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Players who first learn about the CAGED System often wonder how to use it. The immediate thought is that it will help find new positions for the same chord. That is certainly true. You can quickly recognize the two main barre forms — E and A — and, if your hands are able, you can also use the other three shapes as barre chords. What doesn't immediately spring to mind is that you can use fragments, really any little cluster of notes, from that template to voice that chord. All the inversions are embedded in the template, so it comes in very handy when looking for small, compact, voicing for rhythm parts. Even less obvious is how handy it becomes when improvising. Improvisation is not something a beginner is very interested in — beginners want to be shown and told what to play, not invent for themselves — but before long you will be wondering how some players can ad lib and make their parts up on the fly. Knowing the CAGED template like the back of your hand is the quickest way to get to that point. Scales and modes are important, but knowing your chords is far more useful, because melody loves chord tones. If you analyze those great melodic guitar solos that stick in the brain forever, you will find that they are mostly built around chord tones. That's what makes them sound so good, so right. When you look at the fretboard and see the CAGED template for whatever chord is in play, you are looking at all the chord tones. Once you can see them, soloing becomes more of a 'join the dots' exercise than a mental "What mode can I use for this chord? Can I use the Pentatonic here? If so, which one? Major? Minor?"

I need not remind you that nothing about playing guitar is easy, but knowing this pattern for all 12 major chords is, by far, the best guitar knowledge you will ever learn.

The CAGED system

Chords - What they are and where they come from
7:42 min video.

The CAGED template is the most important pattern of all to commit to memory. It truly is the mother of all patterns for guitars in standard tuning, and any course teaching you how to use the whole fretboard will have to refer to it. It, in a very real sense, IS the way guitars work. When we start playing, we tend to stick pretty close to the nut, down in open-chord territory, and for good reason: that's where we can keep track of what we're playing by using open strings and relying on the proximity of the nut to count our way up the fretboard. Anything past the fifth fret become no-man's land where panic sets in. However, as we progress, we need to move up the fretboard in order to access those high notes. We can't let ourselves be restricted musically by the seemingly undecipherable layout of the fingerboard. There must be some logical way of dealing with the maze of strings and frets, we tell ourselves, and that way is the CAGED template.

In the text below, and especially the movie above, I will explain to you the way it works for the chord that gives this all important template its name: the C major chord. The word CAGED is merely an acronym for the 5 open chords we've already seen here, and it applies directly to the C chord, but it's essential to understand that this pattern applies to the other 11 major chords. It will look different, of course, because of the way the guitar works, but it is nevertheless the same pattern. Once you can 'see' the pattern for all 12 major chords, you will also (with lots of practice) be able to see all other flavors of chords too. How? well, all the other flavors — such as minor, 7th, minor7th, sus4, 9th, etc. — can be seen as 'altered majors'. The major scale, therefore chord, is the standard by which everything else is measured, so being able to see it there is the key to seeing everything else.


The anatomy of a C chord

It takes quite a long time for us guitarists to see chords for what they really are: a batch of specific notes chosen from the scale. We tend to see chords as compact groupings of notes in familiar patterns but that's not really the full picture. Because chords are just a selection of notes, and notes repeat themselves all over the fretboard, then it follows that chords also repeat themselves all over the fretboard. They do that in a very specific way, and that's what this lesson is all about.

Lets look at a C major chord. C is always a good example because the key of C uses all natural notes, so there are no pesky # or b signs to muddle the brain.

The C chord is the result of selecting the 1st, 3rd and 5th notes of the C scale. The scale is C D E F G A B, so those three notes are C, E and G. Play them together, and you've played a C major chord.

If you mark all the C, E and G notes on a guitar fretboard, this is what you get: 


... which looks like this as dots.


This is the pattern made by all the chord tones of C. This pattern is referred to as the CAGED pattern because it consists of all the open chord shapes -- the C shape, the A shape, the G shape, the E shape and the D shape — strung end to end. Here they are below. I used the word "form" instead of shape. Same thing, in this case. You should be able to see each of these as open chords moved up the fretboard and barred. Even if you never use some of these AS chords, it's important that you know where those moveable shapes are for whatever chord.

I'll use the C major scale because there are no sharp or flat notes in it and it's less confusing to look at, but this simple rule applies to all 12 major scales.



They then start repeating past the 12th fret, one octave above:


Here they are again:

From left to right, you can see the green square contains a good old C chord; the lilac square contains the barred A shaped version; the blue square is the G shaped C chord, not one you'd use very often; the orange square contains the barred E form version of C major; the red box contains the D shaped version, and then we're back to a C shape and octave up. Notice how the boxes overlap, how all the shapes share notes.

THAT's a C chord. That whole fretboard, as depicted above is a C major chord, or I guess I should say a 'potential' C chord. It's also potential melody and harmony, since both use the same notes as the chord.

And how is this helpful, you may ask? Well, if you want to have complete freedom on the guitar, you have to be able to use every part of the fretboard; there should be no grey areas, no off-limit places, no scary bits. When I started playing, anything past the first 4 or 5 frets was no-go-zone. Way too scary to venture up there ... I marveled at anyone who could go playing way up there without a net below. What I didn't realize was that they were not measuring everything from the nut up, as I was. For me, way back then, the nut was my zero mark ... my point of reference. I was counting up from there to keep track of what I was playing, to remember where notes were. It was when I decided to let music herself show me the way, not that physical place where the strings ended, that all of a sudden I began to see the light, and I began to realize what those fret markers are good for.

The movie shows me playing through all those CAGED pattern notes. These are all 1-3-5's of a C chord, and it sounds like an opera singer warming up. If you want to practice this (which would be a GREAT thing to practice), just play all the notes in the graphics above.