The CAGED chord system is the most popular teaching method for learning chords and scales for guitar. And rightly so. Go to any guitar school in the world and this is what you’ll be taught.
In this tutorial I’m going to give an overview of the CAGED system and show you a few workouts using the CAGED chords that are very good for understanding the fretboard how you can run a lot of chord changes with a minimal amount of movement.
I’m going to assume your at least familiar with how the CAGED system works. If your not here’s a very quick overview.
The system works on the premise that there are five basic chord shapes. These are the shapes open major chords played at the nut, in effect they consist of the notes from a bacic major triad (1-3-5). The open major chords at the nut are C, A, G, E and D. Hence the term CAGED! The shapes look like this. I’m sure they must look familiar as they are the first chords you will usually learn when you start to play. This is about as basic as you can get.
CAGED Major Shapes
The idea is that you can manipulate these five shapes to form any chord you want. Basically every chord you will ever play on the guitar can be traced back to one of these five shapes. To show a quick example, here are the five minor variations. This is done by dropping the major thirds one fret. I’ve identified these so you can see which note has moved.
CAGED Minor Shapes
Most of the shapes for the minor stay relatively untouched bar the C and G shapes which need to be slightly more modified to compensate for the open strings. The C and G shapes for the minor are not very ‘finger friendly’ and are usually broken down to form a simpler versions for playability using just the top or bottom half of the shape.
The beauty of this system is that knowing these ten basic shapes for major and minor you can now play any major or minor chord in any of the twelve keys simply by moving the shapes up and down the fretboard. This just requires you to ‘barre’ with your first finger to replace the nut. Hence the term ‘Barre chords’.
The Bigger Picture
Probably the most important thing to understand is that these five shapes are just pieces of a puzzle. When connected they form a larger picture of how chords work on the fretboard.
If I join all the CAGED shapes together using the C shape as a starting point at the nut, what I end up with is an overview of the C major triad (chord) over the whole fretboard. I’ve marked the root notes (C) in orange and the thirds in blue, the plain notes are the fifth. You’ll notice each shape has a unique root note octave pattern. This octave pattern is mirrored for each interval (just transposed). This octave shape is the 'master key' to understanding the fretboard. It's the single most important thing you will ever learn about the guitar neck.
C Major CAGED overview
When connected this octave pattern is a very useful guide to navigating the fretboard. Much better than fret markers!! When playing you should be able to visualize this pattern in relationship the not only the current key but also as the root note in relationship to the current chord your playing. Only then can you maximize the potential of the CAGED system. So memorize it!!
Basically using this master shape you can play a C major chord anywhere on the fretboard. Want to play a C# major chord, just move the whole shape up a fret and so on!! I like to visualize this shape as if it were on a conveyor belt. As you wind the belt the shape just moves up and down over the fretboard.
Just for refeference, here's the C Minor shapes over the neck.
C Minor CAGED overview
The XY Conundrum!
So here’s the next step. The guitar ascends in pitch on two axis. Up the fretboard and across the strings. This makes any stringed instrument kind of multi-dimensional and is completely different to Piano which is totally linear (up and down). This presents the guitarist with a choice. Do I go up, or across?
This entirely depends on how much you know. If you only know one chord shape, say the CAGED E shape you have no choice but to go up and down as the root note is taken from a particular string set (1st (E), 3rd (D) and 6th (E)).
If you know a CAGED E shape and a CAGED A shape then you have a choice in which direction you want to move in because the A shape uses another set of strings (2nd (A) and 4th (G)) for the root notes.
This change is obviously much more efficient than having to jump up and down the fretboard. This becomes even more apparent when the chords are separated by a wider interval, say E to D (b7).
Why move 10 frets (with just the E shape) when you can move no frets using a D shape!!
And here in is the power of the CAGED system. It allows us to play any chord change using another shape adjacent to the last chord we played, in any particular place on the fretboard we happen to be in.
