As an aspiring guitar player, you may not have heard of the CAGED system. Some experts believe in it; some don’t.
Either way, you’re going to learn what the CAGED system is and how to use it, so you can decide if it’s a skill you’d like to pursue.
What Is the CAGED System?
The CAGED system is an acronym that gets its name from its basic premise. It stands for the five major chords that you use while playing the guitar:
These chords are the five basic open chord shapes used in standard guitar tuning. The goal of the CAGED system is to teach you how to play the same chords in different places on the fretboard, ultimately allowing you to navigate the fretboard smoothly.
Each position in this system essentially gives you a framework that lets you find your finger positioning at any place on the fretboard. As long as you know the shapes of these basic open chords and which fret to start on, you should be able to navigate easily.
Learning the Chords
Before you can truly learn and apply the CAGED system on the guitar, you must first know these five basic chords: C, A, G, E, and D. These are very common chords used to play songs on guitar, so it’s essential to learn them regardless of whether you apply the CAGED system or not.
If you need a refresher on playing each of these chords, check out the articles linked to above.
In addition to knowing these chords, you will also have to know the notes on the fretboard. This step can seem a bit overwhelming, as each string in each fret represents a different note. Using a basic diagram of the fretboard can help you through this learning process, and for now, you can reference a chart as you play.
Plotting the Chords
Once you know the shape of each of the five chords well, the next step is to begin plotting them on the fretboard. It’s important to remember that each of these chords naturally progresses in the CAGED order, regardless of which key you’re playing in.
For example, if you start in the key of C, the chord shapes will progress as C – A – G – E – D. However, if you begin in the key of D, the shapes will progress as D – C – A – G – E. The order remains the same, it’s just a matter of where you begin.
When it comes to plotting your chords, you must start by identifying the lowest root note of the chord shape you are working with. So, let’s say we are using the A shape to play a C chord. The lowest root note in the A chord is on the open 5th string.
To play the C chord using the A shape, we have to find the C note on the 5th strong of the fretboard. This is where a fretboard note diagram will come in handy.
The C note on the 5th string is on the 3rd fret. Now you can use the open A chord shape to play a C chord by starting on the 3rd fret of the 5th string. Form the A shape from there to play your C chord.
The CAGED system allows you to use this principle in any of the keys, meaning you can apply this same practice to play a C chord in the key of G, E, D, etc. Once you find the lowest root note of any of these keys, you must locate the C note on the appropriate string and use the corresponding chord shape.
The plotting process can be difficult to conceptualize and play out at first, but it becomes more apparent the more you follow the steps and practice it on your own.
Using the CAGED System in Other Keys
You may have noticed that while the CAGED system can help you learn to play in various keys, it leaves a few other keys out. The name of this system can be misleading in having you believe it only works for the C – A – G – E -D keys, but that’s not the case.
To demonstrate this, we’ll go through how to use the CAGED system for the key of F. This system will work for the key of F because the F barre chord uses the same shape as the E chord. So, all you have to do is follow the CAGED system starting with E.
You can now create chords in the key of F using the CAGED system.
Why Use the CAGED System?
Using the CAGED system can be a powerful way to learn how to play a wide range of chords in various keys. Becoming proficient in this system will also help you learn and remember the notes across the guitar fretboard. And if you’ve ever seen the fretboard notes diagram, you can see how this might seem like a large feat.
Some basic pros to using the CAGED system include the following:
- Chord movements
- Fretboard notes
Let’s look at these a little closer.
Due to the fact the CAGED system functions off of chord patterns, it offers a moveable system. Once you find the CAGED chords in any one position in any key, you can then use that position for every chord and every key.
This system makes it easier to learn chords and keys by memorizing various positions, rather than individually learning each chord in each key one by one. The system also contributes to muscle memory.
The CAGED system is also considered a simplified system. In general, music can be viewed as very complex or very simple, depending on how you choose to learn.
The CAGED system simplifies learning by categorizing sounds into shapes and patterns, which can be a more straightforward way of visualizing and learning for some individuals. Shapes and patterns also lend to our first point about movability.
If you know what key you’re playing in, all you need to know is your positions and patterns. When playing in a particular key, you don’t even need to know the note names as long as you have your shapes in order.
The CAGED system allows new players to begin to recognize standard chord movements. As long as two chords are a 5th apart, you can recognize the particular pattern and movement. Practicing your chord shapes helps you get used to the chord movements.
Learning Fretboard Notes
Many new and advanced guitar players alike will learn the notes of the E string and the A string because that’s where many barre chords are rooted. However, not many players move on to learn the remainder of the notes on the other strings.
Using the CAGED system can force you to learn the many other notes on the higher strings. The process will likely be a slow one, but the more you play and use the system, the more you will recognize the notes based on the lowest roots of the chords.
Disadvantages of the CAGED System
Of course, there are some downfalls to learning through the CAGED system as well, and it’s worth it to consider these cons. Some beginners may decide to learn to play using alternative methods due to these cons:
- Not learning note names
- Playing through entire chord shapes
- Confinement to positions
We’ll explain why these are cons in more detail below.
You Don’t Learn the Note Names
Many experts feel that the CAGED system delays an individual’s learning and understanding of music, meaning it focuses on patterns over notes, their names, and the notes in each chord. These lessons may be considered more technical, but they are necessary for other instruments like the piano.
The CAGED system focuses on movable shapes and patterns, so many people miss the understanding of music and notes. If you’re truly interested in the technicalities of music, notes, and playing the guitar, this part of the system may disappoint you.
Playing Through Entire Chord Shapes
Some people view the CAGED system as a form of limitation when playing through songs and freestyling because it tends to lock your mindset on the entirety of the chord. So, when playing something like a C major chord, your tendency will likely be to play through those notes in a vertical movement just because that’s the shape you’ve learned.
This is similar to someone who has learned scales. Practicing your scales on the guitar is certainly beneficial to learning the notes in a key, but when it comes time to play, you’re more likely to stick to those lateral movements rather than changing things up.
In some cases, this is a limitation in musical creativity.
Confinement to Positions
Finally, learning the CAGED system can often lead to confinement in positions. You may tend to stick to one portion of the fretboard because of the positions and shapes you’ve learned.
Many individuals may have to learn to break free of these positions and remember that the whole fretboard is open for business.
As the Head Editor at Music Grotto, Liam edits content produced from over 30 professional music/media journalists and contributing writers. He works closely with journalists and other staff to format and publish music content for the Music Grotto website. Liam is also the founding member of Music Grotto and is passionate in disseminating editorial content to its readers.