As guitarists, there comes a point where we find ourselves not sure how to progress to the next level of playing.
Once you know all the open position chords, barre chords, minor and major chords, and some extended chords such as major 7 chords, where can you go from there? Enter: the CAGED system.
If you want to enhance your knowledge of the fretboard as a whole, the CAGED system can help you to do that, and it’s much easier than you might expect.
With the CAGED system, you will be able to play chords, scales, and arpeggios in any key and any position on the guitar.
The CAGED system can open up a world of possibilities for expressing yourself on your instrument.
In this article, we will introduce you to this system and give you an in depth explanation of what the CAGED system is, how it works, and how you can implement it into your own playing.
What Is The CAGED System?
The CAGED system is also called the “5 pattern system”, as it uses the 5 chord shapes that all beginners should be familiar with; C, A, G, E, and D.
These five chords are the most basic chords that beginners learn right away.
The concept of the CAGED system is that the five most basic chords that all beginners are familiar with can be used across the fretboard in its entirety to create any chord in any key.
Every one of the five chords that are learned in the open position can also be played in other positions on the fretboard using the exact same shapes but moved to a different position on the neck.
For example, the open position C major chord could also be played on the third fret using the A shape.
You can also play a C major chord on the fifth fret using the G shape, on the eighth fret by using the E shape, and on the twelfth fret by using the D shape.
You can apply the very same idea to the other four chord shapes in root position also.
Going further than these four chords, all 12 major chords will be played using one of these five shapes, just moved to a different position on the neck of the guitar.
Why Do We Use The CAGED System
The CAGED system is an incredibly useful tool because it gives guitar players a roadmap for the guitar neck and helps them understand the layout of the fretboard.
Learning the five basic major chords in root position will help students understand the layout of the guitar’s fretboard, therefore making all chords understandable and memorizable.
Instead of trying to learn hundreds of chords, just learn a few basic patterns that repeat throughout the neck. It makes the guitar really easy, and demystifies the neck’s layout.
To further examine this: 12 regular major chords are all that exist in Western music, meaning major chords that don’t include any extensions (such as 7ths, 9s, 11s, 13s,).
These chords can also be played in five or more different locations on the guitar neck, bearing in mind that there are duplicate pitches on the guitar, including octaves.
That’s 60 possible chords, just from a regular major chord. You could also include minor chords, suspended chords, various types of 7th chords, and so on, and create a library of over 500 chords.
The CAGED system allows students to learn chords by their chord shapes and how they repeat in a pattern, rather than by learning them by their individual keys.
Adding, subtracting, or shifting a couple of notes around in any of the five shapes is a way to create alternate voicings and extensions within each of the 5 basic chord shapes.
This method makes the guitar much more accessible and understandable. Using this system gives you a complete understanding of how chords and scales present themselves on the guitar neck.
It will allow you to develop your understanding of how music works and how scales and chords are built, and how the guitar is tuned.
Unlocking The Fretboard
With the CAGED system, you will learn how to play freely around the entire length of the fretboard.
If you find yourself getting lost and not quite knowing where you are or what key you’re in when playing up on the higher frets, this method will help you develop a way of visualizing the neck.
Using these 5 major chord shapes, you can learn how to play chords as well as scales and arpeggios in any position on the neck.
For example, you could play a G major scale on the third fret by visualizing the “E” major chord shape, or you could play it on the 9th fret by visualizing the “C” major chord shape.
The same thing applies to any key, and any position on the neck.
By applying the concept of learning the different shapes rather than different keys, it makes the guitar a far more transparent instrument.
Each shape has their own set of benefits for different positions on the neck, and they open up many different possibilities for playing and expressing yourself.
Understanding The CAGED System
The easiest way to get to grips with the caged system is to understand how you can move open chords around the neck. Let’s start with the fourth shape of the CAGED system, which is the E shape.
It is called the E shape because if you play this shape in the open position, you get an E major chord. Let’s move this position up three frets.
You may have noticed that you still have open strings ringing out, so you will have to use a barre chord with your middle finger.
Instead of fingering this E shape with your index, middle, and forefinger, use your middle, forefinger, and pinky. This frees up your index finger to barre across the third fret.
Voilà! Now instead of an E major chord, you have a G major chord. Move this up two frets, you get A major. Two more frets, B major, and so on and so forth.
You may not have noticed, but if you can play major barre chords across all six strings, you’re already using the CAGED system.
But what you may not have realized is that you can do the same with the other four open major chords, too.
Let’s take the first shape of the CAGED system, C. When you play a C major chord in an open position, you’ll notice that the root of the chord is on the third fret on the A string.
You can also move this chord around the neck, using your index finger to barre across the strings behind it.
Similarly to what we discussed with the E shape, you will have to use your pinky finger, forefinger, and middle finger to play the C shape, and use your index to barre across the strings behind it.
With the C shape, you only need to barre across the strings that would be ringing open in the open position, so in this case it’s the high E and the G string. Take your C chord and move it up two frets, that gives you a D major chord.
Next up, let’s take a look at the second shape in the CAGED system, A. If you take an A major chord in root position, you’ll see that the root of the chord is the open A string.
If you use your pinky, forefinger, and middle finger to play the A major chord, it leaves your index finger free.
If you move this shape up three frets, and barre across the open strings using your index finger on the third fret, this becomes a C major chord.
The exact same method can be applied to the G shape and the D shape too.
The utility of this is to understand how chords can be played in different positions across the neck of the guitar, but what makes it really useful is realizing how these 5 shapes are all connected.
It’s ALL Connected!
The key to understanding how to visualize the entire neck of the guitar is to connect each of the five chord shapes in the CAGED system.
For instance, if we start with a C major chord in an open position, this is the first shape.
You can also play a C major chord using the “A” shape on the third fret.
The next shape in the CAGED system is, of course, the G shape, which can be played with the root on the eighth fret on the E string, barring across the D, G, and B strings on the fifth fret to create a C major chord.
The next shape is the E shape, which can be used to play a C major barre chord on the eighth fret.
The fifth and final shape is the D shape, which can be used to play a C chord up on the 12 fret on the G, B, and high E strings.
You can play this chord with your middle, forefinger and pinky and use your index finger to play the root of the C chord on the 10th fret.
You may have realized that the order of these shapes spells out “CAGED” as you go through them, moving higher up the guitar’s neck. This order then repeats once you’ve cycled through each shape.
All of the shapes in this sequence have at least one shared note from the shape that preceded it. Essentially, it’s five different ways to play the same chord.
Of course, it doesn’t have to be a C major. You can apply this idea to any chord.
You can also apply the CAGED system to minor chords, simply by moving every major third down a half step to become a minor third.
These chord “shapes” are simply a way to learn the neck. The shapes are only referring to the way the chord is fingered, and not the name of the chord itself.
This can be a little confusing for beginners at first. For example, you can play a G chord using the “A shape” at the tenth fret.
It is an “A shape” because that is how you play an A major chord in the open position.
The names of each shape simply serve as a reminder when one is learning the CAGED system. Eventually, you’ll know all the shapes, and it will become second nature.
CAGED System Scales
We can find additional notes outside the structure of the chord form by taking our five moveable chord forms of CAGED and adding the additional notes from the scale.
Unlike arpeggios, we aren’t restricted to using chord tones.
A scale tone is a tone derived from a scale, for example, the major scale, which includes seven notes (five whole steps plus two half steps).
Let’s take a look at an example to illustrate this point.
For this example, we’ll take the fourth shape from the CAGED system, E, to form an A major scale on the fifth fret.
We can expand our idea of chord shapes to include any scale degrees that aren’t the first, third, or fifth notes of the scale.
For example, if we were playing in the key of A Major, we can visualize this E shape at the fifth fret, and add the notes that aren’t in the chord but are in the scale.
This would be the major 2nd, perfect 4th, major 6th, and major 7th degrees of the scale.
We don’t have to limit ourselves to just the major scale. All scales are derived from the major scale, in some sense.
Knowing the major scale gives you insight into building other scales, including the minor scale, the major pentatonic scale, and the minor pentatonic scale.
The same idea can be applied to all the five shapes in the CAGED system.
Think of the structure of these chord shapes as the chord tones, and try to get used to what notes you can play that are outside this structure, yet still in the same key.
How To Practice The CAGED System
A good method of practicing the CAGED system is choosing a major chord in any key, and playing this chord in every position by using the CAGED system.
For example, you could select the chord of Bb major. Start playing this chord on the lowest possible position on the neck, which would be the “A shape” on the first fret.
Then go through each of the positions. After the “A shape” comes the “G shape”, followed by the “E shape” and so on. Remember, the order of the shapes spells out “CAGED”.
Learning chords using the CAGED system is a great way to learn the neck of the guitar using simple open chord shapes.
If you’ve already been playing the guitar for a while, but you were unfamiliar with the CAGED system, you may have realized that you already use this method in some way, but you haven’t conceptualized it this way.
That’s because the CAGED system is a logical way to approach the fretboard.
There are other systems for teaching the guitar, but the CAGED system is an easy system for beginning students because it teaches them to use shapes and connect these shapes together to fully utilize the entire fretboard.
There are certainly other ways to learn the guitar than the CAGED system. It is just one way, but it is one of the most logical and straightforward ways.
It provides a simple way of unlocking the logic of the guitar fretboard and figuring out all the parts of the pattern, and how they all connect.
The five basic chords are a visual map for the guitar, making it easier to navigate the frets. However, it’s important to remember to use your ear.
These frameworks are only meant to provide useful guidelines.
Although this method will likely be a big help for you and your playing, as long as it sounds good, and you’re having fun, that’s what’s important.
If you enjoyed this article, you might enjoy our post on ‘What Is A Bar In Music?‘
My name is Howard Matthews and I have been playing the guitar since I was knee-high. My parents like to joke that I was pulling the strings even before I was born. In fact, one of my earliest memories is sitting on the couch with my dad’s guitar, wreaking havoc on the chords.
Now, 40 years later, I can attest that I play them much better than I did back then. I have followed in the footsteps of both my parents – much to their delight – and have been the main guitarist in my band for the best part of three decades.
Music has always been my passion, and until recently my life has been so consumed with it that I haven’t had a moment to have a breath (and I wouldn’t have it any other way)!