The CAGED system is a guitar fretboard visualization method used to understand chord shapes and scales across the neck. It uses five basic open chord shapes (C, A, G, E, D) which can be moved and adapted up and down the fretboard. It allows you to play chords and scales in different positions with the same familiar shapes.
Why is this important? Because at first glance, the fretboard can be a little intimidating and difficult to understand. Unlike a piano, in which the notes occur in a linear fashion, the fretboard is laid out like a grid. There’s no built-in guide on how to use it, navigate it, or understand the relationship between different notes and intervals.
But what if there was a way to understand the entire fretboard that would allow you to intuitively switch between different chord combinations and scales, improvise, and even solo at different places on the neck?
That’s exactly what the CAGED system is designed to do.
Below I’ll show you how the CAGED system works, the different chords involved, and the powerful things you can use it for once you’ve learned it.
If you don’t already know about the Nashville Number System for chords, I recommend starting with my guide to chord progressions – it’s going to be a big help for wrapping your head around today’s content.
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How Does the CAGED System Work?
In simple terms, the CAGED system is a way of navigating the guitar neck, logically mapping out chord shapes and their associated major scales.
It works by using some of the most common open chord shapes to break up the neck into five distinct sections, helping you visually connect the chord shapes and notes on the guitar.
Essentially, the CAGED system demystifies the puzzle- and grid-like nature of the neck and instead teaches you to see the fretboard as different but interconnected shapes.
Understanding the CAGED system will teach you two critical pieces of information:
- The knowledge of the five basic moveable chord and scale shapes (C, A, G, E, and D)
- The root note location for each of those five shapes
Chords of the CAGED System
As I mentioned above, the CAGED guitar system is built on five common open chord shapes:
These shapes are moveable, which means they can be played in other places up and down the fretboard. Most of the time, you do this by forming barre chords from the notes that fall on the same fret.
This means you turn them from an open chord into a closed chord – one in which every single note is fretted. Because the chord is closed, you can move it anywhere on the fretboard and have it still sound great.
To dip your toe into how it works, here’s a simple exercise you can play along with:
If you form an open C chord and move it up two frets, you get a D chord. But since the C form is no longer in an open position, you would need to turn it into a closed chord by barring the G and high E strings on the second fret.
You can do the same for the G, E, and D chords – simply form the open shape for each, move it down two frets, and barre the open strings to create a closed chord.
Identifying Chords With the Root Note
But how do you know that moving an open C chord up two frets becomes a D chord?
Because the root note of a chord names it. If you look at an open C chord, its root note – the 3rd fret of the A string – is C. When you move the open C form up two frets (and barre the G and high E strings) that root C note becomes a D note.
Remember how I said the root note names the chord? The root notes act as anchor points that allow you to quickly identify chord shapes across the neck. So now that you know the root note is D, you know that you’ve got a D chord.
In all of the chords of the CAGED system, the root note will always be the lowest fretted note of the chord.
If you’re still a bit unsure of how to name notes, then I highly recommend you read this article on guitar notes (the musical alphabet).
Some of these closed shapes – I’m looking at you G chord – might be a bit difficult to pull off, especially as you use different finger positioning to the open shapes. But understanding the CAGED system is all about practice, perseverance, and trusting the process.
Scale Patterns of the CAGED System
Now that we’ve spoken about chords let’s talk about scales.
Just as the chords in the CAGED system are moveable, so are the major scale patterns associated with each one.
And just as each chord shape has a root, each scale shape has a root too.
This means that once you know the scale pattern and its associated root note, you can then move that scale pattern anywhere on the neck.
If you refer to the root note of the scale pattern, you can play a scale in any key.
Let’s use the example of the C scale shape played on the 5th fret.
The root note (the lowest fretted note) is a D (5th fret on the A string).
Using the scale shape in this position, you are now playing a D major scale.
To play an E major scale, simply move your hand from the 5th fret up to the 7th fret. Your root note is now E (7th fret of the A string).
Connecting the CAGED Chord and Scale Shapes
Now that we know about moveable chords and scale shapes, we can apply that same concept to a single chord – and this is where the magic of the CAGED system really shines through.
It maps out the fretboard logically, because it allows you to play any given chord anywhere on the fretboard using the chord forms we discussed above.
Each chord shape then connects to the next, following the CAGED pattern:
- The C form connects to A form
- The A form connects to G form
- The G form connects to E form
- The E form connects to D form
- The D form connects to C form
- The pattern repeats
The beauty of this system is that even if you start with a G shape, it still follows the same pattern. So if you wanted to find the next G chord on your neck, you know that it’s an E shape, as that’s the following letter in the sequence of CAGED.
This also works for the chord’s corresponding scale shapes. If you’re on a C-shaped C chord, you can play that corresponding major scale. If you’re on an A-shaped C chord, you can play that corresponding major scale, and so on.
And just like the chord shapes above, they all follow the spelling of CAGED.
CAGED System Exercise
Now that you know the patterns of the CAGED system, here’s a simple but effective exercise you can practice to get a good feel for it:
- Form the shape (C, A, G, E, or D) and play it anywhere on the fretboard
- Play the chord shape’s associated scale shape
- Name the root note to name the chord and the scale
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