I have made the case before and I continue to believe that the CAGED System is one of the best methods for learning the guitar neck. If you want to know why then read our article here What Is The CAGED System? Based on my experience as a player, teacher, and a student of the guitar for over twenty-five years, it is my personal favorite tool for mapping out the neck. But it’s not my only tool. It shouldn’t be yours either.
In fact, there are those out there who will have somewhat of an allergy to the CAGED System and end up being turned off or burnt out. It’s okay if that is the case; the CAGED five-pattern system may not speak your particular language. I am going to outline some alternatives to the CAGED System as a means of learning the guitar neck.
3 Notes Per String System
I was first introduced to this system by Joe Satriani. Paul Gilbert is another shredder that uses this system for practicing and learning scales and performing solos. It allows for very efficient movement in a scale, covering three octaves of a scale very smoothly and quickly. It is conducive to legato-style soloing and arpeggios. In my opinion, it’s a must-learn for any electric guitar player looking to go the virtuoso route.
Learning scales in the CAGED System in each of the five positions will use only two notes for a couple of the strings, depending on the position. This prevents note duplication. The 3-note-per string scale covers more frets with minimal movement, but by nature of the guitar’s tuning, there is a pitch that will be repeated, making for an “extra note” in order to allow for three notes on each string.
Here is an example of the basic two-octave G-Major scale using the three-notes-per string idea:
The duplicate note is the high “D” (perfect 5th interval) which is on the 7th fret, 3rd string, and the 3rd fret, 2nd string.
This is a wonderful method of learning both major and minor scales. Mix in position shifting with three-notes-per string and you can cover more ground. Here is the 3-notes-per string system being used to cover three octaves employing two-position shifts:
Each position shift resets the finger assignments, so pay attention to the numbers next to the note heads – those are the fretting finger numbers. Throw in some hammer-ons and pull-offs to these scales and you’ll be shredding in no time!
Not to be confused with the Chinese crime syndicate, using triads to learn chords can be quite a useful method. This employs more of a music theory approach since it requires learning the major and minor scales for it to make sense. A chord, at minimum, needs to be made up of three notes. These three notes are known as a triad.
A major chord uses the triad of 1 (root), 3 (major third), and 5 (perfect fifth). These are the first, third, and fifth notes of the major scale. For C major, the notes are C (R), E (Maj3), and G (P5). G is G, B, D. D is D, F#, A, and so on.
To make a minor triad, simply flatten the third. C minor is C, Eb, G. Gm is G, Bb, D. Dm is D, F, A.
This is one of the benefits of learning the major scale. The major and minor triads are the first chord “formulas” most guitarists learn. From there, one can learn other formulas using more notes of the scale including sus4 (1, 4, 5), add9 (1, 3, 5, 9), 7 (1, 3, 5, b7), m11 (1, b3, 5, b7, 9, 11), etc., etc.
That brings me to a form of ear training referred to as interval training. Those numbers I mentioned previously (major 3rd, b7, etc.) are known as intervals. Played against the root note, they create a unique sound. Ear training allows virtually anybody to develop their sense of pitch to be able to identify those unique intervals by just hearing them.
Those with perfect pitch, or absolute pitch, have the rare God-given ability to re-create any note without the benefit of a reference note. Most of us normal humans need a reference note and this is called relative pitch. Interval training is the primary method for musicians to develop their sense of relative pitch.
This is useful for guitar players because it allows guitarists to identify and create chords of various flavors. In other words, developing a sense of relative pitch allows the guitar student to effectively learn songs by ear with minimal effort.
Interval training is also an invaluable tool for guitarists looking to learn how to play solos. Whether you want to improvise, write your own solos, or learn iconic solos by ear, the job is much easier and more effective if one has the right amount of ear training to not only identify the notes but be able to determine where exactly on the neck a note or series of notes is being played.
I’ll once again mention Joe Satriani. This is the method he uses in order to teach scales and modes, and ultimately how he comes up with his legendary melodies. He has many, many videos on this subject. Below is the first one I ever came across and it completely changed my guitar-playing career. No joke.
I’m a huge fan of interval training, even for those who are only semi-serious. It is a really easy and accessible method of ear training and it’s how the most successful guitar players have trained their ear. It is transferable to any instrument and also aids in singing.
For those of you who claim to be tone-deaf, allow me to push back. Chances are you are not truly tone-deaf as only about 1 in 20 people have the condition known as amusia. Even if you are one of the few who has this condition, interval training has been shown to be beneficial as a means of therapy. In other words, if you are tone-deaf, you probably still don’t have an excuse. I say that with love and encouragement!
If the CAGED System feels a bit overwhelming, then I would recommend learning power chords. This is a good way to learn the neck by focusing on the notes of the the 6th and 5th strings. The two types of power chords are “R6” and “R5”, meaning the root note will either be on the 6th string or 5th string.
Power chords are two-note “chords” that have neither a major nor a minor quality to them. The chord is simply the root note paired with the 5th note of its parent scale. These are named “C5”, “G5”, “D5”, and so on. These chords are especially popular when learning the electric guitar since the chords provide a cleaner sound with fewer notes which comes in handy when cranking up the distortion.
By learning power chords and the locations and names of each of the 12 notes on the 6th and 5th strings, you have learned ⅔ of the major or minor chord. One would simply need to add either the 3 or the b3 to add the major or minor quality respectively.
Other notes could be added as well. Instead of using a 3, a 2 or 4 could be used for suspended chords. These are great ways to bump the two-note power chord up to three notes to build your mental library. Four-note chords can soon follow for even more possibilities. This is a more gradual process and can really help ease a player into the CAGED System or any other method for learning.
Being able to play all twelve power chords on both the 6th and 5th strings is extremely useful for memorizing the neck to find chords quickly. I use power chords all the time when learning a song by ear. I often start with the power chords to determine a key, then I start adding quality (major or minor) and tension (sus, 7, etc.) throughout the transcribing process to pick out the chords in a step-by-step method.
The power chords are also a great precursor to learning barre chords since all of the barre chords for guitar are based on the power chord skeleton. Here is an illustration of a power chord becoming a barre chord:
I hope you find these alternatives to the CAGED System helpful. I know these have helped me over the years. I find it incredibly beneficial to use multiple systems when learning just to keep the mind stimulated. If CAGED isn’t for you, or you are just wanting to spice things up a tad, there is more than one way to learn the guitar and create music.