Demystifying The CAGED System

This week I'm demystifying the CAGED system. It's not complicated but it often trips students because you can do a lot with it. I'll show you what the CAGED system is, how it works, and how to apply it to any chord, scale, or arpeggio that you can think of. If you feel like you can't use the whole fretboard, are stuck in scale boxes, or your chord vocabulary is limited, this is the lesson for you. This lesson pack is free, download it to get all the accompanying PDFs which will help you start mapping the CAGED system.

Demystifying the CAGED System

The CAGED system is a way of mapping chords, scales, and really any sound you can think of onto the fretboard. It is product of the way the guitar is tuned and is a beautiful coincidence of the instrument. The way to think about is as a map. A map describes the layout of an environment. So a map of your city describes the layout of your city. The CAGED system is a map that describes the layout of the guitars fretboard.

major pentatonic scale mapped using the caged system
The Major Pentatonic Scale Across The Fretboard

The guitar is heavily shape based instrument. The open chords you have learned so far are all shapes. So you have a C shape, an A shape, a G shape, a E shape and a D shape. There are five open major chords. Each one has it’s own unique shape. Knowing five chords is great but would be even better If you could play a chord anywhere on the guitars neck. For example to be able to play a C chord at the 8th fret. The CAGED system can help you figure out how to do just that.

CAGED Open Chord Shapes

If you can play a barre chord hopefully you understand that you can take these open chord shapes and move them up the fretboard. For example you can take an A shape, put a barre in front of it to act as the nut of the guitar, and then move that shape around. The CAGED system is based off this principle. That you can take any open chord shape and move it around the fretboard using a barre in place of the open strings.

A Shape Barre Chord

How to map the CAGED system

As you’ll see in a second the fact the system is called CAGED is not just for a catchy name. It is in fact the order the shapes lay themselves out on the fretboard. So if you play a C chord using a C shape, the next C chord shape up the fretboard is an A shape. After the A shape the next C chord shape is the G shape.

CAGED C Major Chord Across The Fretboard

The next C chord shape is the E shape which is then followed by the D shape. After you get to the D shape you go right back to the start again. The next C chord shape is the C shape with the C shape. This forms a cycle that runs in up the fretboard in the order C A G E D C A G E D. Spelling CAGED.

As I said earlier this works with all your open chords. So you could take your open G chord, this is a G shape. The next G chord shape is an E shape, this then followed by the D shape. Then the C shape, and finally the A shape. We then return to the G shape again. As you can see the order is always the same no matter where you start. C A G E D – CAGED

Landmarks

Having a map is great but if you have to go back to your start point every time to figure out where you in your map. It’s a bad map. Like maps in real life, the answer lies with landmarks. To navigate by map outdoors you use landmarks to orientate yourself and as reference points to navigate between. The CAGED system works in the same way.

The landmarks we are going to use are the notes on the fretboard. This means you really need to have all the notes on the lowest three strings memorised. Although not a very exciting task, it really will unlock the fretboard for you. Let me know in the comments if you like me make a lesson on how to do this.

This works well because between the nut and the 12th fret each note only appears once on each string. For example there is only one G on the E string, one G on the A string, and one G on the D string. Each one of these Gs is a landmark from which you can play a G chord.

Landmarks for the note C

You then need to match the root note in the shape to the land mark on the fretboard. Each open chord shape has a root note that it derives it’s name from. For example in an open C chord the root note of the chord sits under your third finger, on the A string at fret three. This is root note for the C shape, it is a C note.

If I move it around it won’t be a C note any more, but the root will stay in the same place. Likewise the root note for the E shape is the open low E string. The root note is under your first finger when you play this shape as a barre chord. Check the PDF in the lesson pack to find the root notes in each shape.

Let’s start mapping the CAGED shapes to the fretboard. We’ll do it with a C chord first. We’ll move up the fretboard towards the body until we find a C on either the low E, A or D string. The first C we encounter is at the third fret of the A string. This our first landmark.

