Learn How to Navigate the Modulations in Circle-of-Fifths Progressions

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Posted by Scott Nygaard
Excerpted from Weekly Workout: Full Circle

If you’re unfamiliar with the circle of fifths, there are a few ways to understand it. One is to think of it as a series of chords in which each chord is the fifth of the chord that follows. If you extrapolate this (turning each chord into the fifth and then following with its root) until you return to the initial key, you get, starting on C: C–F–Bb–Eb–Ab–Db/C#–Gb/F#–B–E–A–D–G–C. Since the fifth of a key naturally resolves to its root, there is a logical feeling of forward movement throughout this progression. Of course, there are no songs, to my knowledge, that use this entire progression. Usually, just part of the progression is used. For example, the first half of “Sweet Georgia Brown” in the key of F is D7–G7–C7–F. Similarly, “Alice’s Restaurant” in the key of C begins with C–A7–D7–G7–C. Many songs that use the circle of fifths in some way start with a jump from the root to a remote chord (C–A7, for example) and then find their way back to the root by following the circle of fifths (A7–D7–G7–C).

As you can imagine, when playing over progressions that change tonalities every half measure, it’s good to have some lines worked out, or at least a pretty good idea of where to go next. Example 8 works through an entire 12-chord circle-of-fifths progression using seventh-chord arpeggios in one position—spanning the second to sixth frets. While it’s unlikely you’ll ever have to play over a progression like this, these are great chord positions to be familiar with, some of which repeat. For example, notice that the C7 and B7 arpeggios are basically the same, just a fret apart, as are the Bb7 and A7 arpeggios.

The rest of the examples in this lesson will give you more practice with these positions in progressions that don’t move quite so fast as Example 8. For instance, Example 9 uses the same positions as the first two bars of Example 8, but each chord is extended to a full measure, and the lines use dominant-seventh scales—not just arpeggios. Example 10 uses the eight most common chords (at least for guitarists) in the circle-of-fifths progression, but this time in a position that spans frets four through eight. 

Excerpted from Weekly Workout: Full Circle


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