MMC Lesson Five: The Circle of Fifths

  1. Mark Gunter
    Mark Gunter
    This lesson is part of a Study Group for Mandolin Master Class by Brad Laird.
    To start at the beginning, go to this thread:
    To purchase a copy of the book we're using, go here:
    List of all lessons in this series can be found here:

    Lesson Five: The Circle of Fifths

    In this lesson we continue our study of playing arpeggios, but we are going to focus on understanding and learning the circle of fifths.

    1.Read and study the music theory section, pp. 51 – 55 in Mandolin Master Class.

    2.Watch the videos that go with this lesson, and study the lesson PDFs.

    3. In the days ahead, practice with your mandolin and a backing track, playing arpeggios around the circle of fifths. You may find this difficult at first, but if you practice every day, or as often as possible, you will begin to learn the circle of fifths and the arpeggio locations by memory and by ear.


    To get feedback, just post a comment or video here.

    Lesson Videos:


    PDF of this lesson
    Circle of Fifths Primer
    Arpeggio Practice
    Printable Circle of Fifths, color
    Printable Circle of Fifths, simple
    Printable Circle of Fifths, blank
    Printable Chromatic Circle


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  2. Mark Gunter
    Mark Gunter
    Free Bluegrass Backing Tracks

    Links to a whole bunch of different slow-downer software

    Mike Marshall's Arpeggio Workout For Mandolin

    Brad Laird's Mandolin Training Camp
    Brad Laird offers seven separate Arpeggio exercises in his e-book, Mandolin Training Camp, which is a companion book to Mandolin Master Class. Those seven exercises can be transposed to other keys and students are encouraged to do so ... if you transpose 7 exercises into all the different keys in the circle of fifths, that would be ... let's see ... yes, that would be a whole bunch of exercises.

    And finally, here is a sample from the Mike Marshall Arpeggio Workout lesson recommended above:

  3. HonketyHank
    Mark, I am just now watching the videos in this lesson. Will begin the 'woodshedding' shortly.

    The amount of work you do on these lessons could be overwhelming. I know prepping a lesson is a hugely beneficial learning experience in itself, but still I want to acknowledge all that prep work as well as the actual shooting of the videos. Thank you for your hard work, the results of which are clear, logical, concise, and fun.

    OK - one off-the-wall question. Over your right shoulder, we can see some of the objects in your cave. Among other things, I see the peghead of a guitar (Breedlove?), a circle of fifths on the wall, a small instrument case (uke?), something with wires hanging up (mini headphones?), and a wooden THING with two oblong holes in the end hanging on the wall. What in the world is the THING? The world wants to know!!!!!
  4. Mark Gunter
    Mark Gunter
    "a wooden THING with two oblong holes in the end hanging on the wall. What in the world is the THING? The world wants to know!!!!!"

    Thanks for the kind words Henry, and yes, the guitar is my Breedlove, there's a uke in the hippie gig bag, mini headphones for listening to podcasts on my phone when (and if ever) I work, and the wooden THING ... well, that's a thing that traveled quite a long way to come to me, it's made of shaped bamboo and has nothing to do with music. I'll have to go back and watch a video now to see what that looks like in the videos! I respect a good mystery, so I'll reveal its purpose in my next video if it's not guessed before that time.
  5. HonketyHank
    My guess -- it's a backscratcher.
  6. Mark Gunter
    Mark Gunter
    That's it, Hank! It came from the Orient I suppose, probably to a dollar store or similar, and was given to me for Christmas one year. One of the best gifts I've ever received!
  7. Mark Gunter
    Mark Gunter
    I like the analogy that Brad Laird made in his podcast today between mandolin playing and baseball. It underscored the difference between playing and practicing - and the teamwork involved in playing. Playing in a group or jam session is a "team sport", taking a break is coming up to bat. All good teams from Little League to High School, College, and Pro need that practice time though. Woodshed = Spring training drills
  8. HonketyHank
    I have avoided the woodshed like it was the home of the big bad wolf this week. But tonight I read the assignment and rewatched all the videos. Now to start working on the arpeggio exercise and memorizing the circle. It all is so logical that my lazy brain says, "you don't need to memorize it, just work it out." But I know you do indeed need to memorize it.

