In this article, we are going to talk about a very famous guitar playing system called the CAGED system. We're going to discuss how the CAGED system for guitar works, what IS it, what are its uses, advantages and disadvantages.
Guitar is a wide instrument, on which is possible to hit the same note of the same octave in different points on the fretboard, potentially playing up to five octaves (from low open E to 24th fret E) and this leads us to an intricate world of scales and fingerings that are worth to memorize if we don’t want to stuck on the over-used pentatonic, which soon bore the listener and the player as well.
Apparently, it seems impossible to memorize all the scales that we need to use in order to give a bit of variety in our composition, and truly it is; however there are some systems out there created for keeping our fretboard under control without needing to memorize all the fingerings.
First of all, we need to understand where we are.
Octaves Around the Fretboard
If I ask you to play all the G or all the A# on your fretboard, can you do it quickly, without even thinking about it? Well, it’s rather an important and quite simple thing. Knowing where we are and where to find a note is important for every musician, especially for the ones playing a string instrument apparently without points of reference but the geometry, which helps us many times and in this case more than ever.
Choose a note on the neck and from it imagine to draw three equal triangles with just one shared vertex, where every vertex it’s the same note and where the corner of the first triangle it’s our starting note and the corner of the third triangle correspond with the twelfth fret or an octave above. This apparently tricky system will give you a geometrical access to all the positions of one chosen note all around the fretboard. Just pick a G on the third fret and draw it in your mind.
This system allows you to always clear the “you are here” in your mind.
Now that we know where we are, we can decide to play our chords accordingly, in different positions around the neck.
The CAGED System, What is it & How to Use it?
The CAGED is a system for building chords all around the fretboard and extrapolate from them arpeggios and fingerings. The name comes from the five main chords that portray the basic positions on which all of our guitar chords are based upon:
- Chord C
- Chord A
- Chord G
- Chord E
- Chord D
It’s just a word-game, the sequence of the chords is not important because it's a cycle, meaning when you reach the chord D which is the last chord in the CAGED system, after that, you go back to C chord and begin a new cycle. It could be also AGEDC, but it sounds too cacophonic, so let’s go back to CAGED.
Everything is built on major chords, always and only triads, but placed in different ways to fit the shape of the chord.
If we take, for example, the basic E chord position, we will have from down to up: I, V, I, III, V, I.
If we take a G chord we will have: I, III, V, I, V, I.
We switched just a few grades but the difference in the effect of the final chord is undeniable, and someone once said that the G chord is the “sweetest chord”, not because the frequency of the note is sweeter than the other, but due just to the disposition of the grades in the G chord.
Take this test: play a classic G chord and then a G chord with barre… you did it? Congratulation, you have just applied the CAGED system!
The CAGED system is just the transposition around the neck of the basic chords fingerings!
For example when we play an F chord we just transpose the E chord one semitone above, or when we play a B chord is just the shape of an A chord one tone above. The same thing it’s applicable in the other positions, but obviously, just as the E chord and A chord, we need to adjust our fingerings, cause one finger will act as a barre; in this way we will have all the chords that we want along the fretboard, with the intervals given by a certain fingering rather than another.
We already know, through the triangles exercise, the position of all the G around our guitar, and we can use this knowledge to build the G chord, starting with the first shape, then the second… and so on, in the sequence of GEDCA, and will always come out a Gmaj chord.
For getting a clearer idea, try to play the triads arpeggios in every position, let’s say everything in G, well remember the positions and tell me if they don’t match exactly like the chords from the CAGED.
Now just apply this triangles, chords and arpeggios starting from different notes, and create chords progressions with these new positions.
Is the CAGED System Rather GOOD or BAD for Your Guitar Playing?
That's an interesting question because considering how much popular the CAGED system is among guitar students and even tutors, we can easily come to the conclusion that it's a useful system made to get us into playing the guitar rather quickly and increase our fretboard knowledge and mastery.
But is that really so?
Do you think just because it can make our life easier playing the guitar, that makes it an all-around perfectly fine system to adopt without any further questions?
In this section, we're going to deal with the ADVANTAGES & DISADVANTAGES of the CAGED system, and you decide for yourself what is best for you.
The ADVANTAGES of the CAGED System
The CAGED system is a simple yet great way to visualize and remember chords and fingerings on your guitar, by dividing the fretboard in five boxes in which each box refers to a specific chord fingering.
With the CAGED system, just by knowing one single chord fingering, let’s say the E chord, you potentially know 22 chords, and if you take all the five chords, that is C, A, G, E, D, you potentially know 110 chords!
