D major)

You’ll notice that two of the chords are different from what you played earlier in the key of B minor. Instead of A minor, you’re playing A major in the key of B minor. You’re also playing F# minor is the key of B minor. This note actually also fits in the key of E minor (this note is often used as a bridge for riffs between the E and G notes in the key of E minor; that’s common for metal guitar riffs).

How to Write Better, More Original Metal Riffs, Progressions, and Songs

Circle of 5ths metal songwriting

So, we covered some common keys and chord progressions for playing metal guitar. Obviously, if you’re down-tuned, those same concepts would apply.

But what about writing a riff or song in a not-so-common key for metal? Or rather, playing those chords on a place of your fretboard that you’re not used to playing on.

This is truly a powerful concept for songwriting to make your songs stand out and not sound like the majority of other metal songs out there. It will also help give your album diversity and freshness.

The last thing you want is for every song on your album to sound the same. And you certainly don’t want your guitar riffs and songs sounding like another existing song.

Changing the key, especially to one that’s not common for guitar players, will almost guarantee a unique sound.

I challenge you to write a song in a key that you’ve never written in before. For this example, let’s use the key of G# minor.

  • G# minor (you’re starting point, or your main key)
  • C# minor (to the right of G# minor)
  • E flat minor (to the left of G# minor)
  • B major (the respective major)
  • E major (to the right of B major)
  • G flat (to the left of B major)

Chances are these are chords (or places on your fretboard) that you rarely ever play (if ever!). That being said, playing these chords might feel a bit strange at first. So you may be tempted to stop and do a powerslide back into the key of E minor, or another familiar key.

But don’t shy away from the concept of playing in a different key. Even if it feels weird at first.

The other benefit to playing and writing songs in different keys is that you’ll get different tones, characteristics, and vibes from those notes and chords. Again, this will help give that song its own life and differentiate it from everything else.

Lastly, playing in a different or uncommon key will help you learn your fretboard better. Not only will you be playing chords that you don’t normally play, but you’ll be playing accompanying notes (such as guitar solos or harmonizing rhythms) with those different notes as well.

Breaking the Rules of Music Theory

The last thing I want to point out is that you don’t have to stick to the rules of the circle of fifths. In fact, the circle of fifths isn’t intended to be a rule book for writing music. It’s only there to help you with corresponding chords and notes that fit into a specific progression based on the main chord you chose to work with.

Here are two common examples in metal music of breaking the circle of fifths:

  • Playing a B flat or F major when you’re in the key of E minor
  • Playing a D# or B flat when you’re in the key of A minor

In fact, that’s part of what makes metal music stand out. Using those notes that supposedly don’t belong gives your riffs that edge and in some cases, that wicked and sinister vibe.

So don’t be afraid to venture outside of the circle of fifths when you’re writing guitar riffs and progressions.

At the end of the day, it’s all about writing the best and most original-sounding song that you can be proud of. And you may have to break the rules to do that.

Jason Stallworth
Ken Candelas
Creators of Metal Mastermind

NEXT STEP: If this post (and video) helped you, we encourage you to get our metal songwriting course, Metal Songwriter’s Forge.

You can learn more about that here.


One response to “Circle of Fifths Explained for Guitarists: An Easy Way to Understand and Use It”

  1. […] Assessing the song in depth will help you add emotional depth to your guitars solo. From a technical standpoint, being familiar with playing in the key of the song will give you more freedom and possibilities in creating the solo. If you need help with determining the notes that fit in certain keys, see our post on Easy Way to Understand the Circle of Fifths. […]