The CAGED system is an excellent visualization tool that helps you break out of the open chords rooted on the first few frets of the guitar. If you know and play barre chords, then you are already using the CAGED system.
I cover point by point the practical applications and strengths of the CAGED system, while also mentioning the main problem of the system and how to avoid that pitfall.
CAGED System: Guitar chords, scales, arpeggios, …
At its most basic, the CAGED system enables you to play every kind of chord in every key along the entire fretboard. But there is way more to the system that just chords. Visualizing the 5 chords enables you to play scales in various positions, tie those positions together, move from position to position, and much more.
Below I cover the applications of the CAGED system: chords, intervals, chord partials, triad arpeggios, scales and modes, and how to tie all those things together.
The 5 chords of “CAGED”
The most common application of the CAGED system is the ability to play any open chord as a closed chord shape in different positions along the fretboard and in different keys. Actually, it’s the ability to play any chord, nit just open chords. Some chords can’t be played in open voicings.
But first, let’s define the various chord voicings:
Open chord: a guitar chord with at least one open string in the voicing.
Closed chord: a guitar chord that does not have ANY open strings in the voicing.
Barre chord: a specific type of a closed guitar chord where 1 or more fingers are used to fret 2 or more notes.
The letters in “CAGED” are for the 5 open major chords: C, A, G, E, and D major. I assume you know how to play those chords. The shapes of those 5 chords can be played as closed chords for two different purposes:
- To play the same chord but higher up the neck, e.g. open A major at the 2nd fret and A major at the 5th fret as an E barre chord shape.
- Or to play a major chord in any of the 12 keys.
And don’t think that CAGED is only for major chords. Here is a list of basic open A chords that you should know:
A, A6, A7, Amaj7, Am, Am7, Asus4, and Asus2
Those open chords are all in the “A” position/shape of the acronym CAGED. You could also play those chords as closed chords in the C, G, E and D positions/voicings, although, not of those chords are possible in the other positions.
The point is that you can turn any open chord into a closed chord in the same key, or different keys, anywhere along the fretboard. And the pattern of always moves in the order of C-A-G-E-D-C-A-G-E-D, etc. That is the CAGED system and it is excellent for beginners.
EVERYTHING IS MOVABLE!
Main points of CAGED
What is the main benefit of the CAGED system?
It breaks you out of the open chord position. Open chords lock you into the first few frets.
What is the main problem with the CAGED system?
It locks you into a new position – all the closed positions. There is an easy fix to breaking out of the CAGED position problem and that is by playing inversions of triad arpeggios.
What you gain is the ability to play more types of chords than you can in the open position. The word “cage” is interesting. The CAGED system frees you from only playing open chords, but can lock you up again into position playing. Or at least that is what happened to me.
There is a reason why the letters are CAGED and not in a different order, and that is because the chords move in that pattern. Though you can switch which letter starts that pattern like EDCAG or AGEDC.
After the open C chord (x-3-2-0-1-0) is a closed C major as an A shape, then as a G shape, then as an E shape, then as a D shape, and finally a repeat of the open C major as a closed C major at the 12th through 15th frets. For E major, the first closed chord shape after the open E shape is D, then C, then A, etc.
The CAGED system isn’t only for chords, but also for chord partials, intervals, scales, arpeggios, licks, bass lines, you name it. Here are the closed chord voicings for the 5 CAGED major triad shapes. Note where the root note is. Just move that root to any key you want to play. Always know where your root and tonic notes are!
Movable scales using the CAGED system
Below are the 5 CAGED positions for both the major and minor pentatonic, but this works for any scale. Some people think that the CAGED system is only for major chords – they’re wrong.
Next to each pentatonic, I have a major and minor chord that you can see within the scale. So try sliding to another position to play a different chord voicing or to do a simple riff from the pentatonic scale in a different position. That’s really all it is – using the different positions to move around the neck.
Let’s take a look at the pentatonic scale and how it is really an arpeggio.
Scales equal chords & vice versa
Did you know that the pentatonic scales are also chords/arpeggios? The major pentatonic is a 6 add9 chord, while the minor pentatonic is a minor 11 chord. Let’s look at the 3 major and relative minor scales from C major (no sharps or flats):
C major pentatonic scale = C-D-E-G-A = the notes in a C6 add9 chord (C-E-G-A-D)
F major pentatonic scale = F-G-A-C-D = F6 add9 chord (F-A-C-D-G)
G major pentatonic scale = G-A-B-D-E = G6 add9 chord (G-B-D-E-A)
Those scales equal the minor pentatonic scales for Am, Dm, and Em. The minor 11 chord is just a minor 7th with the perfect 4th added.
