What is the CAGED System?
The guitar is unique amongst instruments in that it isn’t linear. Imagine a keyboard; the notes go in one direction and there is only one way to play each pitch. When you compare that with the guitar, you will notice that we have more than one way to play most pitches, and that the notes move both horizontally and vertically across the neck.
What we need is a simple way to make sense of all this information; a way to organize the neck into convenient chunks to remove confusion and help us venture into areas that we might not be confident to explore.
The more of the neck we know, the more creative, expressive and musical we can be, and the more satisfied with our playing we will feel.
This is where the CAGED system comes in.
The CAGED system divides the guitar neck into manageable chunks based around five different chord shapes – the chord shape of C, the chord shape of A, and the chord shapes of G, E and D.
Look at these barre chord shapes. See if you recognize the open position chords that you probably learned as a beginner. The square dots are the root notes and each chord has been shown here as a voicing of A Major:
We use these chord shapes to divide up the neck when we solo. When we visualize the neck with the CAGED system we hang scale shapes and licks off each chord shape. This approach does take time, but it will never leave you.
It’s like ‘Seeing the Matrix’
Using each of these shapes we can section off the neck; one shape for one position.
For the moment, let us work in one key, the key of A. Here are all the chords above shown as different voicings of an A Major chord spread out on the neck.
At first glance this may look confusing, but look again carefully. Can you see all the barre chord shapes from the previous page on the neck diagram above? Use the square root notes to help you orientate yourself.
Why is this important?
This concept is vital to our ability to solo in any position. For example, if I’m in the key of A Major and my left hand is located in the 9th-12th fret area, I will be visualising the ‘C’ Shape. If I want to play in the 3rd to 5th fret range, I see a ‘G’ Shape. I have many licks and lines in my head that I visualise around each chord shape so wherever I am on the guitar, I always have something to play!
The real trick to all this is being able to see clearly all the root notes for the key we are playing in. Root notes will always be shown as a square dot in any diagram.
You should now understand that:
- We have 5 chord shapes which separate the neck into 5 individual areas.
- We use these shapes as visual aid to help us navigate around the fretboard.
- We will learn our scales and licks in conjunction with each chord shape.
- When we visualise each chord on the neck, we will immediately have the vocabulary to play in each position.
That is the beauty of the CAGED system. We will learn to ‘hang’ scales off each chord shape so that when you see the chord shape, you see all the licks you know.
The chords I have shown above are all, for the moment, major chords. We would visualize them if we were playing major scales and licks:
- If we are soloing with major scales, we use major chords.
- If we are soloing using minor scales, we use minor chords.
- If we are soloing with dominant 7 scales, we use dominant 7 chords.
Here is how we hang the 5 Major Pentatonic shapes off each chord:
All the above scales are in the Key of A, spread out on the neck
Here’s the exercise: Play through the key centers of A, C, D F and G in one position of the neck, we’ll start in the 5th – 8th fret position.
You have to translate the appropriate chord shape so that it’s root lines up with the root of the key centre we’re trying to play. For example, for ‘F’ You would use the ‘C’ shape chord with the root on the 8th fret.
Here are the roots of the key centers in the 5th -8th position:
First; play the chord associated with each scale shape, and then run up and down the scale from the lowest to the highest note and back.
When you’re comfortable with that, play through the same key centers but don’t play each chord first e.g, ascend and descend each major pentatonic scale in the order A, C, D, F and then G with no gaps. This works best as a triplet exercise and is shown in the following example:
For audio examples and backing tracks check out my book The CAGED system and 100 Licks for Blues Guitar
It is important to visualize the chord shape as you play this idea to the point that when you play the chord you can visualize the notes of the scale all around it. It’s then simply a case of knowing where all your licks start in relation to your chord ‘anchor’ and you have instant fretboard freedom.
If you want to extend this exercise to Minor Pentatonics, Mixolydian Modes and The Blues scales, plus 100 unique and useful blues licks (5 for each of the 5 positions of the above scales plus minor pentatonics) My paperback and Kindle book, The CAGED System and 100 Licks for Blues Guitar is now out on amazon