When first starting out, the seemingly endless expanse of nameless frets on a guitar fretboard can appear incredibly daunting! Where, what, why?! The piano and other keyboard instruments seem to follow some sort of logic at least, reliably ascending in pitch as the keys do, but here on the guitar we can play the exact same note several different times! What a mess! If only there were a reliable, tried-and-tested lens through which to view the guitar, not as foe but as friend.
In walks the CAGED system from stage left to save the day, to enable the prospective guitar student to visually comprehend and pin down what at first seems like an elusive and untameable beast! What might be referred to by some as a guitar hack, I prefer to think of it more as a visual language to accompany what should innately be a sonic education, an organising principle to bolster your own subjective musical learnings, a way of seeing the method beneath the madness. Either way it’ll have you strutting up and down the fretboard with ease and style in very little time – with diligent and attentive practise of course!
What is the CAGED System?
As inferred above, this is a system to enable faster mastery of the guitar fretboard’s initially confusing landscape. There are, of course, other methods to go about doing so, as with most things in life. I would encourage you to soak up as much as you can in order for you to chart your own way through your personal guitar studies. This, however, is an incredibly effective way of doing so, enabling personal study and development in the field, which to me is the key to cementing learning in the mind, where the student learns through their own initiative.
The system itself has benefits to offer guitarists at all levels, and even musicians whose penchant is for other instruments like the piano, as at its heart are some fundamentals of Western harmony that can be found in almost every area of the Western musical canon, obscure and popular, classical and modern.
The almost mathematically pure and perfect interconnectedness of harmony, in a rather circular fashion, a manner in which it is useful to imagine the CAGED system itself, looping round on itself on and on ad infinitum. This all certainly sounds rather overwhelming, though it will be second nature once we begin with those fundamentals!
Understanding the CAGED System
This very cyclical interconnectedness of harmony is precisely what makes this system so useful in mapping out what can be seen as a cryptic series of rows and dots – the guitar fretboard as cornfield! And, much like agriculture, one must sow seeds to reap any rewards, and so with this in mind we begin to do the very same with our harmonic understanding.
In essence, the letters C-A-G-E-D come to represent the five basic open chords on the guitar, which I would hope you are familiar with, but here’s a refresher:
The system is so named because we can follow each chord into the next while remaining in the same key. Once we come to process that shapes can be found all over the fretboard, that which seemed daunting and impenetrable in the expanse of the guitar’s neck comes to work to our advantage. The repetition in the guitar’s construction enables us to transpose wherever we see fit, and to find patterns wherever we are on our fretboard excursions:
- Beginning with the C Major Chord in its natural position – so called for its being comprised of only tonic, major 3rd and 5th notes, repeated or not – we can move to the A shape, keeping the tonic on the 3rd fret of the A string, though usually replacing the ring finger with the index finger to enable the rest of the fingers to assume the A position like so.
- From here, the A shape remains which, when replaced with the index finger outstretched, allows the remaining fingers to assume the G shape, with the tonic on the E string. (This, along with the D shape, can be rather uncomfortable to completely fulfil for those not bestowed with Hulk hands, but is still immensely useful in arpeggiated improvisations and chord inverted navigations, frolicking through the fretboard with ease.)
- Following this pattern, we keep the tonic on the E string, though as before switching our index finger’s attention to this root note and the barring of the chord, the remaining fingers adopting the E shape.
- As the E and D strings are so tonally close, the octave can be found from the former to the latter simply, as above, with the index finger taking responsibility for the root C and the rest of the fingers forming the D shape. (Again, not the most comfortable position, but vital in being able to cyclically navigate the fretboard harmonically and melodically.)
And so on, ad infinitum, for the closing D shape is, if you’ll look closely, already present in the C shape, simply redirected with a different root note.
I hope by now that the interconnected neighbourliness of these notes is beginning to rear its head at least somewhat. Do attempt to familiarise yourself with the way these chords metamorphose into one another, playing them through up and down the fretboard.
