If you want to play chords up and down the neck the CAGED system is essential learning for beginner guitar players. In the following article, we’re going to take a closer look at each of the 5 basic chord shapes (aka forms) that make up the CAGED system on guitar, provide some tips on how best to utilize the system, and answer some of the most common questions about CAGED chords.
But first, what are CAGED chords?
The CAGED system consists of 5 open major chord shapes: C, A, G, E, and D. When these chord shapes are closed off e.g. the ring finger is used as a replacement for the nut, preventing open strings from being included, the chord shapes become moveable, facilitating different chords while retaining the same shape in different positions of the neck.
This article is part three of a longer series on the CAGED system, which covers scales, chords, and arpeggio patterns. Our previous article was on CAGED scales, which, considering all chords come from scales is a great place to get started if you need to brush up on scale theory before diving into CAGED chords.
Moveable Chord Shapes
Why do we need to replicate the nut?
So we know the CAGED system involves the 5 open chord shapes C – A – G – E – and D, but in the section above I mentioned the index finger being incorporated into the chord shape allowing the chord shape to be moveable up and down the neck.
Why is this the case?
When we play open chords in the open position (the first four frets) with the exception of F major and B Major, which are not part of the CAGED system, open strings are often included as part of the chord, indicated by the letter ‘o’ in guitar chord charts, meaning open.
This is perfectly fine for a chord such as A Major which consists of the notes A, C#, and E. A is the root note of the chord and E is the perfect fifth of the chord (major chords consist of a root, major third, and perfect fifth), and are both open strings so we can include the 1st and 5th strings as open strings in our A Major chord.
However, when we adjust the A chord shape to a moveable chord and then move that same A shape up two frets to play a B Major chord, we can no longer include the open strings as the B Major chord consists solely of the notes B, D#, and F# and doesn’t include A or E.
To remedy this, we use our index finger to barre the unfretted strings included in the chord, thus replicating the nut and ensuring all notes included are part of the chord. This is essentially what barre chords are, open chord shapes with adjusted chord fingerings to allow the chord shape to be moved up and down the neck.
The diagram below shows a C Major chord, and then an E Major chord using the C form. Notice how the index finger (1) is used to replicate the nut in the second example, resulting in the note previously fretted by the index finger on the 2nd string in C Major to be fretted by the middle finger (2) with the notes on the 4th and 5th strings being played by the ring finger and pinky.
* In this example, I have also included the open 6th string E as an open string, as this is the root note and would allow a fuller chord by including all six strings. In most cases, the 6th string would be muted.
Hopefully, you can now begin to see the adjustments required to utilize the CAGED system to allow us to play chords in different positions on the guitar fretboard.
If any of this is confusing, don’t worry, we’ll go through each of the shapes (aka forms) below, using chord diagrams but first, we’ll quickly discuss the terminology used to describe CAGED chords.
How CAGED Chords are described
The CAGED system can be confusing when you are first exposed to it as the terminology requires both the chord and chord form to be named. In the majority of cases, we describe the chord shape used as a form e.g. C form, followed by the name of the chord e.g. E Major.
For example, if playing the chord E Major using the adjusted chord shape of C Major we would describe the chord as a C form, E Major chord.
You are also likely to hear it mentioned the other way around e.g. E major C form, but regardless, once you are familiar with the system and the 5 open chord shapes used it should be fairly intuitive regardless of the order or naming convention used.
C Form Chord Shape
While you might normally play open C with your ring finger on the root note (3rd fret, 5th string) to form a moveable barre chord shape we need to adjust our fingering to play the root with our pinky as discussed in the section above.
This can take a little getting used to but will allow you to then move that C form all over the neck and play any number of chords. In the example below, we have moved the C form up two frets to play a D Major chord and barred the unfretted strings (1st and 3rd strings) using the index finger.
This is where knowing the major scale positions on the 5th string (and 6th for root 6 barre chords) will help you identify the chord being played, as the root note is found on the 5th string (more on this shortly).
Doing so means those previously open strings (G, and E) are now barred and become A and F#, which along with our root note of D are required to form a D major chord.
While the example above only indicates a partial barre of the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd strings in many cases it will be more comfortable to barre all 5 strings. This won’t have any effect on the 4th and 5th strings as the fretted notes are higher on the neck.
C form barre chords are referred to as root 5 barre chords as the root note is found on the 5th string.
As a rule, the C form is not commonly used as the A and E shapes are considered easier to play, but it’s well worth learning and can come in handy.
A Form Chord Shape
The next chord form in the CAGED system is A, which is also a root 5 barre chord.
Normally in open position guitarists will play A major using 2 or 3 (index, middle, and ring) fingers. But, to make the A form moveable we’ll need to retain our index finger to barre the open strings (1st and 5th strings) and utilize either our pinky (better if you have large hands) or ring finger to fret the notes on the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th strings as per the example below.
The A form, along with the E form (more on this shortly) are arguably the most common chord forms utilized in CAGED. The most difficult aspect of this chord shape is ensuring the pinky does not obstruct the 1st string, while managing to make good contact with the 2nd string. In most cases, guitarists don’t play the 1st string using an A form for this reason.
G Form Chord Shape
Following on from A we have the G form chord shape. This one is trickier to play than the A form, and like the C form is rarely seen, unless modified. We refer to this form as a root 6 barre chord, as the root note is found on the 6th string.
Normally you would play a G chord using the first three fingers (index, middle, and ring) but to allow us to include a barre shape we need to utilize all four fingers of the fretting hand as per the example below.
The chart above shows the barre only extending from the 2nd string to the 4th, but in most cases, it will be more comfortable to lie your index finger across the entire fretboard. Keep in mind as the barre is behind the A and C# notes on the 4th and 5th fret in our example A major chord below, this won’t obscure the notes that make up the chord.
