So, you’ve mastered your basic open chords but are beginning to feel confined to the first four frets of your guitar neck? Wondering how you will ever learn to play chords and licks over the entire fretboard like your favorite guitarists appear to do so effortlessly?
Fear not, in the following series we’re going in-depth on the CAGED system, the system most guitarists use to learn and navigate the fretboard.
It will take some work, but I promise once you understand the basic principles using the simple explanations and diagrams included you will have a much better understanding of your guitar’s fretboard, and the interconnected shapes of the CAGED system that facilitate chords, scales, and arpeggios.
We’ll get started with a quick summary:
What is the CAGED system?
CAGED is an acronym for the open chord shapes: C, A, G, E, and D which when adjusted to include the ring finger to replicate the nut can be moved up or down the neck to create chords higher or lower in pitch using the same basic shapes. These shapes can then be expanded upon to incorporate and arpeggios and scales in different positions on the fretboard.
If you are new to the guitar the diagram below shows how to take this concept and play a chord (C Major in this instance) in the 5 different positions using each of the 5 (CAGED) open chord shapes.
As you can see this breaks the fretboard into 5 manageable sections or positions, however, each shape fits neatly into the next allowing us to connect shapes and ultimately play across the neck.
For example, the open C major chord played in the highlighted orange section (the two orange dots left of the nut represent open strings) connects to position 2 as both utilize the 5th string, 3rd fret C as the root note.
Section two connects to section 3 as both utilize the 3rd, 4th and 5th string, 5th fret notes G (perfect fifth), C (root), and E (major third).
Section 3 connects to section 4 through the root note C on the 6th string, 8th fret, and lastly section 4 connects to section 5 through the 4th string, 10th fret root note, C.
If our diagram extended further the D shape in section 5 would connect to the C form shape through the use of the root note C on the 2nd string, 13th fret, and from there would continue the cycle until running out of frets.
We’re using C major as our example, but the same principle applies to any chords of the CAGED system, just remember the sequence follows the order of the letters of the CAGED system. Once you get to D we start over again at C.
Caged System Chords
Think of the 5 CAGED chord shapes as chord forms.
For example, C, being the first letter of CAGED is the first form of the CAGED system, A is form 2, G form 3, E form 4 and lastly D is form 5.
Keep in mind these shapes need to be adjusted to account for the open strings e.g. playing an open A major chord includes the open 5th and 1st strings, A and E.
A, is a major triad, meaning it comprises three notes A, C#, and E.
If we move that A major chord shape (second form in the CAGED system) up a whole step (2 frets) to form a B Major chord the only notes included in the chord should be B, D#, and F#.
But if we leave the 5th and 1st strings open we are also including A and E as part of our chord, which is not a B major chord, but instead a B11/A, definitely not the chord we are looking for.
Instead, by replicating the nut with the index finger, our index finger performs the same role as a capo, moving the open string notes up a whole tone also providing us the right notes for our B Major chord: B, F#, and D#.
Some chord forms are better suited than others. For example, the third form G shape is rarely used, while the 2nd (A) and 5th (E) forms are used extensively. Regardless, knowing all 5 forms is a great way to expand your chord vocabulary.
We’ll go into a lot more detail in our article here on CAGED system chords, including an overview of each of the 5 chord shapes of the CAGED system.
Caged System Arpeggios
If you’ve heard the term but never really understood what it means, arpeggios, like scales are collections of notes arranged sequentially, but unlike scales, they contain just the notes that form the chord, referred to as chord tones.
They’re essentially the notes of a chord played individually rather than strummed and logically sound the most stable over the matching chord.
So how does the CAGED system help with playing arpeggios across the neck?
If we take our open C major chord and move it up 4 frets to form a C form E major chord, we can play the chord tones (E, G#, and B) individually, as highlighted below.
But, we’re not locked into using just the shape of the C form E major barre chord, we can also include additional notes outside of the chord shape within the same area of the neck, provided they are also chord tones.
In this case E major is a triad, so we can only include the notes E, G#, and B but as you can see in the diagram below there are additional notes available.
We’ll explain how you can use the CAGED system to really take advantage of arpeggio patterns in more detail in our article on CAGED system arpeggios.
CAGED system Scales
If we take our 5 moveable chord forms of the CAGED system, we can find additional notes outside of the structure of the chord voicing, surrounding the chord shape. Only unlike arpeggios we’re not restricted to chord tones.
Scale tones, as the name implies are tones derived from a scale, in this case, the Major scale being a diatonic scale includes 7 notes (5 whole steps + 2 half steps).
Let’s look at an example to help make this clear.
In this case, we’ll take the 4th form E shape in the key of A, as shown above. (the root notes of the chord are shown in white).
Expanding out from this shape we can then include the additional scale tones e.g. any scale degrees that are not the 1st, 3rd, or 5th notes of the scale as major chords are built using the root (first note), major third (3rd note of the major scale), and perfect 5th (5th note of the major scale) so are already shown in the example above.
With this in mind, we can expand this shape to include the major 2nd, perfect 4th, major 6th, and major 7th notes, as per the scale pattern example below.
This doesn’t mean we are limited to the Major scale either. All scales are derived, in a sense, from the major scale. Knowing the major scale allows you to build other scales including the minor scale, major and minor pentatonic scale, and more exotic scales using the major scale as a point of reference.
So, is the caged system worth learning?
While there are other methods of learning the fretboard including the three notes per string method, CAGED is the most logical in terms of understanding the layout of the fretboard with regard to connecting scales to chords.
One of the most productive ways to learn anything is to break things down into smaller, more manageable pieces. Unless you have been playing guitar for years, looking at the big picture e.g. the entire fretboard can be overwhelming. Breaking things down instantly makes things more manageable.
CAGED is a perfect example of this.
While CAGED is a system, it’s a 5 pattern system utilizing 5 distinct sections of the fretboard.
Breaking down the fretboard in this way allows you to learn faster. Connecting each section then provides a clearer understanding of how to utilize the entire fretboard, taking advantage of different chord voicings, arpeggios, and connecting scales.
Why is the CAGED system needed?
The guitar fretboard is unique when compared to other instruments, unlike a piano the notes are not linear. The caged system helps organize the fretboard and speed up the learning process.
Does CAGED work for minor chords?
Yes, the system works for both major and minor chords. While this article has focused on Major chords if working in minor instead of using the open Major chord shapes, we simply utilize the minor chord shapes.
What’s wrong with the CAGED system?
While plenty of guitarists have used CAGED to become better guitarists, it’s not without its detractors. The most common complaints about the system are it’s difficult to memorize and demands an inconsistent picking motion e.g. upstrokes – downstrokes as there are a mix of 2 and 3 notes per string when playing scales. In this sense, 3 notes per string can be better for developing speed.
Is CAGED good for beginners?
Yes. It’s a logical place to start when first venturing past the first four frets of the guitar and helps new guitarists learn to navigate the fretboard..
Summing Things Up
If you have been playing for any period of time you may have read the information above and thought, I’m already doing a lot of this.
And that’s because CAGED is a logical way to address the fretboard. While there are other systems that have their own pros and cons CAGED is an intuitive system for beginners as it teaches to think of the fretboard in terms of shapes and how these shapes connect together to take full advantage of the entire fretboard.