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 chord 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 basic 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.
CAGED Open Chord Shapes
The open chord shapes below are the building blocks for the CAGED system.
The entire system is based on these shapes, for these shapes are moveable up and down the neck.
Let’s take a look at how this can be done to form other chords.
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.
By moving the open A chord shape up to the 2rd fret you form a B 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.
By moving the E chord shape up to the 2nd fret you form an F# barre 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.
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.
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.
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.
Taking the root on the 4th string of the E form, we can connect the E form chord to the D form chord.
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.
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.
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. Each chord has its own unique root note shape which makes it distinguishable from the others. These root notes act as anchor points for you to quickly find the chord shapes across the neck.
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.
For a deeper dive into the relationships of the CAGED system with triads, arpeggios, pentatonics and diatonic scales, check out my book Guitar Essentials: Foundational Fretboard Navigation, which ties it all together.
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. Check out the Minor CAGED System to learn the minor CAGED chord forms.
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.
Stop Struggling to Find Your Way Around the Fretboard!
Build a solid foundation and begin navigating the guitar fretboard with ease with Guitar Essentials: Foundational Fretboard Navigation.
Cheat Sheet: CAGED System
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