Un-CAGED

We're going to take a little side-tour away from our look at arpeggios and chords to review the "CAGED system". If you've heard of this and wondered what the heck it's all about, or are looking for a way to make sense of the fretboard this approach is worth looking at.

First, let me put your mind at ease and explain that the CAGED system is really simple. It's not some major philosophy you have to commit to complete with a change in attire and learning a new language. The CAGED system is a very simple nomenclature built on those "cowboy chords" most of learned when we first started playing.

Cowboy Chords

For most of us, when we first learned guitar we learned these major chord shapes:

Yee Haw! Cowboy Chords!

These chords shapes don't just have to live in the open position. You can play them anywhere on the neck (some more easily than others.) So let's start with the open C chord in the open position:

If we take the open A chord shape, but move it up to the third fret, we get C barre-chord.

Now take the open G shape and play it at the fifth position. This one might be a stretch for your fingers, so don't feel too bad if you can't play the whole shape. The important thing is to see where the shape goes on the neck. See how the highest notes of the A shape are also part of the G shape?

Let's keep going. Now take the E shape and play it as a barre-chord at the eighth fret:

Finally, take the D shape and play it at the tenth fret (this one is tricky too):

If you lay all five shapes out in order on the neck, it looks like this:

Interlocking Chord Shapes

The key thing to understand here is how those familiar old "cowboy chord" shapes can be re-used in different places on the neck and the relationships between each shape.

The C-A-G-E-D acronym is just a handy way to help you remember the order of the shapes. The trick is not confusing the "G chord shape" with an actual G chord. Yes, you can play the "G chord shape" in the open position and it happens to be a G chord. Or you can play it at the fifth fret and it becomes a "C" chord.

We could just as easily give each of these chords shapes names like "apple", "banana", "guava", etc. But the idea behind using the letter names is that your brain is already hard-wired to see this:

open G chord

when we say "G".

Fragments and Chunking

Once you get the basic order and spacing of the chord shapes down, start looking for fragments of these shapes. For example, it can be hard to fret all the notes of a G shape played as a C chord:

C chord, G shape

But you could probably play either of these "fragments" of that chord shape:

Another example is the D shape, which can be kind of tricky to play:

You can bust this up into several different fragments that are much easier to play:

This is such a key thing to understand: learn the shapes and orders, even if you can't fret every note at once.

Launching Pad

The other benefit of the CAGED system is that you can use it for more than just playing major chords. Those basic chord shapes can be extended into arpeggios pretty easily:

It's not hard to see the underlying chords shapes in these arpeggio shapes. We can take it a step further and overlay entire major scales over these:

Once you start seeing how the various chord, arpeggio and scale patterns interlock with each other, you start to get a much more comprehensive look at the neck.

Even if you aren't dealing with major chords, the CAGED system is still a good point of reference. We can covert those shapes into minor chord shapes pretty easily and the relationships are pretty much the same as the major chords:

Now, all of these aren't necessarily easy to play as entire chord shapes, but as a tool for getting around the fretboard they're invaluable.

Returning To Our Regularly-Scheduled Programming

We're going to turn back to arpeggios and chords. I wanted to cover the CAGED system because I'm going to start referring to it in future lessons. Hopefully this system makes sense and is valuable to you. If not, you should still get a lot out of future lessons even without mastering CAGED.

Until next time, rock on!