From this landmark I can build a C chord moving towards the headstock, this is ends up being the C shape. Or I can build a C chord moving towards the body, this ends up being is the A shape. From this landmark on the A string I can build two shapes. A C shape in the direction of the headstock, and an A shape in the direction of the body.

C shape in orange/A shape in blue/Landmark in red

Let’s move further up the fretboard to find our next landmark. The next C is at fret 8 on the low E string. From this landmark I can build a C chord towards the headstock, this ends up being the G shape because it’s the next letter in the word CAGED. Or I can build a chord moving towards the body, this is ends up being the E shape. Any chord built from a landmark on the E string is a G shape in the direction of the headstock, and an E shape in the direction of the body.

G shape in orange/E shape in blue/Landmark in red

This leaves us with only D shape, conveniently the D shape is rooted on the D string. So you need to find C on the D string to act as your landmark. This is at fret 10. You can then build your D shaped C chord moving in the direction of the body. The E shape can be built from this landmark towards the headstock. But I find it easier to remember the E shape by rooting it’s landmark on the low E string.

D shape in orange/E shape in blue/Landmark in red

Hopefully you can see that every landmark has a shape that can be built towards the headstock, and a shape that be built towards the body. The order of these shapes is always C A G E D. This means that the C and A shapes are always neighbours on A string. G and E are always neighbours on the E string. And the E and D shapes are always neighbours on the D string.

This works for every open chord. So you could do it with a G chord. The first G note to act as a landmark is at fret three on the low E string. From this land mark you can build a G shape towards the headstock, or an E shape towards the body. The next G landmark is on the D string at fret five.

From here you can build an E shape towards the headstock or a D shape towards the body. And our final G landmark is at fret ten on the A string. From here you can build a C shape towards the headstock, or A shape towards the body. The pattern the shapes appear in is always the same. All that changes is the landmark.

Applications

Chords

Lets talk about applications. You can now play major chords from any note on the fretboard. But you can also do this with minor chords. There are five open minor chord shapes (Cm, Am, Gm, Em, Dm), two of them are hard to play but the principle still applies. Pick a landmark on the A string, you get a C minor shape towards the headstock, and an A minor shape towards the body.

Pick a landmark on the low E string and you’ll get a G minor shape towards the headstock and and a E minor shape towards the body. Choose a landmark on the D string and you’ll get an E minor shape towards the headstock, and a D minor shape towards the body.

Five shapes, and as long as you know where the root note of the shape is, and where the note on the fretboard is, you can play any chord, anywhere. This principle will work for any chord quality, think of the landmark, then the direction will tell you the shape you need.

For example lets say you wanted to play E7 somewhere new. There’s an E on the A string at fret seven. Say you want to move towards the headstock, This means you should use a C shape. You then just need to modify that shape to become a dominant 7th chord. So you should use a C7 shape. I Now you have E7 at the 7th fret using a C shape.

Minor Pentatonic Scales

Now that you understand how the CAGED system maps out chords. Let’s look at how it maps out the pentatonic scales. If you jump up to the 5th fret on the low E string, you can build an Am chord, using an Em shape towards the body.

From this same landmark note you can build a minor pentatonic scale moving in the same direction. If you overlap the notes in the minor pentatonic scale with the notes in the chord you should see that the minor pentatonic scale contains all the notes from the chord. This minor pentatonic shape overlaps an Em chord shape, so I would call it the Em shape.

Em shape for the minor pentatonic scale – The Em chord shape is highlighted in green

This phenomena is true for all five of the CAGED shapes. Every CAGED scale shape has a one of the five open position chord shapes contained within it. You can then name the scale shape based on the underlying chord shape.

For example if you take the same landmark and build a minor chord moving towards the headstock (the G minor shape), you will also find you can build a minor pentatonic scale moving in the same direction. This produces the Gm shape for the minor pentatonic scale. When you play the scale shape you should start from the landmark. This is the root note of the scale and will help you associate the underlying shape with it’s root note. This is essential for when you want to start moving between these shapes on the fly.

