Learning the music theory behind playing guitar is a huge task, especially for a self-taught guitarist. The CAGED system minifies this task by making it easier to visualize scales across the neck.
It does so by using familiar chords to help identify patterns on the fingerboard of a guitar. These patterns are the shapes of the open chords for C, A, G, E, and D major.
A disadvantage the guitar has over an instrument such as the piano is that the notes are not laid out linearly. As the fretboard of a guitar is more like a grid, it makes it a little harder to memorize where all the notes are.
You could of course learn your scales the old fashioned way and that is a good idea in the long term. You should also learn scale patterns such as pentatonic scale shapes. CAGED is a bit of a shortcut but it's very effective.
To understand what we are going to discuss in this article you will need to know a little bit about major chords. Major chords are a triad of notes. These notes are the root note, the major 3rd, and perfect 5th notes in a scale.
Having prior knowledge of this will help you understand how moving the chord shapes around the fretboard allow you to hit these notes in any scale.
It will also help significantly to already know the chord shapes that the CAGED system uses.
This is more so to assist with putting the method into practice than understanding the music theory behind it.
To play the open chord shapes further up the neck, you will often have to barre the frets closest to the headstock. This is very awkward for some shapes. It won’t stop you from learning the positions and how the scale works across the fretboard though.
Don’t get frustrated if you can’t play the chord to start with. Focus on the shapes instead.
If you haven’t wrapped your head around those concepts yet, the caged system will be harder to understand.
You can still move ahead with the article but if it gets too confusing perhaps take a step back and study the major chords used in this method.
The CAGED system uses major open chord shapes to map out the fretboard. Given the 5 letters of the method, there are 5 sections to the system. It demystifies the fingerboard by explicitly showing the relationship of the chord shapes and the arrangement of intervals up and down the neck.
Once you begin to identify how the chord shapes interact with the fretboard it becomes a lot easier to navigate.
You don’t even need to memorize which note you may be hitting, just that it matches your other notes using the CAGED system. The patterns interlace and work for every standard major key. Once you do learn the notes in each chord you will easily be able to identify them in every shape.
Here is an important distinction to make. You will use the major open chord SHAPES of a:
But that does not necessarily mean that the C shape will play a C chord. If you move that shape up the neck a little it will become a new chord. For example, if you slide the shape 2 frets up, the root note (where your third finger sits in a C shape) will be a D. Therefore, the C shape now plays a D chord.
Let’s take a look at how this works.
R = The root note of the chord
3 = Major 3rd note
5 = Perfect 5th
As you can see in the above example the pattern made by the C shape is the same. When moved up to the 5th fret the root note becomes a D. This is known as a “C form D chord”.
As an open C uses open strings on the high E and D string you now must barre the three top strings to play the chord.
This works all the way up the fretboard. For example, you could move the root position to the 7th fret and use the same shape and you would be playing a C form E chord. The 8th fret would be F, 9 would be F#, and so on.
This works for all the other chord shapes used in the CAGED system.
Let’s dive into an example for each
If you have played barre chords before you should be pretty familiar with the A shape. It is the standard way to play major barre chords on the A string.
You may not have noticed before because the root note for an open A chord is an open string.
It is much easier to see when placed next to another major barre chord.
In the above example, the root note is being played on the 3rd fret. The rest of the fingers go to the 5th fret. This makes the A chord shape play a C chord. If the root note were on the 4th fret, it would be a C# chord and so on.
By moving the G chord shape up to the 7th fret you get a G form B chord. Positioning your finger on the high E string is very difficult for the G form of a chord. It is common to just leave it out.
Just like the A shape is the standard barre chord for the A string, the E shape is the standard major barre chord when using the bottom E string. It should be a familiar shape for you to work with.
In the above example, we moved the root note up to the 3rd fret from an open string. This changes the chord to a G instead of an E. So, the chord is an E form G chord.
If you move the root note for a D chord up to the 5th fret you get the D form G chord. As with the A and C chord shapes, you should be careful not to hit the open strings as these chords aren’t barred like the others.
If you understand what you have read so far have a go at trying to make the different chord shapes up and down the fretboard.
If you have done this a few times you will start to notice a connection between the shapes down the fretboard.
Hopefully, you understand how to create the shapes of the caged system after reading the section above. The next thing to wrap your head around is connecting the shapes together.
You should find that the C shape connects to the A form, the A to the G, etc.
When you get to D, it will connect to C again and the pattern repeats.
Take a look at the example below of all the chord forms for D Major.
You can see that the shapes overlap each other. The end of the C shape is the beginning of the A shape and so on. The only shape that is slightly different is D into C.
This is just because the barre position of the C shape is set back one fret. It is still very easy to see how those chords overlap
Take note of where the root notes are for each scale. Identifying where they are will help you become lightning-quick at finding the right chords and scales.
If you are still having trouble understanding try out this video.
Just like any other part of learning the guitar, this won’t be easy straight away for most. However, it is much faster than memorizing scales on their own and trying to remember what every note on the fretboard is.
Some may argue that using the CAGED method can be detrimental to your long term progress. I think it is a perfect shortcut. I know it helped me a lot when I first came across it. Try it out and let us know how it is going for you in the comments.