An Introduction To The CAGED Guitar System
Updated: May 18
Why Use The CAGED System?
Have you ever picked up your guitar and wondered?
“Hey my knowledge on guitar feels a bit disjointed”,
Because that happened to me.
I’m here to tell you that learning the CAGED system gives you a cohesive way to join up your scales, chords, and arpeggios in bite sized chunks all over the neck.
What Is The CAGED System Exactly?
The CAGED system is a way of organising your scales and arpeggios all over the neck but in a way that grounds them to chord shapes, namely the C, A, G, E, D major triad chord shapes.
When we talk about these shapes, we are referencing how these shapes look at the open position. i.e. the first 4 frets of the guitar with open strings inside the chord. Each letter is referencing their respective note and shape of these open chords.
See the Example 1 below for each chord diagram.
The reason why it is called a system is that CAGED chords actually follow in order one after the other in succession and that it includes the scales and arpeggios to each shape.
We will get onto this later but for now we will go further in-depth into what makes these shapes special.
What’s Inside These CAGED Shapes Theoretically?
It is important to learn the intervals in each of these chord shapes, to understand how they're related to each other. In a major chord each major chord consists of the root, major 3rd and fifth and they are in relation to where you start your root note. In the CAGED system they are as follows in Example 2:
Key: R= Root
Triangle 3 = Major 3rd
p5 = Perfect 5th
Each CAGED shape consists of a major triad and their voicings can be split into two categories firstly the C and G shapes as they are in root positions (i.e. root 3rd 5th ) and secondly the A, E, and D shapes into a root 5th root 3rd voicing.
As shown in these diagrams in Example 3:
This is important to note because when it comes to changing these chords/scales/arpeggios we can use our knowledge of how the major scale is tied to the root note and alter these shapes into any other purpose.
Changing CAGED To Minor
All that is needed is knowledge of other chord formulas and the intervals needed to make different chords, which then gets applied to these CAGED shapes.
If we wanted a minor chord, we know to flatten the third by one fret. this is because in minor chords we have the root minor 3rd and fifth, not a major 3rd. When applying this to the CAGED shapes you will get their minor chord variations.
The same can be applied for the various amounts of chord families if you know how to build them. You can see how we alter these CAGED shapes in the following example to gain minor chords.
This method of practical application of music theory is why the CAGED system excels at by providing people who want a way to get into music theory without being too overwhelmed.
I find it is a system that lends itself very well to practical application of music theory over the fretboard.
Turning CAGED Into Barre Chords
Here is a trick that makes using the CAGED system so easy when it comes to barre chords.
Play the CAGED chord shapes but replace the nut with your first finger and remake the shapes again with the new fingering.
Shift these new fingerings to different frets and reuse the CAGED shapes generated by replacing the nut with your first finger.
As seen in these photos:
The only caveat I would state is that this forces you to know the root note of your chords to build your chords where you need them, which leads me onto the next topic: the importance of the root note.
The Importance Of The Root Note
The root note or the first note is important to know, as all the harmony is focused around that one note and the relationships between the root note and other notes paired with it.
The reason why I want to bring your attention to the root note in using the CAGED system is that if we understand where the root notes are on each string, we can formulate the correct CAGED shape wherever we are on the fretboard.
To break it down in a more logical format, i will spell it out where each shape is applicable on each root note on each string.
Both E strings = E shape going towards the bridge, G shape going towards the nut.
A string = A shape going towards the bridge, C shape going towards the nut.
D String = D shape going towards the bridge, E shape going towards the nut.
G string = G shape going towards the bridge, A shape going towards the nut.
B string = C shape going towards the bridge, D shape going towards the nut.
With this knowledge it helps you understand that wherever you put your finger you can generate a chord from it.
CAGED Is Also A Sequence Not Just A Word
Another trick about the CAGED system is to know that the word CAGED helps you understand that one chord shape flows into the next one.
The C shape flows into the A shape which flows into the G shape etc. This pattern continues all the way up the neck and the same thing can be done in reverse too.
Which reinforces the importance of knowing your note names and knowing where your root notes are. Check out Example 5 to see how this looks:
There are only a few things missing from this CAGED explanation and they are scales and arpeggios.
Now we know how to generate the chords lets try attaching the relevant scales to them to make it a more complete system. Here are the relevant major scales that go with each corresponding chord shape. see Example 6:
I also made a separate example to show them in each shape in Example 7:
In each shape where the root is you can make the respective major scale and alter them to gain the other types of scales which is inline with how the chords get altered and the same can be applied to the arpeggios.
Which brings us onto the next subject...
Lastly to make the whole system complete we are going to add major triad arpeggios into the mix and relate them to their CAGED shape counter parts. See example 8:
I also made a version of the arpeggios across the fretboard in example 9:
As mentioned before, like with the chords and scales the arppegios can be altered by adding notes to create more complex arpeggios which makes using this system very flexible and accomodating to your needs as a musician.
From looking at the information provided you can start to understand that wherever you put your finger on the fretboard there are two chord shapes you can make for that root note. You can also generate their respective scales/arpeggios that go with them, providing you a complete way to navigate the fretboard.
Here is an example outlining these concepts combining all the previous knowledge into one excersize.
Changing from the open position E shaped E chord, applying the correct scales and arpeggio, then shifting that same open shape to a barre chord changing that root to C.
This demonstrates how simple it can be to utilise the CAGED system.
Shown in Example 10:
As you can see, getting to grips with the CAGED system isn't so difficult, and it allows you to remove a problem I call "fretboard blindness". The state of not knowing where you are on the fretboard and what you can do next.
The CAGED system solved that for me in a lot of ways and I hope it does for you.