A Complete Guide to the CAGED System

Remember when you first grabbed a guitar and looked at the fretboard? 6 strings, a bunch of frets and some markers on them, but still, it is always overwhelming to think about getting to know it like the palm of your own hand.

Fortunately, there are methods that accelerate this learning, and give you tools to navigate the fretboard like a pro.

One of those methods is called CAGED System, and it uses the open chord shapes that you have probably learnt by now!

This method divides the guitar’s neck in 5 different sections, identifies the patterns within them, and allows you to quickly find your way around the instrument in a logical and straightforward way.

Why is there a need to come up with a method like the CAGED System?

The guitar is an instrument that is inherently more difficult to understand than for example, the piano. Not to say that one is easier to play than the other, as this has to do with the way the notes are organized.

In a piano, you have all the notes in a linear sequence, from octave to octave. You also have the natural notes as white keys, and sharps/flats as black keys.

This makes it much easier to understand visually, and it also means that if you learn something in a certain octave, transposing it is easy.

The image below shows you two octaves on a keyboard. See how they look exactly the same?

The guitar, having 6 strings tuned in fourths, with a major third between the 3rd and 2nd strings, is quite different, which is why we should find a method that helps us learn it without losing our minds – this is where the CAGED System shines.

How can the CAGED System help me understand the guitar?

The CAGED System is brilliant because it takes something that many players probably already know, and it expands that concept in a logical and intuitive way. It becomes much clearer once you start applying the theory on the guitar too.

This system takes 5 well known open chord shapes that even beginners should be familiar with, since they’re some of the first chords that most people start by learning. They’re the following:

  • C Major
  • A Major
  • G Major
  • E Major
  • D Major

Now it becomes clear that these chords literally name the system with their initials.

All of these chord shapes are related to a series of scales and arpeggios that you can easily learn. 

As soon as you understand this relationship, you’ll start finding the notes and patterns you want anywhere on the guitar, instead of being confined to a certain region that you know particularly well. 

This opens up a world of possibilities for your playing. You’ll be a better composer, improviser, and all around a better musician since you’ll understand your instrument much better.

CAGED Chord Shapes

Let’s check the chords that name this system, and analyze them.

We are interested mostly in knowing the degrees of the notes, and not so much their name (whether it’s an A, B, C, etc.).

This is because the main objective of this system is to be able to move these shapes around the fretboard. 

The notes will not be the same when you shift your hand around, but the scale/chord degrees will be the same!

Here are the 5 CAGED chord shapes, with their respective chord degrees.

R – Root note

M3 – Major 3rd 

P5 – Perfect 5th 

These are the 5 shapes around which the CAGED System was invented. 

Notice that you see the chord degrees inside each note, and not their names. 

This is because we’re going to shift these shapes all around the neck to obtain new chord voicings apart from the open chord shapes you already know!

How do I get more chord voicings out of the CAGED shapes?

The whole point of this system is to give you more tools to work with whenever you’re playing, whether you’re composing or improvising. 

Playing the same shape each time the E chord comes up can become boring quickly, right? By the end of this guide, you’ll be able to play it in 5 different ways!

Before we check out each shape individually, keep this in mind: it is very important to memorize where the root note is located in each shape, as this will be your biggest reference point!

Let’s take each of the shapes we’ve just seen, and see how exactly we can play other chords with the same shape.

C Major Shape

Let’s say you want to play an F Major chord, but you don’t want to play the most common one, which is the one where you have to barre the 1st fret.

You could take the C Major shape (refer to the diagram in the previous section) and move it up in a way in which the root notes in it are F, instead of C.

You have to move the entire shape – this means that the strings that were open in C Major now need to be played with your index finger similarly to a barre chord. 

Your root note is located on the 5th and 2nd strings, so start by targeting those first, and place your remaining fingers according to the C Major shape.

Here’s what that would look like:

The numbers on the notes correspond to the fingers you use for each fret.

1 – Index finger;

2 – Middle finger;

3 – Ring finger;

4 – Pinky finger.

A Major Shape

This shape is one of the most popular ones. You might be playing it regularly without even noticing that it also belongs to the CAGED System.

For example, if you play a B Major chord with your index finger on the 2nd fret of the A string, and your other 3 fingers on the 4th fret of the following strings, you’re playing the A Major shape 2 frets higher.

Keep in mind that your root note in this shape will always be on the 5th and 2nd strings.

First, take a look at the A Major shape that was shown above, and then compare it to this B Major chord shape:

Barring the second fret is not mandatory, but this way you are really moving all of the A Major chord shape two frets higher. 

As you know, each fret equals one semitone, and B is two semitones away from A.

G Major Shape

Out of all the CAGED shapes there are, the G Major shape is one of the hardest to transpose entirely, since the resulting fingering can be a bit awkward to play.

It is very common for players to play it on sets of 3 or 4 strings, such as the major triad you get on the low E, A and D strings, or the high E, B, G and D strings together.

It is not necessary to use the whole shape; you can pick out a combination of notes that suits a certain situation the best. 

Let’s assume that we want to play C Major, but using this CAGED shape. 

In G Major, your tonic appears on the 6th and 1st strings, on the 3rd fret. 

If you look for C on those strings, you’ll find it on the 8th fret.

