The guitar fretboard is a challenging thing to master, and it’s not just beginners who struggle with it, many who have been playing for years now still don’t fully understand how everything works.
“Music is not difficult, it’s just unintuitive”
Between the awkward arrangement of notes when compared to a piano, and a few indicators to help us along the way, it really takes some work in order to navigate the entire fretboard with fluency.
But we guitarists have some tricks up our sleeves too! One of them is a system designed to make the process of wrapping your head around the guitar fretboard easier which we called the CAGED system. Today we’ll take a look at what this system is and how it’s able to ease people through the journey of fretboard mastery.
How the CAGED system works
So the goal of this system is to make understanding the layout of the fretboard easier, regardless of the style of music you intend to play. But before a learner can dive in, they should have some knowledge of their basic chord shapes and respective barre chords. Fortunately, this is all stuff that people cover really early on, which is one of the reasons why this system is so accessible.
That little bit of knowledge about open chords can be utilized to map out the entire fretboard. This is because when the major chords C A G E D are laid out as interconnected shapes sequentially across the fretboard, they fit together, kind of like a puzzle. The same applies to minor chords.
This gives the player a ‘map’ of the entire fretboard. Laid out in nice, easily digestible chunks.
The benefits of learning the CAGED system
Offering far more than simply teaching barre chords or major scale patterns, learning the CAGED system can give guitar players a real jumpstart on many of the topics we need to progress into as musicians.
For starters, we’ve just now memorized C major all over the fretboard. Which, in turn, can be easily turned into any major scale pattern or key you want by moving this ‘puzzle’ up and down the guitar neck. The same applies to minor chord shapes and the natural minor scale.
This helps develop our fretboard knowledge in all kinds of ways from thinking more about the chord voicing we’re outlining, and which chord we’re playing over. It makes easing your way into arpeggio patterns much more accessible and it also gets players used to moving away from that lower position of the guitar which we spend most of our early days.
While it doesn’t show us everything, there’s still much to learn when it comes to things such as intervals, chord tones, and scale degrees. But it certainly does make that initial hurdle easier to clear.
A quick primer on how to learn the CAGED system
As this is a system designed for the beginner, you don’t need much knowledge to get going. This is one of the things that makes it so compelling to students and teachers is that you can get people playing real music, FAST. With a minimal amount of time spent using textbooks or looking at scale diagrams.
Here are the 3 main steps to understanding the CAGED system:
1: As a beginner, you’re going to start learning open chords early on, once you have the C, A, G, E, and D chords memorized you’re ready to go!
2: The next step is to learn the notes on just the 5th and 6th string of the guitar, this allows us to call out our ‘root’ notes so we know we’re in key.
3: Take the C, A, G, E, and D forms and learn how they fit together in a sequence on the fretboard. We use the word ‘forms’ when we are just using the shape of the chord, such as a C ‘shape’. We can play that shape 2 frets higher (our root note is now on the 5th fret) to play a D chord using the C shape, or form.
That’s it! From here you can start to apply the system by finding each of the 5 chords using each one of the ‘forms’.
By the time you’ve done that in all 7 keys of the major scale you’re going to be well on your way to deciphering the fretboard.
The launchpad to fluency
Although we call it a system, it’s actually just an observation about how diatonic scales are laid out over the fretboard. There are a number of ways we can begin applying this knowledge of the CAGED system to play real music.
This is useful when it comes to improvising over a backing track or writing a guitar solo. Having that mental picture of the chord ‘shape’ you’re playing in will often encourage you to get more playful with things such as sliding into a new area of the neck.
Even when we’re playing in a key that isn’t C major, as long as you know where that root note is you can use the CAGED system’s pattern and move it up or down so it’s in key. Especially useful when improvising and someone starts playing in a key you seldom practice, you can fall back on this system by visualizing the CAGED pattern in relation to the root. Instead of wracking your brain figuring out a new key on the fly.
One of many approaches to deciphering the fretboard
It’s important to mention that this is just a single way of visualizing the fretboard.
While some people consider it to be restrictive. It gets you sounding good pretty quick but doesn’t teach you everything, and learning the system is not considered ‘mastery of the fretboard’.
This isn’t a bad thing at all, it’s a great way to get your feet wet and have fun on the guitar without getting swamped by the arduous theory work.
But if you are interested in alternative methods to the CAGED system that presents different ways of thinking about and approaching fretboard fluency, you can check out our suggestions here.
Will learning the CAGED system hurt me in the long run?
NO, absolutely not.
While it’s true there has been much criticism levied against the CAGED system with claims of it harming technical progress and speed, or that it’s too limiting of a way to visualize the fretboard and gets people stuck with playing the same patterns over and over.
Let’s set the record straight, the CAGED system is not designed to bring a player to absolute mastery of the guitar. It’s a learning tool and a stepping stone towards that greater goal.
There is absolutely nothing that stops you from taking things further or learning alternative approaches, such as the 3 notes per string system, just because you’ve learned the CAGED system. Approaches to the guitar are not mutually exclusive, as many a guitar teacher will attest to.
We hope this has given you a good idea of why so many people enjoy the CAGED system and use it to boost their progress on the guitar. But also why it’s not the ‘be all end all’ on everything related to fretboard mastery.
With these expectations and understandings in mind, I’m sure you’ll agree there’s a lot of value in learning the system for any player who’s looking to get better at understanding and utilizing the whole fretboard.
If you enjoyed this article, why not check out our introductory series on the CAGED System, which explains how to get started and how to utilize this system to improve on the guitar.