E Form Chord Shape
The E form is arguably the most common barre chord shape, along with Em and A. If you have been playing guitar for a few months you may already be familiar with the E form barre chord, but we’ll go over it again here in the context of the CAGED system.
Remember to adjust your fingers to retain the index finger and barre across the entire fretboard to include the two open E strings, 1 and 6.
Along with the A form, the E form is worth practicing and becoming comfortable with as it is a very common chord shape.
D Form Chord Shape
The last chord shape of the CAGED system is D, which much like G requires a bit more of a stretch to play, making it a little trickier prospect to play than the E form we discussed previously.
As the root is located on the 4th string, (notice the 5th and 6th strings are muted) we refer to this shape as a root 4 barre chord.
As the only open string in a typical open D Major chord is the 4th string (G) we need to fret the 4th string and mute the 5th and 6th strings to play a D form barre chord.
While the D form lacks bottom end as the two heaviest strings are omitted it can make a nice voicing providing a different way to express E major, as opposed to the full 6 string sound of E Major in open position.
Learning the notes of the 4th, 5th, and 6th strings
As the root notes for all 5 CAGED chord forms are found either on the 6th string (E, G), 5th string (C, A), or the 4th string (D) it pays to learn the notes on these strings, as this will indicate the chord you are playing.
I have a guide for learning the notes of the fretboard here which goes into a lot more detail, but in simple terms, it’s worth learning the Major scale on the 6th, 5th, and 4th strings and then filling in the spaces with accidentals (sharps and flats).
Below are the notes of the major scale for each string. Keep in mind the major scale uses the intervals of a whole step, whole step, half step, whole step, whole step, whole step, half step (back to the root).
On the fretboard, if starting from the root (the example below uses the root note C) we move up two frets from the root, then move up a further two frets, before moving up just one fret. We then move up in increments of two frets until we circle back to the root note one fret higher.
A simple exercise to practice CAGED chord forms
The 5 caged chord forms all connect to one another on the fretboard. For example, the root note of the C form C major chord (open C major in this case) is also the root note of the A form C Major chord.
Likewise, the 3rd, 4th, and 5th string, 5th fret notes (perfect 5th, root, and major 3rd) of the A form C major chord form are included in the G form C major chord. The 2 root notes, found on both the high E and low E strings overlap the E form C major chord, and lastly, the root note found on the 10th fret, 3rd string is also the root for the D form C major chord.
The diagrams below show each of the chord forms (playing C major), notice how each chord form overlaps the previous one.
C Form C Major Chord
A Form C Major Chord
G Form C Major Chord
E Form C Major Chord
D Form C Major Chord
Keep in mind, while we are using C major in the examples above, this approach can be utilized for each of the CAGED chord forms. For example, if playing an open A major chord, the fretted notes that make up the A major chord are also the perfect fifth, root, and major 3rd of the G form A major chord in the next position.
With all of this in mind, a great exercise to really take advantage of the entire neck of the guitar is to practice playing the same chord in 5 different positions. Try firstly using C major as per the examples above and then work on different CAGED chord forms. This is what will ultimately allow you the freedom to play all over the fretboard.
Remember, regardless of the chord form you start with e.g. A in open position, the next chord form will follow the order of C > A > G > E > D and overlap the notes of the A chord shape, so if playing an A major chord in open position, the next chord form will be G.
Why are B and F not included in CAGED?
Well for starters the acronym CAGED wouldn’t be applicable, but the primary reason is both chords are already moveable, as they do not include open strings.
For example, most people learn the B major chord using the A form shape. But even if you play it in the traditional sense as shown below as there are no open strings, simply moving this shape from the 2nd fret to the 3rd fret results in a C major chord.
The same is true for F major which is a beautiful sounding chord when played higher up the neck. For example, if we moved the F shape further up the guitar neck so that our root is on the 7th fret our root note would then be A giving us an F form A Major chord.
CAGED Minor Chords
Does the CAGED System apply for minor chords?
Absolutely. We can use the caged system for playing 7th, suspended, extended, and minor chord shapes also by introducing the index finger as a replacement for the nut, providing moveable chord shapes. With regard to minor chords, the only difference is the major third is flattened a half step.
While this is useful to know, in most cases, only the Am, Em, and Dm chord forms are used, as demonstrated below.
Cm and Gm are difficult chords to fret even in open position utilizing open strings, and are often played using either the Am form, Em form, or Dm form.
A minor Form Chord Shape
The A minor form is a common barre chord voicing. It’s essentially the same fingering as E major, except everything is lowered by a string on the guitar fretboard. If you are only going to learn 2 minor forms, this and the E minor shape will allow you to play most minor chords.
E minor Form Chord Shape
E minor is arguably the easiest chord to fret in open position, and it’s not all that much more difficult to play in barre chord form.
Remember to only fret the 4th and 5th strings along with the barre 2 frets lower or you will end up playing a power chord which due to the lack of a minor or major third is neither major nor minor.
D minor Form Chord Shape
Comparing D Major, D minor simply requires the F# (major third) to be flattened a half step. Much like the D Major form, we don’t need to barre the strings to play the D minor form. Simply fret the 4th string one fret behind the flattened third we mentioned above. This chord form is less common than A minor or E minor but still a useful voicing.
Taking the information above, you should now be able to play CAGED chords using any of the 5 major (or minor) chord forms in different positions on the neck. This can be useful not only for learning how to navigate the fretboard but also for providing alternative voicings allowing you to express chords in different ways, with regard to which chord tones are doubled and which are found in higher or lower octaves. Having this freedom to express chords in multiple ways is key to the CAGED system and why CAGED chords are essential learning for beginner guitarists.