There are varying opinions on the CAGED System and its effectiveness in learning how to play guitar. Some believe it to be a superior method of learning chords and the neck as a whole. However, there are others who believe that it is not beginner-friendly, too wooden, and “un-musical”. So is it worth learning?
The CAGED system is worth learning because it brings the fretboard into order by providing a pattern. It increases the speed at which one learns and memorizes chords including the process of learning the major scale. Thus making learning other scales or modes a much more efficient process.
Some argue against it, others argue for it; I, on the other hand, don’t argue either way. It worked well for me in the early stages of my development and it continues to work well in my daily musical life and in my teaching. Not all methods and systems are for everyone so you will have to decide for yourself if CAGED is right for you.
I strongly urge every student of the guitar to have more than one system and come at the guitar from multiple angles as opposed to just one perspective. Even if you and CAGED mesh well, it is still important to have other tools in your box.
Is The CAGED System Worth Learning?
I think any system is worth learning even if you learn just the fundamental ideas. How far you go with it is entirely up to you. No matter what your initial impressions are of the five-pattern system, it would be foolish and arrogant to shove it aside as not being worth your time.
If you are like me — and if you are reading this, you probably are — you are the investigative type. You are probably teaching yourself how to play guitar and looking for efficient, effective ways of doing so. Before devoting a lot of time and energy in a path or system of learning, it is important for people like us to look into it before we launch right in.
If left to myself, I can over-analyze. Maybe you can relate. Let me encourage you from the beginning not to think too much. To do so tends to be detrimental to the learning process because if you spend too much time worrying about whether or not something is worth pursuing, then nothing will happen. You may gain a lot of head knowledge, but it will be useless because you won’t be any better of a guitar player for it.
I really believe that no system of learning guitar is a complete waste of time. Just try it. If it’s not for you, then whatever – move on to something else. No harm is done, no time is really lost. You will have still picked up something and gained a wrinkle in the ol’ brain… as long as you try it.
Why Is The CAGED System Important?
The CAGED System is important for the simple fact that it brings organization to an otherwise chaotic instrument. Learning the guitar is much more complicated than learning piano, for example, because the notes and patterns are not as obvious. A keyboard is very linear and is devoid of pitch duplication.
The guitar neck, on the other hand, is not as straight forward, is tuned weird compared to other instruments, and has many pitches that are duplicated along the length of the fretboard. An example would be the high e. On a piano, this note is the “E” note one octave above middle “C”. It has only one place on the keyboard. On a 21 or 22 fret guitar, this note is in 5 places. On a 24 fret guitar, it’s in 6.
The CAGED system brings the fretboard into order and this helps to increase the speed at which you can learn and memorize chords. It addition it helps in the process of learning the major scale and makes learning other scales and modes a much more efficient process.
Some guitarists will argue that the CAGED System is not beginner-friendly, but I disagree. Virtually all systems, theories, and techniques can be simplified down to extraordinarily basic levels. While the meat of CAGED is learned primarily in the intermediate and even into the advanced stages, the fundamentals of the system can be introduced to a student on day one.
For me personally, the single biggest advantage I had with the CAGED System was simply learning how to play any chord in up to five positions. That’s huge! Each of the shapes produces a unique sound, so a simple “C” chord can have at least five different “dialects” if you will. This meant if I wanted to figure out a song exactly as it was played, I wasn’t limited to just one chord. I could try the other four shapes to see which one matched a particular context the best.
This was extremely helpful when playing in a cover band. Sure, the open position G chord would have worked for a certain song, but to be authentic, it was helpful to know how to play the G using an “E” shape and match the original song perfectly.
So learning the CAGED System is definitely worth it, even if you just learn the very basic concepts.
How To Practice The CAGED System
So how should one put the CAGED System into practice? For a real in-depth look into how to practice CAGED, check out our article here How To Practice The CAGED System – Step By Step Guide. Here’s the rundown on how to get started.
Step 1: Learn the five chords in the open position – C, A, G, E, D
Step 2: Learn the notes on the fifth and sixth strings
Step 3: Apply the shapes of C-A-G-E-D to each of those five chords, then apply to the other seven keys.
Step one is pretty self-explanatory. The importance of step two is to be able to locate the root notes of all twelve keys. Use each shape for each chord. In other words, make five “C” chords, five “A” chords, and so on.
Use what you learned in step two to apply the shapes to the rest of the keys. To expedite the process, feel free to use a neck diagram if things start getting a little jumbled.
Beyond those three steps, there are other practical uses of CAGED. Learning the major scale with each corresponding shape is one great example. The greatest guitar players know their scales all over the fretboard. A good way to learn that technique is to break down a scale into bite-size chunks as provided in the CAGED System. Those five patterns can then be combined to make one long scale that spans the entire neck, enough to fill three octaves.
If you are an aspiring lead guitarist, this is a very beneficial system to use. As I mentioned before, I am an advocate of learning multiple systems. I combined CAGED with the “three-notes-per-string” idea to make sort of a hybrid system for learning scales.
To an extent, the CAGED System can be applied to minor chords. Not all five shapes transfer as well from a practical standpoint, so maybe just learn the Em and Am shapes along with their scales.
Learning chord extensions is another way to go even deeper still using the CAGED ideas. Each shape, including those with the minor quality, can have notes added to them by adding, removing, or moving fingers. This is where sus4, sus2, add9, 7, maj11, and so many others can be learned by making simple (or complex) adjustments to each shape.
The Origins Of The CAGED System
The organization of the CAGED System and the development of the theoretical concept is largely credited to Keith Allen. Allen was the head of guitar instruction at the Blue Bear School of Music in San Fransisco. The school was featured in an article of Guitar Player Magazine called “Blue Bear Waltzes”. In the article is the first known publication of CAGED as a system:
“Keith begins teaching his system for the fingerboard by stressing the fact that, because of the innate structure of the guitar’s tuning, there are five major chords that can be played in the first position without a barre — E, D, C, A, G. Each of these five chords can be barred and moved up the neck to play any other major chord on the chromatic scale.”
There you have it. A 20-year old guitar teacher in San Fransisco was using a system to teach guitar students a way to organize their learning instead of the erratic approach most students take when teaching themselves.
The system has also been credited to Jimi Hendrix as some say he used the system in his playing. This is entirely possible. After all, the concept has technically existed as long as the modern guitar has been around. Guitar players of all kinds probably discovered these 5 chords work in a system long ago. As Allen said – it’s just the innate structure of the guitar’s tuning.
If you play guitar for long enough, this becomes evident, nay hard to escape. The fact is these 5 chords work this way whether you implement them into a system or not. As a guitar player, you will inevitably use ideas from the CAGED System whether you intend to or not.
Alternatives To The CAGED System
Based on my experience as a player, teacher, and a student of the guitar for over twenty-five years, the CAGED system is my personal favorite tool for mapping out the neck. But it’s not my only tool. It shouldn’t be yours either.
Below are some alternatives to the CAGED System as a means of learning the guitar neck but if you want more detail on any of these alternatives then read my in-depth article here The Best Alternatives To The CAGED System.
3 Notes Per String System
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. It is a wonderful method of learning both major and minor scales
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.
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.
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.