Here’s a quick example. If I want to go from G to C I can pretty much do this however I want using this system. If I line up the stacked CAGED shapes for each chord you can see how this would work.
You’ll notice that because they are both major chords the shape is identical, it’s just been transposed (winding the conveyor belt!) to a new position on the neck to fit the chords root note position.
No matter where I am I always have a G and a C to hand, and can move between the two with minimal effort. Here’s an example of going between the two chords in a variety of ways.
Of course I don’t have to just go across. I can go in any direction I want. The permiations become even wider if you break the chords down into smaller chunks like three note triads. Try this by looking at the above diagram and playing just a root(orange), third(blue) and fifth(plain) from a random area for the G chord. Any combination will do. Then find a combination for C as close to the one from G as you can. Don't worry about keeping the root at the bottom, it can be the 3rd or 5th. You should barely even need to move your hand to find a new chord triad. This isn't just for these two triads either. Any triad, of any chord, for any key, in any direction (X or Y), both major and minor is always no more than one fret away. Fact!!
Workout - Playing Within a Scale Shape
So let’s take that idea and apply it to something a bit more advanced.
The idea is every CAGED chord sits inside a specific scale shape on the guitar. The point of this next exercise is to play a set of harmonized major CAGED 7th chords without leaving the scale shape of the starting CAGED chord. Let’s have a look.
Now there’s far too many chords and scales to cover in one tutorial so I’m only going to cover the major scale versions. However this idea is same for all chords and the scales they derive from. i.e Minor, Melodic Minor, Harmonic Minor etc.
When we harmonize the major scale using 1-3-5-7 we generate a series of Major 7th chords, like so...
There are four types of 7th chord generated. Major 7th, Minor 7th, Dominant 7th and Minor 7th b5. All these chord types have CAGED variations. First off are the Major 7th versions.
Now the Minor 7th…
and finally Minor 7th b5.
Using these CAGED voicings we can play all the chords of C major in a very confined space. Now 7th chords are widely used in most genres and are the first group of ‘extended’ chords you’ll probably learn. You can obviously play these chords in any key you like as all are pretty easy to voice.
The Scale Shapes
Each major CAGED chord shape fits into a unique position of the major scale on the neck. You can think of these as the CAGED major scale shapes. There are obviously five. The point of learning this scale system is it allows you to improvise easily over any chord as the scale is essentially surrounding that chord shape.
Let’s start with the C shape.
You can see how the chord fits inside this shape. If you we’re playing this chord it would be very easy to create melodic fills around this chord without moving your current position. This idea is used a lot in Jazz and is also the basis for the Hendrix rhythm/lead style you hear a lot. Think ‘Little Wing’.
Here’s the A shape.
Now if you only knew the C shape position of the Major scale and you were playing this chord shape you’d have to keep jumping back to the only shape you knew (C shape) which isn’t very efficient and is ultimately quite limiting. While all the while the major scale is hiding right underneath the chord!
Here’s the G shape.
The E shape…
It’s quite handy to know that in guitar terms the E Shape of any scale is regarded as ‘Position 1’. There is a lot of debate whether scales should be taught as positions or CAGED chord shapes as having a C Shaped F major scale can be a confusing naming convention. In reality the CAGED system should be call EDCAG as E is first position. But I guess it’s not as catchy!!!
Last up is the D shape.
Using our 7th CAGED shapes we should be able to ascend a harmonized major scale in 7th chords whilst remaining entirely inside the scale shape of the first CAGED chord voicing. Here’s the first example using the C Shape as a start. I’ve animated this into a movie so you can see it in action. Have a look.
You can see I pass through all the chords whilst remaining inside the scale shape. Hopefully this should help you visualize what we’re trying to achieve. Here’s the TAB.
This means I could play a song in C major in just one small part of the neck. I don’t have to leap about as all the chords are contained in one area. You need to do this for each CAGED starting shape.
Here is the TAB for the A Shape variations. I start with the A shaped Cmaj7 chord and keep all subsequent chord voicings within the A shaped major scale shape.
Now the G Shape version…
and the E Shape…
and finally the D Shape.
Once you’ve completed all the exercises you should firstly congratulate yourself and then repeat the exercises in all twelve keys!! I’m not joking either!!!
Each time transpose the shapes and try to call out the new chords as you play them. You may have to write them down. Ultimately this is a fantastic exercise to familiarize yourself with not only the scale shapes for particular CAGED chords but with the chord shapes themselves!! Good luck!!
Cycle of Fifths
This next workout actually combines the principle of the last example with the concept of all twelve keys. We’re going to use a ii-V-I chord progression and move it through all twelve keys using the cycle of fifths. What this means is that each ii-V-I is a fifth away from the previous one. If our starting key is C major the next ii-V-I will be in G then D then A and so on and so fourth! After twelve rounds we should return to our original key.
The ii-V-I is a very common chord progression. The numbers relate to the steps of the Major scale that the chords belong to. There are litterally thousands of song written using it. Using the ii-V-I with cycle of fifths is very common in Jazz improvization, and a very common and efficient way to practice playing in all twelve keys. You can see the cycle of fifths below. We're basically going to be making our way round this wheel.
The Cycle of Fifths
One twist!! We can only use a four fret span of the neck from the root note of our starting chord to play in all twelve keys!!! Scared? You will be!! I’m going to walk you through the first 3 keys keys of this workout. The full chart is included in a PDF in the downloads. You'll also find one for the Minor ii-V-I.
We start in C major. The chords for a ii-V-I in C are Dm7(ii), G7(V) and Cmaj7(I). The voicings for our ii-V-I are based are based around the E Shape major scale which would start with a root note on the 8th fret. This means that I can’t go below the 7th (the lowest position of the scale) fret or above the 11th fret (four frets above the 7th fret) for all following chords.
I've chosen to set this rule as it really forces you to find the closest voicings possible. This is in no way how you would play this sort of thing in the real world as some of the voicings aren't really smooth and rich enough, it's merely an exercise. So below is our E Shaped major scale.
You can see in the TAB below all our voicing for the C major ii-V-I fit into this shape.
A fifth away from C Major is G major, the key of our next ii-V-I. The closest possible major scale shape for G is the C Shapewhich is directly adjacent. We're going to base or new ii-V-I (Am7-D7-Gmaj7) inside this shape.
So here you can see the voicings for these chords.
So far so good!
Now we're going to travel into D Major. Now you can see the nearest shape for D is the G Shaped Major scale. Again this directly beside our last G Major scale. Getting the picture?
Our new chords of Em7-A7-Dmaj7 are now drawn from this major scale shape.
Hopefully your getting the idea of how this will carry on! The full TAB in the PDF will take you through the whole thing. There are also some MIDI files of the chart as well if you want to play along.
This is a fantastic workout for chords and a good study for the CAGED shapes, you'll find yourself playing in keys you didn't even know existed! This is however just the start!!
OK, so you got to the end of the chart! Now... We started this exercise with the E Shape, right? Now work out the whole thing again starting each time with a different CAGED shape. So the next one will start in C major using the D Shape Major scale. This will give you an entirely new set of voicings for the chart. This will take considerable brain power and persistence!!! Do this starting with all five CAGED shapes.
When you've completed that repeat the entire exercise for each of the remaining eleven keys!! So next time do it all again starting in C#. If you don't know your fretboard like the back of your hand after that you should try another instrument!! :)
So hopefully your brain hasn’t melted! These two workouts should keep you going for a while. The later is quite hard to get your head around but keep trying if your finding it difficult.
Understanding that the next chord is usually no more than a fret away is invaluable. It will make you a much more consistent rhythm guitar player. You’ll always find work as a rhythm player and chords are just as important to a practice schedule as lead.