All you have to do then is move the entire shape so that the fingers that were playing G are now playing C.

Check the diagram below for clarification:

E Major Shape

Alongside the A Major shape, E Major is definitely one of the most popular CAGED shapes there is, and it’s one that you’ve most likely used several times before.

When new players learn how to play F Major on the guitar, they are really only taking the E Major chord they’ve learned, and moving it up one fret.

Your root note is also on the 6th string, which makes it easy to move this shape around the neck, especially if you know the notes well enough on this string.

Let’s say that you’d like to play Bb Major with this shape. 

Use your index finger to barre the 6th fret (Bb can be found on the 6th fret of the 6th string), and then place your other fingers according to the E Major open chord shape, just like this:

D Major Shape

The last shape we’re checking out is the D Major shape, and just like G Major, it’s definitely one that players split when playing chords.

Generally, people only use the triad that is found on the 3 thinnest strings (high E, B and G).

Let’s see how we would play E Major using this shape. 

The root note here is found on the 4th and on the 2nd strings. It might be easier to find it through the 2nd string, though.

The reason why most people leave out the 4th string is because the finger position is a bit uncomfortable to play. 

Also, when doing this, you can just keep playing this shape exactly as you do when you’re playing D Major in its open shape. 

Just make sure to mute the other strings so you don’t have any unwanted notes in your chord!

Connecting the CAGED System shapes

After understanding how these shapes are formed and how they can be moved around the guitar’s neck, you have to work on connecting them.

Fortunately, the name itself already tells you how the shapes connect – it’s in the same order as they appear in the name.

The following diagram illustrates the entire fretboard, and the C Major chord played using all 5 CAGED shapes.

Notice how it starts with C, then A, then G, and so on.

If it seems a bit confusing at first, go back and check the individual diagrams that were shown previously on this guide.

Also, notice how all shapes share a few notes! These regions will be useful when you want to move through the neck and need to be aware of the shape you’re playing in.

A great exercise to start getting comfortable with these shapes would be to pick out a random chord, for example F Major, and then try to find it in all the CAGED positions.

Do this for every major chord and after a few weeks of practice you should be finding them almost instantly!

This skill will undoubtedly take your playing to the next level.

Relating CAGED chord shapes with their corresponding scale patterns

One of the biggest advantages of studying the guitar’s fretboard through this method is the fact that you’re not learning about chords exclusively.

In fact, each of these shapes (or enclosures/boxes) can also be matched with their own unique scale patterns, and within those scales, you can also find arpeggio patterns.

Taking this into account, studying this system is an immensely complete and foolproof method of getting to know the guitar’s fretboard in detail.

Since we’ve been using C Major as an example, let’s take a look at each of our 5 CAGED shapes, but now, with all the notes that belong to the C Major scale (C, D, E, F, G, A, B), instead of focusing only on the chord notes and their shapes.

C Major Shape

Even though we are in C Major, you should practice each of these enclosures while covering all the notes, since you’re not going to start your musical ideas with the root note every time.

Just a quick recap: even though the following diagrams will have note names instead of scale degrees, you should view them as degrees.

This means that in C Major, instead of thinking “C, D, E, F, G, A, B”; you should think “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7”. 

This way, you’re saving time and effort. While there aren’t any sharps or flats in this key, doing the same in the key of F Major would be much trickier.

By using the number system instead, you’ll absorb this content much faster and it will be much easier to apply it in all keys. 

In the key of C Major, this enclosure is found between the open strings and the 3rd fret.

Your root note appears twice, in the 5th and in the 2nd string.

Here’s the same pattern in tablature to help you practice it:

A Major Shape

The scale pattern shaped after the A Major open chord shape is found between the 2nd and 6th frets.

The root note appears in the 5th and 3rd strings.

You’ll find the corresponding tab below:

G Major Shape

The next enclosure is located between the 4th and 8th frets.

The root note of the key appears three times in this enclosure – in the 6th, 3rd and 1st strings.

Check below for the tablature of this enclosure:

E Major Shape

The pattern found within the E Major enclosure is located between the 7th and 10th frets.

The root note comes up three times – in the 6th, 4th and 1st strings.

And here is the same enclosure in tablature:

D Major Shape

Our final enclosure can be found between the 9th and 13th frets, if you’re playing in the key of C Major.

The root note can be found on the 4th and 2nd strings.

Lastly, here’s a tab of this enclosure to help you learn it:

Start by practicing each of these enclosures individually at a slow tempo (about 60bpm), and stick to the key of C Major first.

Then, start trying to find other major chords throughout the neck using your knowledge of the patterns.

Keep track of the location of the root note on each one, as this will help you find all patterns faster.

Conclusion

The idea of memorizing the guitar’s fretboard can seem extremely challenging at first if you’re not prepared with a well-structured plan.

Fortunately, studying the CAGED System properly can kick start your learning, and avoid having you feeling overwhelmed most of the time. It is a task that will always take some time and effort, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t strategies to make it easier for you.

Once you are well familiarized with all the 5 shapes, the location of the root notes, as well as the rest of the chord tones, you will be navigating the fretboard like a real pro!

Andrew Bell

I don't think I'll ever stick to one instrument - but the great thing about life is you don't have to.

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