CAGED System Guitar Theory

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Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a guitar system to easily allow you to visualize and connect the guitar fretboard up and down the neck? The CAGED system does just that. It lays out the guitar fretboard in a logical manner, allowing you to easily recognize chords shapes and scale patterns all over the fretboard.

Simplifying the Fretboard with the CAGED System

The guitar is a grid of notes. It’s not laid out in a linear fashion like a piano. This makes the guitar a bit challenging in terms of learning the note structure, intervals, and relationships between the notes.

So we need something to help us visualize the fretboard in a way that’s simple and easy-to-use.

This is where the CAGED system comes in.

How the CAGED System Works

The CAGED system works by using common open chord shapes to map out the guitar neck into five distinct sections. It helps simplify the fretboard by revealing the relationship between common open chord shapes and note/interval arrangement on the guitar.

Once you see this relationship, the guitar is no longer a massive grid of notes that’s hard to navigate. Instead, you can begin to visualize the fretboard as a group of interconnected shapes and patterns.

Let’s take a look at the chords that make up the CAGED system.

Chords of the CAGED System

The CAGED guitar theory system is built on five open chord shapes:

  • C chord
  • A chord
  • G chord
  • E chord
  • D chord

Hence the name, CAGED.

Each open chord form is moveable, which means it can be played in other locations up and down the fretboard. In most cases, this is done by barring the notes that fall on the same fret.

Some of the barre chord shapes will look familiar, particularly the E form and A form.

But let’s first take a look at each shape in its open form, then we’ll look at how to move the shape up and down the fretboard.

Open CAGED Chord Shapes

CAGED system open chord shapes

Now let’s look at how we can move these shapes up the neck to form other chords.

C Form

CAGED C form barre chord


If you take the open C chord and move it up 2 frets, you get a C-form D chord. With the C form no longer in an open position, you need to barre across strings 1, 2, and 3.

 

A Form

CAGED A form barre chord


By moving the open A chord shape up to the 2rd fret you form a B chord.

 

G Form

CAGED G form barre chord


By moving the G chord shape up to the 6th fret you get a G-form B♭ chord. Note that fingering the root note on the 1st string may be a bit difficult. It’s common to leave this note out.

 

E Form

CAGED E form barre chord


By moving the E chord shape up to the 2nd fret you form an F# barre chord.

 

D Form

CAGED D form chord


By moving the open D chord shape up three frets you get a D-form F chord.

 

Connecting the CAGED Shapes

Taking this concept of moveable chord shapes and applying it to a single chord is where the usefulness of the CAGED system is fully realized. This is what maps out the fretboard in a logical way because any given chord can be played all over the fretboard using the CAGED chord forms. Further, each chord shape connects to the previous following a set pattern, CAGED:

  • C form connects to A form
  • A form connects to G form
  • G form connects to E form
  • E form connects to D form
  • D form connects to C form and the pattern repeats

Let’s follow the C chord up the fretboard to see how it comes together.

In this first diagram, we have the C chord in its natural open C form.

Open C form chord full neck

The root note on the 5th string is also the root note for the A form chord, so we can see below how the C form chord connects to the A form. Here we have an A form C chord.

CAGED A Form C Chord full neck

The 5th, root, and major 3rd on the 4th, 3rd, and 2nd strings respectively form the upper part of the G form chord, connecting the A form C chord with the G form C chord.

CAGED G form chord full neck

The root on the 6th string of the G form chord is shared with the E form CAGED shaped, connecting the G and E forms. Below we have the familiar E form C barre chord with the root on the 8th fret.

CAGED E form chord full neck

Taking the root on the 4th string of the E form, we can connect the E form chord to the D form chord.

CAGED D form chord full neck

The D form then connects back to the C form chord via the 5th, root, and major 3rd on the 3rd, 2nd, and 1st strings respectively.

CAGED C form chord octave full neck

In these diagrams you can see how the CAGED chord forms are interconnected across the entire fretboard. Again, these chord forms apply to any root note. The following diagram outlines the D major chord across the fretboard using the CAGED shapes.

D Chord CAGED patterns

Root Notes of the CAGED Chord Shapes

Once you have a handle on the CAGED chord shapes, it’s very important to learn the root notes for each position. The root note acts as an anchor point for you to quickly find the chord shapes across the neck.

Root note patterns for CAGED chord forms

CAGED System Scales & Arpeggios

The CAGED system doesn’t just apply to chord shapes on the guitar fretboard, but also major scale and arpeggio patterns. This makes sense given that chords are built from scales. The diagram below outlines the major arpeggio and scale pattern for each of the CAGED chord shapes.

CAGED scale arpeggio patterns

One important note to the CAGED system. While this lesson focuses only on the major chords/scale patterns, the CAGED system also applies to minor chord shapes and scale patterns. I’ll do another post on the minor CAGED system in the future, but if you learn the major version, going to the minor should be rather easy.

Wrap Up

In order to best learn the guitar fretboard, we need patterns and shapes that allow us to easily visualize how the notes/intervals are laid out. The CAGED system takes care of this for us. By learning the CAGED system, you can easily visualize the entire fretboard and play in any position on the neck using familiar chord shapes and scale patterns.

CAGED system cheatsheet thumbnail

Cheatsheet: CAGED System

Download the cheatsheet for this lesson: