What is the CAGED System for Guitar and how do I use it?

The CAGED system is a method used by guitarists to map the guitar fretboard out in their heads. With this mental map established in their head, a guitarist can more easily find musical ideas on the guitar neck.

Introduction

guitar necks

The guitar has a problem. Unlike the piano where the notes are laid out logically in front of the player and even color-coded, finding the correct notes on the guitar requires more careful study. The progress of many beginner or intermediate players even is hindered by the fact that they cannot navigate the fretboard freely.

Some guitarists may know some areas of the fretboard or keys quite well, but professional guitarists must have the freedom to play all over the neck in any key. If you wish to attain this level of proficiency you also need a map to prevent you from getting lost.

The CAGED system has established itself as the most popular approach to fretboard mastery in recent years. Other approaches to solving this problem would be to learn all the major and minor scales in all twelve keys all over the neck or learning triads over the neck. These approaches are more work and less intuitive for many guitarists.

If you watch lessons on guitar online or buy instructional material, you will repeatedly hear CAGED being mentioned, but not really explained. Follow this article to understand what the CAGED system is and the steps needed to learn it.

What is caged?

The reason CAGED is so popular is that it is based on one of the first things a beginner guitarist may learn. Open chords. Open chords are called open chords because they use open strings. The open chords used in the CAGED system are:

C A G E D

And that is of course the reason that it is called the CAGED system! Here are the 5 open chords:

Each of the 5 open chords has a moveable equivalent. These moveable chord forms do not use any open strings, this is why they can be used all the way up the guitar neck, and of course why they are called moveable.

If I play the moveable form of the C shaped chord 2 frets hight up the neck, it is no longer a C chord, but it is a D chord, although the shape is similar to the open C chord. This is where the confusion starts, it is important to realize that it is a C shape, but the actual chord is D.

Another important point to understand here is that some of these moveable chord shapes are not easily playable. The idea is not to always play the chords but to use the shape as a mental signpost to find out where you are on the guitar fretboard.

How do I use CAGED?

Having read this explanation you still might not appreciate the full utility of the CAGED system, so let's take a look at how it is used in practice.

Suppose a guitarist is playing along with a band or a track and the next chord coming up is a D, he knows he wants to play the D major scale over that D chord. Currently, he is playing around the third fret of the guitar. So in his mind, he visualizes the answers to the following questions:

  1. What is the nearest D chord on the fretboard at the moment?
  2. How does the major scale fit over this chord shape?

Now after a bit of practice, this thought process happens really quickly and subconsciously. Nevertheless, with these two mental images, a guitarist can not only see the correct notes to play but also how the notes relate to the current chord (D).

How do I learn CAGED?

Here is a step by step guide to learning CAGED, if you can already do some of the steps, just skip to the next step:

  1. Learn the chords in their open position.
  2. Learn the moveable form of the chords.
  3. Relate the moveable form of the chords to scales or phrases that you know.
  4. Now learn the root notes of the moveable chords all over the neck.

It is a process that takes a while to learn, but it will really help you continue improving as a guitarist and give you an advantage over many guitarists who don’t make the extra effort to practice these things.

Let's take a look at each of these steps in detail:

1. Learn the chords in their open position

There are five chords to learn here. Make sure you know them all and can play each one of them with ease. Refer to the chord charts earlier in this article. It is also important to be aware of which notes are the root notes in the chord. Once you can visualize and play these chords you are ready to move onto the next step.

2. Learn the moveable form of the chords

Here it is important to realize that only the C, A, and E forms of the moveable chords are actually commonly played. The G and D forms are difficult to finger and only fragments of the chord are used. 

At this point it is worth noting how the chords link up. For instance, the 2nd and 3rd string of the D form are the same notes as the 2nd and 3rd string of the C form. Also, the 4th, 3rd and 2nd strings are shared between the A form and the G form.

Start with the open C chord and move up the neck to the using the moveable chord forms:

Now do the same with A, G, E and D

3. Relate the moveable form of the chords to scales or phrases that you know.

Let's take the example of the major pentatonic scale. To be able to play it all over the neck in any key we need to know how the different positions of the major pentatonic scale relate to the CAGED chords.

Position 1 is from the E chord shape

Position 2 is from the D chord shape

Position 3 is from the C chord shape

Position 4 is from the A chord shape

Position 5 is from the G chord shape

Whenever you learn a new scale or a new lick, always relate it to a CAGED chord form.

4. Learn the root notes of the chords all over the neck

The most common way to locate yourself on the fretboard is by using the root note. Often guitarists will be able to do this quite well for the moveable E chord with its root on the 6th string and the moveable A chord with its root on the 5th string. But to truly master the fretboard you need to locate all the CAGED shapes with ease.

If you need help with this check out this quiz: CAGED Quiz

This takes time, I suggest you commit to 10 minutes a day for a couple of months to commit this to memory, it will not be time wasted.

Summary

Learning the CAGED system is something that any guitarist should consider if they plan to progress beyond strumming chords in the open position. Once you have memorized the fretboard in this way and can relate all the material you learn to the 5 CAGED chords, then you will never get lost on the fretboard again!