Alternatives to the CAGED System

The CAGED system has been relied upon by guitar teachers and included in teaching resources alike to assist guitar players in their first steps towards understanding and utilizing the entire fretboard. 

Unfortunately, the layout of the guitar fretboard is not terribly intuitive. So taking advantage of a tool that allows newer musicians to wrap their heads around the fretboard as easily as possible is invaluable.

But, it’s also a system that has received its fair share of criticism over the years from players and teachers alike, who believe it to be a limiting system that stifles creativity. With this in mind, today we’re going to take a look at the pros and cons along with alternatives to the CAGED system that may serve you better on your guitar journey. If you don’t have time to read the full article, be sure to check out the list below:

Alternatives to the CAGED system include:

  • The 3 note per string system
  • The triad system
  • The chord/tone system
  • The pentatonic system

To learn more about each of these systems continue reading below.

So what exactly is the CAGED system?

CAGED Chord Forms

The CAGED system name actually refers to the major chord shapes of C, A, G, E, and D. Each of these 5 shapes can be easily adapted. to become movable barre chord shapes. When we want to navigate the guitar fretboard using any of our common scales or modes we can use these 5 chord shapes to divide the fretboard up into 5, easy to manage, sections. Circumventing the need for any kind of in-depth guitar theory knowledge. 

Using these interconnected shapes we can then ‘connect’ the barre chords forms of the C chord shape to the A chord shape, the A chord shape to G, and so on, to create a complete picture of the fretboard. This also applies to the minor chord shapes of C, A, G, E, and D minor.

This makes tackling what is otherwise an overwhelming slew of notes far less stressful for a new player. Allowing players to ease their way into demystifying the guitar fretboard.

For a more in-depth explanation of how the system works, including caged chords, caged scales, and caged arpeggio patterns you can check out this guide which breaks everything down in detail for you.

The pros of the CAGED system and why it’s so effective

Because of its intuitiveness and accessibility for new players, the CAGED system has been a fantastic tool to help learners get comfortable playing all over the fretboard and developing that ‘mental map’ of how our typical major chord shapes and major scale box patterns and related diatonic scales are laid out on the guitar.

As a new player, staying motivated is one of the most important things to maintain. Using the CAGED system to simply learn the common A and E chord shapes and then using these as root 5 (5th string) and root 6 (6th string) chords respectively, at the very least, will open up a lot of new territory on the fretboard for a beginner guitarist.

And let’s face it, If you’re not making progress and having fun learning the instrument, then you won’t want to practice, and it’s all over! 

So having a tool that makes tackling such an arduous topic that much easier is extremely powerful.

Criticism of the CAGED system

Despite it being such a pivotal part of many guitarists’ early steps on the instrument. The system has also received a fair bit of criticism from advanced players.

With many saying that beyond just ‘mapping out the fretboard’ it doesn’t actually serve much purpose when it comes to songwriting or creativity. And makes people play ‘aimlessly’ without giving much thought to the note or chord they are targeting.

In addition to that, when you play a major chord shape in its individual ‘section’ on the guitar, you’ll be playing a mixture of 2 note and 3 note per string patterns.

For players who put a bigger emphasis on technique, this is a big no-no. They’d much rather see a newer player develop their alternate picking with 3 note per string patterns, or get creative playing some nice minor pentatonic/blues licks.

The unfortunate reality is the caged patterns you learn are seldom used when playing along to real music. So once you have the fretboard memorized the system offers far less value.

Alternatives to the CAGED system

So with that in mind, are there are alternative systems available that allow us to both wrap our heads around the fretboard in a friendly and easy to digest way that also affords us the opportunity to stay musical, develop our technique and provide value long after we’ve mapped out the fretboard?

Some people believe they have such a system, and we’re going to take a look at the most common ones below.


The 3 note per string system

The 3 notes per string system

So, if the big technique-related criticism is the string pattern that we outline when running our drills, then the popular 3 note per string system should address that.

We simply take each note of a guitar scale (scale degrees), usually starting with something easy like the C major scale or A minor. Then, starting on each note of the scale we climb all the way up to the top playing 3 notes per string, and then go back down. Then we move up to the second note of the scale and do the same, and repeat this until we’ve covered all 7 notes.

The main benefit to learning the fretboard this way is that you’re getting massive amounts of technical practice in at the same time as familiarizing yourself with the standard diatonic patterns we use in all our common western scales/modes. It’s like being at the gym while simultaneously learning through an audiobook.

Hyper-efficient? absolutely! 