That said, the CAGED system is an easy way to memorize this load of information without struggling too much with it, and it could really help a beginner during that first step on the way to understand and get in touch with the guitar.
Take your time to learn the basic principles that link all these notes and chords, play them slowly and try to get the best sound out of it – when you play a chord you must clearly hear all the notes in it, without buzz or missing notes – in this way you can really jump to the next level of guitar playing.
The CAGED system can also help you explore the fretboard relatively fast and help you memorize all the keys on it since you will be playing all the major chords and their transpositions all over the fretboard.
Another advantage is that you'll be able to practice barre chords extensively since you'll be playing the same chord over and over again but on a different, higher position on the fretboard, always using your index finger as a barre.
The DISADVANTAGES of the CAGED System
The issue with the CAGED system lies in its name: it cages you, literally.
The CAGED system is only about major chords and major arpeggios, and in many cases the fingerings that result from it are uncomfortable to play with both the left and right hand and/or incomplete; there are hundreds of chords and arpeggios that aren’t provided by the CAGED, and in the same way most of the scales and modes are not taken into consideration.
Moreover, it limits your choice of notes by boxing it in presets in which there are few options to change it, and these changes are always setting up by the rules of the CAGED system.
Try to play a solo on the CAGED, and you will notice that you move just vertically, there are no diagonal or horizontal lines to make your playing fluent and effortless all along the neck – that movement that we all like to hear and also to see.
And also, playing with other musicians is not so compelling if you use just the CAGED to improvise, cause for a keyboard player the CAGED just makes no sense at all, and you’ll cage not only yourself but also the rest of the people that you’re playing with.
Therefore, your expression palette of sounds is restricted in five tiny boxes with no possibility of going beyond it unless you crash the entire cage and run from it!
Music is a form of art, and art is a form of expression; every art got its own rules and techniques, just as a painter study the complementary colors, we musicians study chords and scales.
But when we recognize that these academic rules are limiting our potential energy of expression we have to get over it – cause rules are meant to be broken; this doesn’t mean that every system or academic rule is useless, because, in fact, they are worth to study and understand in order to increase our vocabulary of techniques and at the same time gaining musical knowledge.
The thing is when someone gets stuck in these systems and rules, he/she starts to act like a programmed machine. I heard too many academic guitar players, and most of them sound all the same to me; technically they are superb: no buzzing notes, no notes skipping and always in time, as they got a tinkling metronome in their head. But they lack a fundamental quality: they play without emotions – or at least they fake it. The flatness of that sound, you can hear it. Playing with only the mind is similar to acting like a robot. An artist instead performs with three “H”s: Head, Heart, and Hands.
If you want to increase your vocabulary of sounds, I recommend you to learn first the songs that you like, and then go into the world of scales and modes, chords inversions and then all the wide harmony of music theory. But also remember that simplicity is precious, and you can write a wonderful song with just a progression of three chords played properly (remember the blues?).
Once a very talented guy said: “To play a wrong note is insignificant; to play without passion is inexcusable.”
This guy was Ludwig Van Beethoven.
Conclusion and Where to Go From Here?
The CAGED system is simply the transposition of the basic chords fingerings around the neck. Meaning, the C chord, for example, or G chord, you can play all these chords normally as you always do (as open chords), or you can “transposition” them to play them in a different position on the neck but still sound more or less the same.
Why is this important or useful? Well, you can, for example, arpeggiate one of the CAGED chords higher up on the neck rather on the original open-chord position, which will also allow you to play solos on the same key anywhere you want on the fretboard.
It can also be beneficial to beginners in a sense of allowing them to learn more chords in less time and explore the fretboard in a simpler, beginner-friendly way without the need to get into too many details of scales, modes, notes and music theory.
I wouldn't rely solely on the CAGED system to derive all my fretboard and chords knowledge from, because the CAGED system itself is restricted only to major chords and arpeggios, and it can be really damaging to your guitar learning and progress if you allow yourself to get used to only a limited set of rules, chords, and fingerings, because it will limit your imagination and will make it much harder for you to get out of the “box” and improvise on other scales and modes if you're only familiar with the CAGED chords fingerings and positions.
What Would I Suggest? …
What I would suggest instead is the following:
Get yourself a real, proven guitar training that will not only teach you the CAGED system and how to use it properly but will additionally give you ALL the necessary tools, information, exercises, directions. and guidance all from level zero to advanced in the fastest, most efficient way possible.
If you want to learn more all you have to do is click on the button below: