Many guitarists associate the CAGED system solely with barre chords, but, as the notes that are used to construct chords are derived from the chord’s corresponding scale (which surrounds the chord’s shape on the fretboard) we can also utilize the CAGED system for playing scales, opening up the fretboard for more expansive playing.
This article is part of a longer series on the CAGED system for guitar and focuses solely on CAGED system scales. To really get the most from this article, if you haven’t already I’d suggest starting with a general overview of the CAGED system by clicking here.
What are CAGED Scales?
The CAGED system divides the neck of the guitar into 5 sections, based on the corresponding chord form. By learning the 5 scale patterns of CAGED that surround these chord shapes the patterns are then easily transposed into different keys by moving the entire pattern up or down the neck. Each scale form e.g. C – A – G – E – or D is adjacent to the next, allowing guitarists to combine scale patterns, providing the freedom to play all over the neck.
While that’s CAGED scales in a nutshell, we’ll need to take a closer look at the 5 major scale patterns and how these each connect to one another to really take advantage of the CAGED system.
But first, we’ll take a closer look at the major scale, how it is constructed, and why it’s key to learning all other scales.
The Major Scale
I’ve written fairly extensively on scale construction, and how to incorporate scales into your playing which you can find here.
Otherwise, learning scale theory usually starts with the Major scale as it is the most commonly used scale in music and is the scale on which many other scales and chords are referenced.
For example, the minor scale contains a flat 3rd (along with a flat 6th and 7th). In practice, this means, when compared to the major scale the 3rd note of the scale (3rd scale degree) is flattened a half step (e.g. one fret) compared to the major scale, making it a minor 3rd.
If this sounds confusing, don’t worry, for the sake of learning the CAGED system the most important thing we need to know is that the major scale is a Diatonic scale, meaning it contains 7 notes comprised of 5 whole steps and 2 half steps before repeating the starting note.
These 7 notes are derived from the Chromatic scale, the scale that contains the 12 notes used in western music.
Building the Major Scale using Step Patterns
We can build a major scale in any key from the Chromatic scale using the following step pattern:
W is a musical interval (more on this shortly) representing a whole step (aka whole tone). This simply means it spans 2 pitches of the Chromatic scale, equal to 2 frets on the guitar fretboard e.g. the distance between the 1st and 3rd fret.
H, equals a half step (semitone) e.g. a single pitch of the Chromatic scale, equal to one fret on the guitar’s fretboard e.g. the distance between your 1st and 2nd fret.
Knowing the step pattern required to construct the major scale we can then construct the major scale in any key, as the key is defined by the starting note (aka tonic).
We’ll demonstrate this with the C Major scale as C is the first chord shape of the CAGED system and also doesn’t contain accidentals (sharps or flats) making it a good introductory scale to get started with.
Building a C Major Scale
Starting from our tonic of C and referencing the chromatic scale, our C major scale starts on C and then takes a whole step. This means we skip C# and include D as the 2nd note (or second scale degree) of the scale.
We then take another whole step which results in us skipping D# and adding E as the third note of the scale. Next, we move up a half step, and as there are no sharps or flats between E and F we include F as a half step up from E, giving us the 4th note of the scale.
Next, we take another whole step by skipping F# to include G as the 5th note of our scale, before taking another whole step, skipping G# and including A as the 6th note of our scale, and then taking another whole step to include B as the 7th note of the scale. Finally, we take a half step back to our tonic of C.
If we were building a Major scale in the key of A, for example, we’d use the same step pattern, but start on A. Our notes would therefore be A, B, C#, D, E, F#, G#, and then back to A.
The notes themselves are important but what really matters with regard to the CAGED system are the intervals that make up the scale pattern, as they are moveable shapes.
Taking the 5th string (A) for example, the notes of the C major scale are as per the fretboard diagram below. We can visualize the whole and half steps easily by using this linear example.
However, If we played this same scale more efficiently in terms of fretting hand movement it would look like the scale chart below, and it’s this pattern that is important with regard to learning to play scales in different keys.
If you aren’t sure how to read scale charts like the one above, click here to read my complete guide which covers both major, minor, blues, and the pentatonic scale in depth.
The distance between any two notes are known as intervals, and each interval has its own distinctive sound which your ears will begin to recognize over time.
We’ve already looked at two of the smallest intervals, semitones (the distance between two adjacent notes) and whole tones (the musical distance between two notes if we skip one in between) but there are actually 13 intervals in total if we count the starting note when repeated one octave higher.
These are important, as being able to recognize the distinctive sound of each interval (regardless of the notes themselves) is a key component of ear training, in particular, relative pitch.
Intervals can be measured by comparing two adjacent notes or by measuring from the root (as per the diagram above).
In terms of our C Major scale which only contains 7 notes, not 12 like the Chromatic Scale. We have the following intervals:
|Notes||Distance between notes/Frets||Interval Name|
|C – D||2||Major 2nd|
|C – E||4||Major 3rd|
|C – F||5||Perfect 4th|
|C – G||7||Perfect 5th|
|C – A||9||Major 6th|
|C – B||11||Major 7th|
As you can see our intervals comprise of 2nds, 3rds, 4ths, 5ths, 6ths, and 7ths. The numbers correspond to the number of letter names that span the interval, starting at the first letter.
For example, if our starting note is C, E would be a third above C, but there’s more to this as intervals can be major, minor, or perfect.
Minor intervals are always a one-half step (semitone) smaller than major intervals. Perfect intervals on the other hand are either unison (the same notes being played), 4ths, 5ths, or octaves.
Keep in mind, you don’t need to remember the interval names or recognize how they sound to utilize the CAGED system, but I have included this information above because when first learning scales and the theory behind how they are built it’s also a good time to practice ear training and learning to recognize the sounds of different intervals.
Play around with the different intervals of the Major scale and try to recognize them by the interval name. Try to think of well-known songs, rhymes, or jingles that open with one of the above intervals. For example ‘when the saints go marching in’ opens with a major third. Try it yourself by playing the note C on the 5th string, 3rd fret, and follow it up with the major 3rd, which is E, found on the 7th fret of the 5th string, it can also help to sing the intervals as you hear them.
The 5 shapes of the CAGED System
Now that we have a better understanding of the major scale and how it is put together we can take a closer look at the 5 CAGED major scale patterns on the guitar neck.
We’ll use the terms forms and patterns interchangeably, but in the majority of cases when referring to forms I am referring to the accompanying chord shape and when using the term pattern will be referring to the scale pattern.
We’ll demonstrate each scale by first showing the chord shape and then the surrounding notes that make up the scale using scale diagrams and guitar tab.
Scale patterns and keys
One aspect that can be confusing when first learning the CAGED system is referring to the name of the scale and the form or pattern of the scale, which are two different things.
For example, we can play a scale in any key using any of the 5 CAGED forms. For example, a G Major scale can be played using the C form, likewise, we can also play a C major scale utilizing the G form.
Each scale form of the CAGED system is based on the open major chords: C – A – G – E – and D and these basic chord shapes are derived from their surrounding major scales.
In the examples below we’ll stick with the C Major scale in terms of the notes include (C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C) but we’ll demonstrate the 5 different forms we can utilize to play the C major scale, and finally demonstrate how each scale connects to one another, taking advantage of the entire neck.
Keep in mind each of these forms (patterns) can be played in different keys by moving the entire pattern up and down the neck (much like CAGED chords and arpeggios) starting the scale on a different tonic note.
Reading Scale Diagrams
I’ve written a detailed guide on how to read guitar scale charts here, but in simple terms, the scale diagrams below begin on the lowest root note included in the pattern (indicated as a white circle). The scale is then played in ascending order of pitch before reaching the highest note of the scale and then going back down, playing in descending order and also including notes lower than the starting note.
Tip for playing Scales
When practicing scales use a metronome to improve your timing and incorporate alternate picking (if playing with a pick) to increase your picking hand efficiency.
C Form Scale
First, let’s take a closer look at the C Major Barre chord in C form as shown below. The notes included in the chord diagram are known as chord tones. These notes tend to sound the most stable over the accompanying chord.
The next diagram below shows the scale tones surrounding the chord shape that make up the C major scale using the C form.
In this case, we’ll be starting our C major scale on the 15th fret on the 5th string as this is the tonic note, C. We could also play this in the open position, incorporating open strings. Starting on the 15th fret is simply playing the same scale one octave higher.
In this position, the scale will contain two root notes, firstly the starting note (15th fret, 5th string) and the 13th fret 2nd string.
A Form Scale
The C Major A form scale starts on the C tonic note found on the 3rd fret of the 5th string and is based on the A form barre chord shape (shown below).
This scale pattern (shown below) contains two root notes, with the second root being found on the 5th fret of the 3rd string.
G Form Scale
The C major G scale pattern is based on the G form barre chord shape, as shown below.
The C Major G pattern scale starts on the C tonic note found on the 8th fret of the 6th string and contains root notes on the 8th fret of the 1st and 6th strings, along with the 5th fret on both the 5th and 3rd strings, shown below in white.
E Form Scale
The C major E scale pattern is based on the E form barre chord shape, as shown below.
The E pattern C major scale begins on the 8th fret of the 6th string. As a result, this means we also have a root note on the 1st string at the 8th fret as both are E strings. The third root note in this shape is found on the 10th fret of the 4th string.
D Form Scale
The last scale pattern is of course the D shape, being the last letter of CAGED.
Keep in mind we are just working in this order starting at C, we could just as easily have started on G, followed by E and D, and then circled back around again to C and A.
As per the other 4 scale shapes of the CAGED system, the D pattern C major scale is based on the D form C major barre chord, shown below.
The D pattern C major scale begins on the 10th fret of the 4th string. The second root note is located on the 13th fret, the 2nd string.
Now we’ve covered each of the 5 CAGED scale patterns, it’s a good time to go over each in isolation, and pay close attention to the patterns themselves, not just the notes. Try to identify what’s different about each pattern, and practice each pattern in a number of different positions on the neck until you have each memorized.
While playing each scale, it’s also not a bad idea to work on naming the scale degree of each note and familiarizing yourself with where the major 3rd (3rd note of the scale), perfect 5th (5th note of the scale), and other intervals of the scale are located.
It’s important to commit to memory each pattern as next we’re going to look at how each of the 5 CAGED scale patterns connects to one another, which is the key to unlocking the entire fretboard.
Connecting the 5 CAGED Scale Patterns
Below are the 5 scale patterns we’ve just looked at connected across the fretboard, only now they are combined
If you look closely at each individual string you can identify the step patterns we discussed right at the beginning of this article, based on where in the scale the note resides.
For example, starting on the C on the 2nd string (1st fret) we can see the familiar step pattern (whole – whole – half – whole – whole – whole – half). This is the same for all root notes, as these indicate the starting note of our C major scale.
Tips for Combining Scales
The diagram below shows how each scale pattern overlaps and incorporates notes from the neighboring scale pattern.
One of the most effective ways to combine scale positions is to focus on ascending in one position and descending in the next position by sliding your fretting hand up to the highest note of the adjacent scale position. Then, when you reach the lowest note of the scale sliding up the neck to the next position and play the lowest note of the next scale pattern, eventually working through the entire neck using the tab examples above.
Below is an example in guitar tab demonstrating each position finishing on the C scale pattern an octave higher than where we started.
Try playing through this exercise hitting each not cleanly and keeping a consistent pace (using a metronome if available) then move the entire pattern up or down the neck and repeat the exercise.
While that’s a lot to take in, CAGED scales are incredibly useful with regard to learning the entire fretboard and are well worth persevering with, even if at first the concepts and exercises seem confusing or difficult. While the major scale takes its name from the intervals included all being major or perfect, it is the most important scale with regard to constructing chords and additional scales and knowing multiple positions on the neck, and understanding how to combine the different patterns will lend itself to a greater understanding of chord construction and alternate chord voicings along with learning minor and pentatonic scales.