Gm shape for the minor pentatonic scale – The Gm chord shape is highlighted in green

Major Pentatonic Scales

You can do the same trick for the major pentatonic scale shapes. Going from the same landmark again I can build a major chord moving towards the body. This is the E shape. I can then build a major pentatonic scale from the same landmark, moving in the same direction. This is the E shape of the major pentatonic scale. Overlapping the chord shape and the scale shape you can see that scale contains all the notes from the chord.

G major pentatonic scale

Moving from the same landmark towards the headstock, you can create a major chord using the G shape. There is also the major pentatonic scale in it’s G shape moving in the same direction. Over lapping the chords with the scale you should see that this major pentatonic scale shape contains the same notes as the G shape chord.

G shape of the major pentatonic scale – The G chord shape is highlighted in green

You might also notice that this shape looks exactly the same as the Em shape of the minor pentatonic scale, just shuffled back three frets. Although the scales look the same physically it’s important not to conflate them as the same thing.

Firstly the roots are in different locations. In the Em shape of the minor pentatonic scale the root is under your first finger. In the G shape of the major pentatonic scale the root is under your little finger. When you improvise you are going to want to know where these root notes are in each shape. This will help you make better note choices and help you when navigating the fretboard better. The root notes will act as landmarks against which you can reference your position. If you ignore the root notes you will confuse your shapes and this will make improvisation much more difficult.

Em shape of the minor pentatonic scale
G shape of the major pentatonic scale

Every major pentatonic shape has a minor pentatonic counterpart that uses the same CAGED shape. This is because every major scale has a relative minor scale that contains the same notes. The differences between the shapes lie in where the root not is. I think about it this way. I only need to know five shapes to play both the major and minor pentatonic scales. However I need to know where the root notes are in both the major and minor shapes.

Therefore despite the overlap between shapes I have them memorised as separate entities. The Em shape of the minor pentatonic scale looks like this, with it’s root under my first finger.

Mapping arpeggios, scales, and other shapes

Whether you want to map a new scale, arpeggio or chord to the fretboard, the CAGED system will help you facilitate it. Here’s an example of how to do using a major 7 arpeggio

  1. Pick a key, I like A as it’s give me lots of room to work with.
  2. Locate your landmark on the E string
  3. Map the shape from the landmark towards the body
  4. Spot how the underlying E shape maps to the arpeggio
  5. Repeat this from the same landmark moving towards the headstock, notice how the G shape maps to the arpeggio
  6. Repeat this for the landmarks on the A and the D string.

As you do this you can augment your memorisation by associating each shape with the following.

  1. Where the shape is rooted, be that the E, A or D string. This is the landmark.
  2. The direction the shape moves in relative to it’s landmark. Body or headstock
  3. The finger that takes control of the landmark
  4. The underlying open chord shape that the name is derived from.

Exercise

Here’s a great exercise for developing your fretboard map. We’re going to use the CAGED system to map out the major chord shapes. Do this exercise in the key of C first, then repeat it with other keys to consolidate your understanding.

  1. Find C on the low E, A and D strings
  2. From the C on the A string play a C chord in the direction of the headstock, then a C chord in the direction of the body
  3. From the C on the low E string play a C chord in the direction of the headstock, then a C chord in the direction of the body
  4. From the C on the D string play a C chord in the direction of the headstock, then a C chord in the direction of the body
  5. Repeat this process, working your way around the fretboard, moving from one C to another. Play both chord shapes on each landmark.

Putting It Together

This is the CAGED system in action, start small by mapping your major chords, after that try minor chords, then you can move onto scales, arpeggios and more as you become more capable. Remember that in some sense you are acting as a cartographer. It takes a long long time to create a map, so be patient. Work on one neighbourhood at a time and before long you will start to see how all these shapes overlap with one another. If you want more exercises you can use to start building your CAGED map check out the lesson pack in the description.