But this system is hard work, it’s fairly monotonous and technically demanding. You need to be a disciplined player to learn this way and for many beginners, particularly young learners, this starves them of fun which is ultimately going to harm more than it helps. 


The Triad system

The Triad System

Another popular alternative that many teachers and higher-level players say is the superior version of the CAGED system is the triad system.

The main argument is that with the flaws in the CAGED system, not teaching enough about intervals, not being aware of the chord progressions we’re playing over and the chords we’re outlining. The triad system aims to give us that musical awareness instead of just playing single notes.

It’s the difference between playing a chord intentionally or playing a chord ‘shape’ from the CAGED system without relating it directly to the musical piece you’re playing over.

So it’s a very musical approach, it gets you familiar with the fretboard, perfect! What’s the catch?

The main downside is you need prior knowledge to use this system.

You need to understand intervals, you can’t make a triad if you don’t know what a root note, third, or fifth is. You also need basic chord construction knowledge of how to build all your common triads.

When we think about the type of player the CAGED system is aimed at, it is usually beginners as they’re taking their first steps and have only learned their basic open major chord shapes, aka cowboy chords. They probably haven’t covered how to build a major triad using the root, major third, and fifth intervals from the major scale, or really understand any of these topics yet, making it a little less accessible to the very new player.


The chord tone system

The Triad System

One of the criticisms of the CAGED system is that it doesn’t teach us which notes to play. We get a rough idea of what’s going to sound in key, but a beginner guitar player will often fumble around a lot, creating music that doesn’t have much thought put behind each note.

It’s then up to the player to continue studying further to develop that additional chordal/scale knowledge to begin being more intentional with their note choice.

The chord tone system aims to completely flip that to where you are ONLY thinking about musical intention and almost nothing about patterns and scale shapes.

Let’s say you are playing over an A minor backing track and there is an A minor chord being played. You would then purely focus on playing the notes A, C, and E, all over the fretboard (as shown above) in as many ways and areas as you can.

The idea is that if you do this with enough chords over enough backing tracks you’re going to not only develop that same level of fretboard navigational confidence the CAGED systems attempts to deliver, but you’ll also adopt a far more ‘musical mentality’. Making you are more aware of what both you and the music you’re playing with are doing.

While an effective system, it is quite a bit more work to tackle than the traditional CAGED system, as learners may not already know the notes of the fretboard or understand chords well enough to know what they are playing over.

So once again it’s a tradeoff of having a more robust, yet less accessible system.


The pentatonic system

G Minor Pentatonic Scale Pattern - Caged Position

Many alternate systems think primarily of the end goal and how that system, once mastered, will address the holes left by the CAGED system.

The pentatonic system takes a slightly different approach, it’s designed to allow players to build that familiarity with the fretboard while having fun, and being musically aware of what they’re playing.

It achieves this primarily through exposure.

Most players, especially early on, spend an inordinate amount of time in that first position of the minor pentatonic scale. We love it! It’s easy to learn and you can jam it for hours over backing tracks.

We then continue learning the 2nd through 5th box shapes and how they connect to each other and before you know it you have a pentatonic framework memorized all over the fretboard. 

Now we just need to add in those 2 extra notes to make it a full diatonic scale and that’s it, the entire fretboard is mapped out! We had fun learning it along the way while playing along with ‘real’ music where we are thinking about our note choice.

This system is ideal if you enjoy improvisation, as sinking those hours into building familiarity with the pentatonic scale is ultimately what will give you that intrinsic mastery of it. 

But if this is not an area of interest for you, then you might end up finding it even more arduous than the CAGED system.


So should I ignore the CAGED system?

Unfortunately, our paths to musical development aren’t straight lines, nor are they the same from person to person.

We have seen plenty of players who have started off learning the CAGED system that has gone on to be tremendously well-rounded players. This is because they continue learning new things outside of the CAGED system which allows them to develop a more complete picture of the fretboard.

Likewise, we have seen very high-level players who still don’t understand the CAGED system and it’s never been a factor in their musical journey.

The important thing to remember is you are not limited, you can learn multiple systems which all have their own benefits in turning you into the best musician you can be. 

Conclusion

As you can see, there are arguments for and against both the CAGED system and all of the alternatives. What this shows us is that there simply is no single perfect solution, and it’s going to depend largely on your preferences, your personality, and your goals with your guitar playing.

But you can also use this as motivation, in the knowledge you’re not doing anything ‘wrong’ you are completely free to experiment and find a system that works the best with your musical personality! 

Marty

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My name’s Marty. I’ve been into guitars, songwriting, and home recording for over 30 years. Theacousticguitarist.com is my blog where I write about everything I have learned along the way.