What is the CAGED System [The CAGED System Explained]

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.

Once you understand the basic principles using the simple explanations and diagrams included below 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 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.

The CAGED System Chord Forms
* Root notes are shown 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 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, 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, 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.


Chord Forms Using the CAGED System

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.

We can utilize these chord forms to play chords in different positions of the guitar neck.

Keep in mind these shapes need to be adjusted to account for the open strings by replicating the nut of the guitar with the index finger. Once the open chord shape is closed as a result, the CAGED chord forms become movable barre chords.

I go into great detail on CAGED system chords, including an overview of each of the 5 chord forms in my article here on caged system chords.


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.

C form E Major Chord

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.


So, is the caged system worth learning?

Absolutely. 

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, making it an important navigational tool for the beginner guitarist.

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.

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.  

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.