To fire up your own intuition, it might be an idea to attempt to map out each of the notes in each of the chords, and to find out yourself their relation to the root note of C – it is said that it’s more useful to imagine this system as a circle, and, as in circles, some aspects are more in tune with others.***
Can you work out, with regard to interval relations, which of the CAGED system chords works best with which others? (Try writing this down on some paper yourself to fully cement the learning.) Once you’ve done this, try doing so in another key.
If this all seems simple, it’s because it is, or at least it should be! Once learnt academically, this system is best heard and felt as opposed to thought, and should eventually come to be second nature and muscle memory in conjunction with your own style and such.
***Because we always start with the lowest shape on the fretboard, the chord shape that we begin with is subject to change, dependent on the key the exercise is in. No matter where you start, the system will always repeat itself thus. As with so much musical learning, the aim is for these things to eventually feel innate and intuitive; not like some academic exercise, but lenses through which to exercise your own capabilities and creativity, through which to see that the big, bad fretboard isn’t so scary after all!
How Do You Practise the CAGED System?
The beauty here is that you can practise any way you would like! The idea is that you feed your own creative and unique self through these positions and ways of learning, so simply understanding how interconnected all of these major harmonic tropes can be will have you well on your way to wherever you want to take your musicianship!
That being said, there are a number of exercises around, some of which I will outline below, perfect for getting the conscious and subconscious brain firing, and for provoking your own learning on the subject.
Simply choosing a favourite chord – or choosing one at random – and performing the same exercise of transposition yourself is a great place to start! For example:
- If you were to begin with an F major chord, you would have to begin on the E shape, typically barring the first fret as you would use a capo to raise the overall pitch.
- Next would come the D shape, excavated from the octave of the first fret F to the 3rd fret of the D string.
- Then comes the C shape, looping back round as the system does, where the almost triangular D shape on the higher strings remains, albeit barred, and the tonic shifts to the 8th fret of the A string.
- Thus follows the A shape, the root from before remaining while the higher tones shift to the A formulation completely.
- And concluding with the G shape, the A shape remaining in barred form and the root finding itself on the 11th fret of the E string.
As before, these chordal inversions will be of varying use, but it is precisely in their logic, and the way that the shapes can be transposed and mutated all across the guitar’s fretboard like so, that their power lies! Try this exercise elsewhere on the guitar with a chord of your choice and pretty soon this logic will begin to imprint itself on your mind and muscle memory.
A crucial first step in improvising over chord changes through the CAGED system is becoming familiar with what makes these chords tick. This can be most simply done by playing the chords’ individual notes, up and down the fretboard in location and pitch.
Being able to create a mental map oneself accustoms you to the sound as well as the feeling of these arpeggios in relation to the chords they’re played atop. Choosing a drone in any key is a great place both to start improvising in this way, as well as exercising the fluidity with which you navigate the CAGED shapes up and down the guitar.
Tutorials like this offer a vital first glimpse into these arpeggiation techniques:
Whereas masterclasses like this enable you, over a period of time, to fully engross yourself in their study:
Is it Better to Have CAGED and Lost than to Never Have CAGED at All?
The sheer amount of independence required in learning and implementing the CAGED system oneself makes this an ideal tool for those not inclined or otherwise unable to learn these fundamentals with a trained music teacher. Learning under your own steam in this way has its benefits no matter your educational preferences.
For one, you are sowing the seeds that you will reap yourself, and at minimum will enable you to feel gratified and fulfilled in a way otherwise unimaginable; you are able, as a guitarist, musician, composer, improviser, and everything in between, to fulfil your own needs and cognitive desires.
The CAGED system is a real-world, practical schemata with which you can explore your musical potential, not just occupying space inside one’s mind as a theoretical concept, and which is inherently specific to guitar while still allowing the learner to understand ever-present fundamentals of Western music theory. It is thus that the guitarist who chooses to use such a system is empowered within and without themselves.