How To Make The Circle Of Fifths Useful

Paolo Bass Guitar Theory, Bass Lab PLUS Membership, blog

In this bass guitar lesson I’m going to show you how to make the Circle of Fifths a valuable and above all useful part of your practice routine.

The Circle of Fifths is a great device which will help you understand how chord sequences to many of the worlds greatest Jazz, Show & Pop Songs are created… but it can also be used to super-charge the way we structure our time in the practice room.

This lesson focuses on how to integrate the Circle of Fifths into your practice routine to enable you to master the whole of the fretboard… and make practicing scales, modes and arpeggios far more rewarding. 

To understand how this device is used in many songs I also recommend watching bass guitar lesson YT034 - I Will Survive The Circle Of Fifths.

Here are some notes that will help us bass players understand the Circle of Fifths:
  • Remember, going up a fourth and down a 5th is the same thing i.e. we start on a C and land on an F.

    • Up at fourth:  C - D - E - F

    • Down a 5th:  C - B - A - G - F

  • Hence the terms of ‘Circle of Fifths’ and ‘Cycle of Fourths’ are often interchangeable ideas.

  • As Bass Players performing in contemporary / jazz music, the term ‘Circle of Fifths’ more often than not refers to this diagram below.

  • The truth of the matter is this really is a ‘cycle of fourths’ but most musicians will call this ‘circle of fifths (confusing I know!)

The chord sequences created by these concepts makes up the basis of many classic jazz standards (eg Autumn Leaves) and the incredibly common II - V - I chord sequence.

Here is a diagram showing how we can go ‘round the clock’ and use all 12 half steps or semitones: 
Diagram for The Circle Of Fifths

I Will Survive!

The Circle of Fifths is a  concept that is used all the way through the classic disco tune ‘I will Survive’ by Gloria Gaynor. It’s extremely rare that a song will go all the way ‘round the clock’. Instead it will use sections. The song demonstrates this perfectly.

Here is the 8 bar chord sequence that goes round and round throughout the whole song:

|  Am|  Dm|  G   |    Cmaj7 |

|  Fmaj7| Bm7b5|  E7sus4|  E7|

Using the idea of degrees of the clock, here is a breakdown of the chord sequence:

  • Bars 1 - 5 use ‘9pm-  1pm’

  • Bars 6 - 1 use ‘7pm - 9pm’

Dig out the original song and try and play along. Playing simple ‘one in a bar’ roots to begin with is the perfect way of understanding this idea on the neck. Look at the shapes it creates on the neck…. These are extremely common patterns that you will see time and time again… especially if you play jazz music!

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