In this lesson, we’re going to look at something called the CAGED system. The CAGED system is a great way of learning scales and arpeggios in different positions across the fretboard. It is used extensively on this site, even though it is rarely actually referred to as the ‘CAGED system’.
What Is The CAGED System?
In a nutshell, the CAGED system represents a system for learning one scale or arpeggio in five different positions on the fretboard. The idea is that each letter of ‘CAGED’ represents a different position on the fretboard. There’s one for ‘C’, one for ‘A’, one for ‘G’ and so on.
The reason why the letters C-A-G-E-D are used is because they originate from chords in the open position. Effectively, when we play five scales using the CAGED system, we play one scale based on the ‘C’ chord, one scale based on the ‘A’ chord and so on.
Right now you’re probably thinking, ‘Ok, so when we use the CAGED system, we’re kind of changing keys and stuff?’ No, not at all!
To best illustrate how this works. Let’s look at the five chords in question – C, A, G, E and D.
These five shapes are the shapes that the CAGED system is based on. The only problem is that all we have at the moment is five shapes that effectively represent five different keys. The whole point of the CAGED system is that we want to be able to play one key in five different positions.
The above five shapes are really just the starting point. It starts to make sense when we arrange the shapes so that they are all in the one key. Let’s do that now. Let’s place the five shapes across the fretboard so that each of them effectively outlines a C major chord. As you probably already know, open chords aren’t technically moveable chords, so what we’re going to do is ignore the open notes, and just focus on the fingered notes. We will move the shapes so that each of the notes being played are only from the C chord.
The C major chord contains the following notes:
C – E – G
Observe the following diagram:
The names of each note have been included to demonstrate that we are applying each shape to the C major chord. You should be able to see that each of the five original shapes is still there, but because we have arranged them so that each one is a C major chord, what happens is that they are spread over the fretboard. Each one is in a different position, so that the entire fretboard (over 1 octave) is covered.
That’s all the CAGED system really is – a way of playing the same thing in five different positions on the fretboard. Once you understand in a general sense what the CAGED system is, you can actually forget about it. But not just yet. As I mentioned, we use it for learning scales and arpeggios in five different positions. So let’s do an example.
C Major Scale Using CAGED
We’re going to look at the 5 different positions of the C Major scale using the CAGED system. We are going to use scale diagrams. If you’re not sure how to interpret scale diagrams, you will need to read the lesson – How to Read Scale Diagrams.
C Major Scale Containing the ‘A Shape’
C Major Scale Containing the ‘G Shape’
C Major Scale Containing the ‘E Shape’
C Major Scale Containing the ‘D Shape’
C Major Scale Containing the ‘C Shape’
As you should be able to see, inside each scale contains one of the ‘C-A-G-E-D’ chord shapes that we looked at before. Compare each scale to the fretboard picture above that contains the five chords. Each scale also has its respective chord shape outlined using the same colour as the colour it appears with on the fretboard picture (just to make it more obvious).
The whole CAGED concept is something that it understood better visually, rather than theoretically. So if you find it confusing, keep studying the pictures.
CAGED Is Actually Just A Circle
As you may have noticed, in the key of C, using the scale diagrams that we did, we started with the ‘A shape’ of CAGED. In effect, instead of using ‘C-A-G-E-D’, we used ‘A-G-E-D-C’.
This is because if we always start with the lowest shape (fret-wise), the shape that we start with will change, depending on which key we are in. Once we’ve gone through the five shapes/positions, we can technically start again, up the octave, but we would simply be playing with the first shape again, 12 frets up from the original shape. Some guitars have 20 frets or more, so you can keep going higher and higher up the fretboard if you want, but in doing so you would be simply going through the cycle of shapes again (12 frets up from where you started).
If we played the same five major scale shapes, but in the key of F, the lowest possible shape that we could start with would be the ‘D shape’ of CAGED.
Let’s look at the five shapes in the key of F.
F Major Scale Containing the ‘D Shape’
F Major Scale Containing the ‘C Shape’
F Major Scale Containing the ‘A Shape’
F Major Scale Containing the ‘G Shape’
F Major Scale Containing the ‘E Shape’
By playing the five major scales in the key of F, the ‘D shape’ of CAGED becomes the lowest possible starting point. As should be pretty obvious by now, each scale shape we learn is ‘moveable’, which means that we can use the exact same five shapes for every key, but we need to change positions depending on the key.
Remember, C-A-G-E-D is a nice way of arranging letters, but it is really more of a cycle:
Since CAGED is actually a cycle, it can be helpful to arrange scales/arpeggios in a cycle format. This is how the scales are arranged in the free ebook ‘Guitar Scales Galore‘.
Once You Understand How CAGED Works, Forget About It
Now that you understand the CAGED system, you can forget about it. What? Why? Because the whole purpose of the CAGED system is basically to demonstrate the importance of five positions. By learning five different positions of any scale or arpeggio, you will cover the fretboard, which is the most important thing. The original CAGED example, using chords across the fretboard and then Major Scales is a great way of demonstrating how the five positions work in general, but thinking of each position as a letter of CAGED is unnecessary and can be confusing.
Also, while it is easy to demonstrate CAGED using major scales, it becomes more confusing when you start introducing other scales, where the original chord shapes don’t fit as nicely (if at all) inside. My point is this:
You will still in effect be using the ‘CAGED’ system, but the word CAGED will just become a general label that means 5 positions.
The Importance Of 5 Positions
Although this is not a lesson on applying scales/arpeggios, it’s worth talking a little bit about the importance of learning scales and arpeggios in five positions. Learning a scale or arpeggio in five positions allows you to play that scale/arpeggio across the entire fretboard. Why is this important? Because when we are using the material (for example when improvising), we want to be able to move around the fretboard as we wish. We want to have access to all that the fretboard has to offer, and not be stuck in one position.
The other reason is that we also want to have the ability to stay in one position and change keys. Let’s say we only knew one shape for the major scale. If we were playing in the key of C (for example) and then wanted to change to the key of F, we would have to effectively jump around, to accommodate the key change. By learning scales/arpeggios in five different positions, no matter where we are on the fretboard, we can play that scale/arpeggio in any key, without changing positions.
Where To From Here?
I could include more examples of scales and arpeggios using the CAGED system, but a better thing would be for you to check out the scales page and the arpeggios page of this website. All of the scales/arpeggios are written out in five positions (open positions are included as well, which aren’t technically part of the CAGED system).
Also, you can download the free ebook of Guitar Scales Galore, when you sign up for 20 Serious Lessons. The book contains 22 essential scales, each one written out in five different positions.