A minor pentatonic = A-C-D-E-G = Am11 (A-C-E-G-D)
D minor pentatonic = D-F-G-A-C = Dm11 (D-F-A-C-G)
E minor pentatonic = E-G-A-B-D = Em11 (E-G-B-D-A)
I mention the 6 add9 and the m11 chords because you can use the pentatonic scale over are a lot of chords: Maj triad, 6, add9, min triad, and m7. There are also a number of sus chords that can be built from the pentatonic scales: sus2, sus4, 7sus, and 9sus.
Remember, the root note for scales and chords in any CAGED position is always in the same spot. And it’s easy to tack on the b7 or major 7 for additional arpeggios or licks.
Here are the major pentatonic scales with a simple major triad associated with that position. Instead of starting with C, I’ll start with E then follow the CAGED pattern – D, C, A and finally G. I show the intervals in the scales but fingers in the chord blocks. Check out my Music Intervals article if you do not know your intervals.
Here are the minor pentatonic scales and associate simple minor triads:
Using CAGED to spice up a diatonic chord progressions
It sounds great when you can play a chord in 2 or 3 different positions with some riffs thrown in. When I first started playing blues, I would play dominant 7ths in different positions – everywhere. Usually, just quick 7th or dim triads over the I7 or IV7 chords when I had an extra measure or two to mess around.
Here is an example of just playing an A major chord in different positions and throwing in some simple licks. Note, I’m still honing my GuitarPro timing and rhythm skills – the note values are off a little, but it should give you an idea of how and why to move around to different positions.
The 1st measure is just an open A major chord then I slide from the major 2d to major 3rd to set up a major 6th riff. The C# to A is just 2 notes of the A major chord in the E voicing.
Then I hammer from the root A to the major 2nd B and go into a slide to C# to play an A major in the D shape. Finally, I walk up the A major pentatonic with the major 7th thrown in to slide from a G# to A for an octave of A in the C voicing.
You could do something similar but try an Am or A7 chord instead. And instead of ending with a resolve to A you could go to the IV chord D for some D chords in different positions with riffs. Or go any other chord in A major like F#m or E7.
The point is to use the chords and scales to move around the neck and make music. In the process, you start to visualize the entire fretboard.
Using CAGED in the Blues
I had to show a simple TAB of riffing on a dominant 7th chord. Classic blues have 4 measures of the I chord followed by 2 measures of the IV chord. For a slow tempo blues tune, that is a lot of time and space you can fill. Here is a chordal example using an E7 chord:
You can see I start out with a simple E7 open chord then on the last beat I slide to a D7 shape E7 at the 4th fret. That is actually a G# diminished chord which is a great substitute for E7 but I’ll skip that for now. I do the same thing in the 2nd measure but go to an E7 in the G position. Measure 3 is the same as measure 1 but I start a riff on the 2nd beat and have that take me to A7 in the 5th measure.
Chords, scales, riffs, arpeggios, whatever you want. Try the same thing but try blues in D and do chordal or all riffs, just move around. You have to know where the root notes are!
Simple recap of CAGED
Let me cover the reasons to learn the CAGED system simple bullet points:
- If you are a beginner guitar player, the CAGED system allows you to play all the open chord shapes as closed shapes at any fret on the guitar. It breaks you out of the open positions.
- If you are a beginner to an intermediate player starting to learn scales and modes, then it gives you easy scale patterns that repeat in the same order as chords – C-A-G-E-D.
- If you are an intermediate to advanced player, then you are probably moving to different “positions” by moving to chord tones – like the roots, 3rds and 5ts also in the CAGED positions.
When you get to the advanced level mentioned in the last point, you probably aren’t thinking CAGED anymore but instead are focusing on chord tones. Until you get to that level, the CAGED system is extremely useful.
The CAGED system is a fantastic tool for any beginner guitar player. In time, you will find that you can get locked into closed positions just like open chords lock you into the first few frets. That’s a small price to pay to start moving around the entire fretboard. If you do find yourself getting locked into position playing, then use arpeggios to slide into different positions. Give the CAGED system a try. If you don’t like it then consider the 3-notes-per-string method for lead playing, or lock yourself in a woodshed for 3-6 months. Your choice.
Check out the lessons on the the CAGED positions on Justin Sandercoe’s site. He’s great – I’ve been watching his YouTube videos for years.