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 of articles we’re going in-depth on the CAGED system, the system most guitarists use to learn and navigate the fretboard.
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 to incorporate arpeggios and scales in different positions on the fretboard.
If you are new to the guitar, and guitar theory in general, the diagram above shows how to take this concept and play a chord (C Major in this instance) in 5 different positions on the guitar neck, using the caged chord forms. The root notes for each chord are highlighted in white.
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 up and down 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, and 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. 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 start over again at C.
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 (forming a barre chord) 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) except for F major and B Major, which are not part of the CAGED system, open strings are included, indicated by the letter ‘o’ in guitar chord charts, meaning open.
This is 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 move that same A shape up two frets to play a B Major chord, we can no longer include the open strings as B Major consists solely of the notes B, D#, and F# and doesn’t include A or E.
To fix 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 that 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 chord shape of C Major we would describe the chord as a C form, E Major chord.
Let’s take a closer look at each of the CAGED chord forms in more detail.
C Form Chord Shape
While you might normally play open C with your ring finger on the root note (3rd fret, 5th string), if forming a moveable barre chord shape we’ll 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 above, we’ve 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 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 the 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 above.
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 some 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 the open position.
A Simple Exercise To Practice CAGED Chord Forms
The 5 caged chord forms all connect 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, that 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 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 the 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 the 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.
What Else Can We Do With the CAGED System?
While the CAGED system is a great way to break the neck into manageable sections and learn how to play barre chords up and down the neck, there’s far more to the CAGED System than simply CAGED chords.
In the following section, we’ll introduce CAGED arpeggios and scales, and provide links to more in-depth resources.
If you are interested in learning some useful CAGED minor chord shapes, click here.
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 of the chord, referred to as chord tones.
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.
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 here.
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).
This doesn’t mean we are limited to the Major scale. 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.
You can read an in-depth guide to CAGED scales by clicking here.
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, making it an important navigational tool.
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.
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 us to think of the fretboard in terms of shapes and how these shapes connect together to take full advantage of the entire fretboard.