    I also need to start with using a backing track. Never did that before.

    So. If I have a week I think I will get this lesson down. But then, of course, the Bill Cheatham deadline is approaching too. And it's going to be great weather for golf. Oh, I have a half done doodad. And I think I feel a nap coming on...

  9. HonketyHank
    I am working on it. I can play 'em but I gotta think too much between keys. Workin on it.

    Funny thing. All those years in school band and having to play scales and exercises in all kinds of brutal keys it never occurred to me that we never played anything in the key of C#. Believe me it is a lot easier to think about the C# scale on a mandolin than on a keyed instrument built around a simple C scale (eg, clarinet or saxophone). Realistically speaking, you could draw a straight horizontal line splitting the circle of fifths in half and I could play in the upper half of the circle and I hated anything down in the lower half.

    Ok. Procrastinated enough. Back to work.
  10. Mark Gunter
    Mark Gunter
    I had fun with this lesson, Hank, and found it very challenging to accomplish even though we are only playing the simplest possible arpeggios while learning to play around the circle. Once I started to *sort of* remember where the patterns were, I began to *sort* of saying each key in my mind as I played it. Not always successful, but it's finally starting to sink in a bit!

    Brad, if you happen to read this, I know your point is that we can safely use arpeggios to improvise in a certain key ... but we have to learn the keys and arpeggios first, right? Your book is our inspiration.
  11. Mark Gunter
    Mark Gunter
    I think maybe some would take issue with my comments in the introductory video I made for this lesson, because I stressed that a basic competency is the first thing expected of a sideman in a gigging music group. I think that's a pretty accurate statement though. Granted, there can be bands formed by amateur musicians in high schools, in garages, etc. that just want to get a group together and play stuff, and maybe they don't care how much anybody knows about getting around on the various instruments in different keys and genres. Maybe in some groups, if you can play Stairway to Heaven or some semblance of Smoke on the Water on guitar, that's good enough for them. But the further a group goes in their musical career, if they're going anywhere at all, the more a certain degree of proficiency is necessary on the part of the musicians.

    I base my statements on things I've heard, and things I've experienced. For instance, I've heard professional musicians asked in interviews what attributes they look for when looking for sidemen, and in nearly every instance, the first response would be sort of a shrug with "Well, of course, there has to be a certain level of competency ... then ..." or "Of course, a certain degree of proficiency, then ..."

    Then there are the groups I've played with. In high school, all that mattered was someone who played something; but soon enough we either had to grow together or go separate ways. As I began to sit in, play with or audition for groups later on, competency mattered a lot more, and more often than not I just didn't have the chops or the knowledge to fit in.

    In recent years, I've played strictly for fun. I have four different groups around west Texas that I like to play with. One consists of mostly amateurs; two consists of pro musicians; and another has a healthy mix of pros, amateurs and newbies. By pros in these groups, what I mean are older people who have played at the Grand Ole Opry, or younger people who are working musicians. A certain level of proficiency with your instrument is required for some of this, but also - and this is important - a certain amount of music theory knowledge as well. Do you know the IIm, IV and V chord of each key? Diminished chords? Familiar with the Nashville Number system?

    This is where I'm coming from in the introduction to this lesson. I'm not trying to tell people that they have to know music theory to play at all, or with each and every group, but I'm commenting based on things I've heard and things I've experienced. It may be that some of us here don't care whether they're ever able to "hold their own" with the pro musicians, and that's fine. It still will enrich your musical life to learn a little more about music and how it works. It will enrich your life to become more competent musically.

    Note that in all I've just said, my instrument of choice has been guitar. I've only barely begun to play mandolin a bit with these folks. Since I began my mandolin journey, over three years ago, I have been a closet mandolin player. But I would love to be able to "perform well" with the mandolin some day.

    In his most recent episode of Grass Talk Radio, Brad Laird discusses the "Three-Legged Stool" and he asks us to rate ourselves on three things: Knowledge, Technical playing ability, and Experience. Honestly, I'd consider myself maybe a 5-6 on music knowledge, maybe a 4-5 on ability and only about a 3 on experience. Some day, I'm going to have to switch to mandolin and attending more jams to get that 3 up to a more respectable number.

    >>>>>>> The Podcast <<<<<<<
  12. HonketyHank
    I have to admit that I have asked myself more than once "why am I making myself do all these scales, all these arpeggios, all these exercises?" Then I sigh and maybe take myself out to the woodshed once again or maybe put it off yet again. But I do keep plugging away because I believe that in the long run it will be helpful to me.

    JeffD, a forum member, does a blog and yesterday he answered my question better than I have. Check out his answer here.
  13. Mark Gunter
    Mark Gunter
    I always enjoy his blog posts. About playing musical instruments, and playing music, and learning about music, I think it's sort of a dichotomy, or you know, a two-edged sword. You play at it, you work at it, and you have fun and get better at it. It's fun, but there's work involved. But then even the work can be fun, and the rewards are fun.
  14. Bluegrasscal_87
    Eerily enough, I was noodling on Whiskey Before Breakfast while you were talking in the first video. Talk about feeling called out, haha.
  15. Bluegrasscal_87
    Thank you so much for this lesson. The CoF is so incredibly helpful! I have always wanted to be able to play with the Roman Numeral system as it makes things so much simpler when it comes to transposing. Thank you for the long informational video on the CoF. I'm going to have to sit on this lesson for a while since I'm having trouble getting the table of harmonized chords under my belt.
  16. Mark Gunter
    Mark Gunter
    I enjoyed sharing what little I know about the Circle of Fifths, I think that it's a pretty strong video and only wished I had produced it a bit better after it was done. Internalizing the COF knowledge and applying it to your instrument can go a long way for any musician.
  17. Bluegrasscal_87
    Any tricks to remembering notes in each scale or is just one of those things I'm going to have to internalize?
  18. Mark Gunter
    Mark Gunter
    Do you mean to memorize all the notes in every scale? I can't help you there, I haven't done that. I think that over time, though, if you're mindful of the music theory and chord building, etc., you do begin to internalize the notes of the scales you play in most often.

    Another thing, I mention in the tips section of the last video about playing arps around the circle of fifths, something to the effect of "think of the notes and where they are, as well as of which chord is coming up next." The notes I refer to are only the first note of the key. So after starting in C, you know you'll move to G ... think of where the G notes are on the 3rd and 4th strings, that's where you'll begin the arpeggios when the key changes.

    Working through this exercise will take you a long way toward memorizing note positions on the 3rd and 4th strings.

    As far as knowing the notes of a scale - if you know the definition of a major scale; that is, if you know the intervals, then you can write out any major scale off the top of your head. I mean without any aids, you can sit down and puzzle out the correct notes of any major scale. I do that sometimes as an exercise.

    And finally, I think most classic music lessons at around this point in the game would have you studying or memorizing key signatures. These follow a logical order around the circle of fifths. Also, which notes are sharped or flatted follow a certain order.

    Example: 1 sharp? Has to be F#
    2 sharps? Has to be F# and C#
    3 sharps? Has to be F#, C# and G#

    If you look at what's happening there, you'll see that the sharp notes are added to the key signatures going around the circle of fifths beginning on F and moving to the right. Some music teachers use this mnemonic: "Father Charles Goes Down And Enters Battle" to show the order of notes that become sharp: F, C, G, D, A, E, B -that's all seven notes, and it's by fifths.

    Obviously, we don't get that deeply into music theory here and now, but I bring that up to say this: If you learn the COF, and then begin to recognize the key signatures, and then begin to internalize which sharp or flat notes belong to the keys you usually play in ... you are beginning to internalize all the notes of the scales that you normally play in. That's how this stuff begins to work in a practical manner, becoming internalized over time. It's really no good just memorizing rote a whole bunch of stuff. IMO, learning the bits and pieces and applying them somehow, as we're doing here, is the way to internalize it. And the more you practice with the instrument, the quicker and easier it becomes.
  19. Bluegrasscal_87
    Thanks, Mark. That's helpful. I was "monkeying" around with the CoF last night and noticed the progression of sharps. It's really helpful that the CoF is so logically methodical.
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