The CAGED System is one of the most popular and effective ways to learn chords on the guitar. This five-pattern system is also a very helpful tool in learning keys, scales, and the entire neck in general. It assists in the training of a musician’s ear and transposing music, which is to say how to change keys on the fly.
I have used the CAGED System for the last 15 years to teach others and as a means of continuing my creative development. It has become ingrained in me as a guitar player and I am a huge advocate for learning the system, no matter what skill level a guitar player may be.
The uses of the CAGED System and the reasons for learning it are vast. I highly recommend if you haven’t learned it to start as soon as you can. If you have heard of CAGED, but have been putting it off for whatever reason, allow me to make the case for bumping it up on your priority list.
What Is The CAGED System Used For?
Learning the Fretboard
The CAGED System is simply a means of organizing the guitar in such a way that it gives the fretboard some sense of order. Compared to the piano, which has a pattern of 7 white keys and 5 black keys that repeat up the scale, the guitar is a little more confusing with its non-linear structure and duplicate pitches.
On the surface, the guitar does not appear to have a pattern like the piano. The CAGED System provides the answer to this issue and gives the player a map of the fretboard.
The most common and practical use of the “map” that is the CAGED System is to learn chords all over the neck. The idea is that all chords in all positions of the guitar are based on these five basic chord shapes: C, A, G, E, and D. Instead of learning hundreds or even thousands of chords, one only need to learn these basic shapes along with the location of the 12 notes of the musical alphabet. Even the most complex chords are based on these five chords.
Learning patterns and formulas rather than memorizing individual chords is much more attainable and much more accessible for guitar players of any age or skill level to increase their chord vocabulary and a basic understanding of the way the fretboard is laid out.
Knowing the names of each note on each fret of the E and A strings is a good start to memorizing the location of the root notes. Apply the CAGED shapes to these root notes and a map of the chords all along the neck has been created.
The CAGED System can also be used for scale shapes. Each of these 5 shapes has 5 corresponding positions on the guitar neck. This is useful in two ways. For one, it’s helpful for learning the location of the various notes of a major scale in any given key, thus giving you what you need to make more complex chords.
Look again at the first illustration. The three notes that make up a chord are isolated there – the root, the major third, and the perfect fifth. Learning the other notes of the scale in any given key will give you what you need to make more complex chords. Knowing where the major 7th and major 9th notes of a scale are, you can just add these two notes to a C chord for example, and create a Cmaj9.
Playing melodies and solos is the second benefit of learning the location of the notes in this system. The first step is to learn the location of those three notes that make up the standard major chord, otherwise known as the chord tones. After that, one can play around those chord tones to find melodies that compliment a chord or set of chords. If you want to get brave, you can try connecting multiple shapes, or even all of them instead of just playing them one at a time.
Interconnecting these scale shapes is accomplished by a technique known as “position shifting”. Once a particular octave is hit, then instead of continuing across the strings in one position, go up the neck several notes on a single string to transition to the next position. This is a great way to learn a scale is three octaves which will pretty much cover the entire neck – a technique that is very important to master if one wants to be a great lead guitar player.
Transposing music is the practice of making a key change and altering the chords of an existing song in order to play it in a different key. If you are looking to play music with other people, this skill is critical. The CAGED System helps with this since it has provided a map of the neck.
The most common form of transposition is the use of a capo. One of the benefits of the capo is to change keys without the need to change chords. For example, a player learns the song “Sweet Home Alabama” in its original key with the chords D, C, and G. In a cover band with a female lead vocal, the key may need to change to suit the singer’s range. The singer has decided to play in the key of Bb major instead of the original G major. What do you do?
As the guitar player, it’s possible to simple apply a capo to a certain fret and keep the existing chord shapes. Since the last chord in the progression is our root chord, we need to find the Bb note on the sixth string and apply the G shape. The Bb has made the G chord move up three frets, thus we apply the capo to the third fret and maintain our shapes D, C, and G.
Another use of the capo is to find more guitar-friendly chords to play in a key that is not easy to play on the guitar. In the aforementioned example of changing “Sweet Home Alabama” from G major to Bb major, an artist in a cover band might elect to play different chords to achieve a fresh, unique sound to create a different version of the song altogether.
The chord structure of //: D / C / G / G :// for this song, when transposed to Bb, becomes //: F / Eb / Bb / Bb ://. In our first example, we simply used the D, C, and G shapes and applied the capo in such a way to keep those shapes. The other option is to use different chord shapes. Two other open position shapes from the CAGED System remain: E and A. What if we utilized those shapes to create a different sound?
The lowest F chord on the guitar is simply the “E” shape moved from the open position up one fret to the first position. By clamping a capo to the first fret, a guitar player can just play an “E” chord to make the F. The Bb major is the same way but with the “A” shape. With the capo on fret one, the “A” chord is played to make the Bb. That just leaves one chord – Eb.
Eb and D# are the same note. The fancy term is “enharmonic equivalent”. So if Eb is D# and D# is just a D chord moved up one fret, we have our answer. The Eb chord is played with a “D” shape with the capo on the first fret. Our new chord structure for our new version of “Sweet Home Alabama” is (Capo 1) //: E / D / A / A ://
These are just a couple of examples of how a guitar player can transpose from one key to another using a capo, but there are other ways to change keys by simply using the five chord shapes of CAGED to move around the neck using the 12 root notes available on the 6th and 5th strings. Electric guitarists won’t use a capo as often as an acoustic player would, so transposing to a different key may include the use of barre chords and power chords.
Should I Learn The CAGED System?
Here’s the thing about learning the CAGED System: You are going to learn it whether you realize it or not. The guitar is tuned in a certain way and a pattern exists. That is simply inescapable. A guitar student will learn these five chords. As one progresses, other chords are learned further up the neck beyond the open position. At some point, a student is introduced to the capo.
The pattern is there. You might as well learn to identify it using this five pattern system known as CAGED rather than simply memorizing individual chords without rhyme or reason. I didn’t learn CAGED until my early twenties after I had been learning and playing guitar for over a decade and learning the system rocketed my playing, giving me more growth in a single summer than in the previous five years.
Should you learn the CAGED system? YES! You can choose how deep you want to go into it, but you should absolutely learn the system, if only for the chords. It’s incredibly accessible and easy to understand. Sure, it’s helpful to have a teacher or some other structured resource to guide you through it, but it is so easy to use this tool to teach yourself.