Lesson Pack

Notes on the backing tracks

Key: E Minor

Form: A, B, C, A, B, C, B, C, C

A section: Em7 → Bm7 → Am7 → Am7 → Bm7 → Em7 → Bm7 → Am7 → Am7 → Am11

B section : Am7 → Bm7 → Am7 → Bm7

C section: Em7 → Bm7 → Cmaj7 → Bm7

Backing Track

Lesson Pack

The following exercises all have TAB and PDF to help guide you through them. Make sure you download the lesson pack to get a copy of the examples.

Mapping Major Chords

Start developing your fretboard map by using the CAGED system to map out the major chord shapes. Do this exercise in the key of C first, then repeat it with other keys to consolidate your understanding.

  1. Find C on the low E, A and D strings
  2. From the C on the A string play a C chord in the direction of the headstock, then a C chord in the direction of the body
  3. From the C on the low E string play a C chord in the direction of the headstock, then a C chord in the direction of the body
  4. From the C on the D string play a C chord in the direction of the headstock, then a C chord in the direction of the body
  5. Repeat this process, working your way around the fretboard, moving from one C to another. Play both chord shapes on each landmark.

Mapping Minor Chords

Repeat the exercise for major chords using minor chords instead. You can find the minor chord shapes in the lesson pack download. Since the Cm and Gm shapes are very challenging it is ok to play just the lowest four notes of these chords. The minor CAGED shape diagrams are in the download.

Mapping the minor pentatonic scale

If you can comfortably find all the major and minor chord shapes in a few keys you are ready to try mapping the pentatonic scales. I recommend students start with the minor pentatonic scale as they are usually more familiar with it. As before start with one key and then repeat these exercises with other keys to consolidate your understanding. I like to do this in the key of A, make sure you start and end on the root note of the shape. Initially you should use the accompanying PDF of minor pentatonic shapes to help you learn how to play each shape.

Memorising the shapes

  1. Find A on the low E string
  2. Memorise the Em shape from this landmark
  3. Memorise the Gm shape from this landmark
  4. Find A on the A string (not the open string)
  5. Memorise the Am shape from this landmark
  6. Memorise the Cm shape from this landmark
  7. Find A on the D string
  8. Memorise the Cm shape from this landmark

Once you have memorised each shape and it’s associated landmark you can start to become more familiar with each shape from an improvisational perspective. Try the following exercises. Don’t try to switch shapes yet, we’ll cover that in the next set of exercises.

  1. Improvise a solo with the Em shape
  2. Improvise a solo with the Gm shape
  3. Improvise a solo with the Am shape
  4. Improvise a solo with the Cm shape
  5. Improvise a solo with the Dm shape
  6. Take a lick you know and try find a way to play it in all five shapes

Repeat these exercises in a few keys to consolidate your understanding.

Moving between scale shapes

If you can improvise in each shape without too much difficulty you can then try connecting shapes together. We’ll start by connecting the shapes that neighbour on the same landmark. Later we’ll move onto connecting the whole CAGED network. See the TAB in the download for examples what this will look like.

Connecting the Em and Gm shapes who share their landmark on the low E string

  1. Play up one shape, then slide along the high e string into the next shape, descend down the new shape. Practice this starting on both the Em the Gm shape
  2. Repeat the above exercise slide on the b string, continue ascending the new scale as far as you can go, then descend down it
  3. Repeat exercise 2 for the G, D, A and low E strings
  4. Improvise with both shapes, slide between the scales when you feel like it.

Repeat the above exercises to connect the Am and Cm shapes, and the Em and Dm shapes.

Repeat the above exercises to connect the shapes that don’t have a common land mark. These are the Dm and Cm shapes, and the Am and Gm shapes.

Now you should have your CAGED network connected in pairs. You should now start trying to improvise, moving between the shapes when you feel like. If you get lost, stop playing, look for your nearest landmark, re-establish yourself there, then keep improvising.

Mapping other scales

You can repeat all the exercises from the minor pentatonic scale with any other scale to integrate it into your fretboard map. I have included diagrams for the major pentatonic scale in the download as this would be a sensible next choice for a student looking to take this further.

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