a hand with the circle of fifths

(originally posted on Banjo Hangout)

I’ll give you a hand with this …
a hand, with numbers

Yeah, that’s my right hand. Spare me the tree-frog comments, but note how I’ve carefully numbered the fingers.

You play banjo, so you know stuff in the key of G. So you know three chords: G, C and D7. Musicians are fiddly bunch, with all their sharps and flats and all, but notes go A B C D E F G, then back to A as they go up. If you start with G = 1, you’ll see that C = 4 and D = 5. Let’s not worry about the fact that you (probably) play a D7 chord, but look at the key of G hand:
a hand, in the key of G

For some reason (look up chord theory, or chord progressions) the 1, 4 and 5 chords sound good together. Some people write ’em as I, IV and V if they’re feeling all fancy and classical like.

I hate to break it to you, but not all tunes are in the key of G. I know, it’s hard to take. What if it’s in A? Well, use the hand, with A as the first (or root) chord:
a hand, in the key of A

So to play those nice sounding 1-4-5 chords in A, you need to know A, D and E (or E7, if you’re feeling folky). In this case, the D pretty much has to be the real finger-stretching D chord (hard for us tree-frogs) or it’ll sound naff.

If you’re singing along to your old Pete Seeger 78s, yer traditional folk/gospel/church songs are in C. Hand to the rescue!
a hand, in the key of C

So, for the key of C, you need the chords C, F and G (or G7). F is a nightmare on a guitar, easier on a banjo, easiest of all on an autoharp.

Just in case you ever need a song in D, here’s that hand again:
a hand, in the key of D

You guessed it – D, G and A (or A7).

That’s how Chris Coole taught me it. It’s a bit of a simplification, but it works for me.