Simplest explanation of what CAGED is, and what problem it addresses

I’ve never run into an explanation of the “caged system” that has really sold me on it being of any value beyond just knowing a decent amount of music theory. I suppose yes, you could technically do this stuff with zero theory knowledge and thinking of it as just a bunch of shapes that sound cool, and to be fair Jimi probably didn’t know the theoretical underpinnings of what he was doing, but past a certain point these are all basically just chord voices and what you’re doing here is sort of weaving scalar melodies in between them here and there for accent.

The CAGED system is meant for mapping all the possible triad voicings you can encounter on the fretboard - it’s a tool to increase control over the instrument. This isn’t music theory, but it’s not a mechanical type of knowledge either. Think of it as a mean for better chord previewing so you can play conceptualized sounds easier.


If you don’t see value in that type of knowledge, I suggest a method called “The Advancing Guitarrist” by Mick Goodrick - maybe it’ll change your mind. The book is all about “control” over the fretboard, so it starts right away with exercises like: play all the possible intervals, in all possible pitchs, using different strings throughout; so it makes you map all the simple intervals we often take for granted like octaves, fifths and fourhs but also the more “annoying” ones like minor and major seconds. The idea here is making it simpler for you to find on the fretboard the sounds you’ve previously conceptualized.


Sure you can. Just like we don’t need to know about double escaped paths, forearm rotation and so on to get efficient and fast picking. We can all figure out things by ourselves. These are just tools to reach certain goals quicker or to have more control with what we’re doing instinctively.

I’m not sure, I wouldn’t take Jimi’s knowledge for granted here. I truly believe R&B players had a knowledgeable fretboard control, even if they used different terms to explain it.

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You know how when you play the E-shape major barre chord, that’s also the location of the box position blues scale? So when yoy play the barre chord you can instantly jump into a blues lick in the same spot? That’s CAGED. Now just do that for every chord and phrase type you know. Once you do that, learn chord progressions strung together where the licks connect, so that you can “play through the changes”. Knowing the chord type is how you quickly access phrases in the matching tonality without having to know note names or do “harmony math” in your head. Even if you never play the actual chord, you still know what area it exists in, thus you know exactly how to find the phrases.

Even bluegrass players, who live basically live in first position 90% of the time, have specific phrases for each open chord they play over. In some sense that’s the most obvious form of CAGED there is, since they when they play the “C” shape, it really is a C chord, as opposed to just the C chord shape played somewhere else up the fretboard. In fact, rather than move their vocabulary up the neck, grass players just capo and keep playing “open” C.

I’d also point out that this idea of familiar shapes with licks loosely attached to them seems to be one of if not the only way the guitar is played in an improvisational sense. In the interviews we’ve done over the past few years, I’ve explicitly tried to get at this by asking players how they navigate the fretboard. It has been very hard to draw out the what they think about the fretboard in words since a lot of even really technical players like Oz Noy don’t seem to think about this explicitly, even though it appears to be what they’re doing. In the case of Oz Noy he eventually said “i see the shapes” and in Olli Soikkeli’s case I eventually figured out that the word “position” is what he uses. He said something like “I have certain positions I’m very comfortable with”, and then blasts out a few bebop licks that are all basically in the E-major barre chord area. So when we transcribed his licks, I actually named them that way, in terms of which shape they live near, because it seems clear that’s how he thinks.

TLDR you and probably everyone else are already “CAGED” players, and I really wish someone had showed me this when I was 15, when I all I knew was “scales covering the fretboard” but couldn’t improvise. I could play the E minor scale in all seven 3nps fingerings, but it was tons of memorization, and only resulted in any lick I knew sounding like a scale. And if the chord changes, forget it, I was dead. I had no idea how to locate the notes of the next chord flavor / tonality in whatever spot I happened to be in.

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Troy - like I said, it’s entirely possible I’ve just never gotten a good explanation of the “CAGED System” and you’re someone who I consider an incredibly thoughtful musician, so I appreciate your taking the time to weigh in here.

I guess this is how I understand the CAGED system, and this is why, at the end of the day, I don’t find it terribly useful. Some of this is extremely idiosyncratic, of course. :slight_smile: Trying to write quickly here while brewing another pot of coffee in a work break, so I apologize if this is a little sparse.

I guess, essentially I see “CAGED” as this - you have a series of open chords you can play in the first position, and each one of them, by filling in the spaces in the arpeggio that makes up the chord, can be thought of as an open position scale. And, in turn, that scale position can be transposed across the neck, forming non-open-position scales, and while some of them don’t lend themselves easily to bar chords, you can generally bar these chord shapes as well.

In some ways, this isn’t a bad way of looking at the guitar - it definitely helps get you to think about chord tones, and honestly it’s probably not a bad framework to think about Hendrix-style chordal playing - looking at the overlap between the “A-shaped” and “C shaped” chords, for example. And the very fact I’m describing them this way, I suppose, suggests I think this way to a degree, so I’ll concede that point, lol.

But, I also think it’s ultimately a limiting approach.

For one, it’s a framework that really seems to be based on fixed position playing. For bluegrass, where you’re doing a lot with open chords and open position scales, this makes a lot of sense, and it’s probably pretty sensible for blues, for the most part. But there are a lot of reasons NOT to play scales in position, for efficiency of picking/fretting reasons, that you’ve gone into at length in CtC.

Beyond that, the CAGED shapes are’t the ONLY way to play arpeggios, and I think in the long run it might be more efficient to just cut directly towards thinking in terms of scale tones while resolving lines rather than shapes. This might be where we start to get a little more idiosyncratic as I got into theory and in particular harmonization fairly early as a guitarist, and I guess you could probably even still build this into the CAGED system, talking about how and where the “shapes” connect to each other.

Speaking personally, while I certainlky know the CAGED position and 3nps scale shapes, Satriani was the first guy to really blow my mind as a player outside of the blues world, and I spent a lot of time working on my legato early on. Probably as a byproduct of that, I tend to “see” scales as a series of interlocking 3-note-per-string, two-string motifs, sort of a combo of a 6-note pattern, but also a pattern of how those six note patterns fit together. This makes it relatively easy to sort of slide around the neck, either vertically, from a D-string to A-string “chunk,” or horizontally, from D-string 5th fret to D-string 6th or 7th, depending on which pattern, or possibly the two together, D string 5th to A 7th, say. The downside of this approach is I tend to do fewer long, flowing, straight ascending or descending runs in my own playing, rather just sort of meandering through an ascending run “peaking” a few scale degrees higher each time - the upside, I suppose, is I tend to play fewer straight scale runs.

Idunno. Coffee’s ready, a lot of this probably doesn’t make much sense at all - that last paragraph I’ll probably have to explain at length, but I think the major issue I have with the CAGED system is that it tends to lead players to think in terms of fixed positions. And, of course, at the end of the day all of the “shapes” are really the same, with the only difference between an E shape and an A shape, or an A shape and a D shape, being a byproduct of the guitar’s tuning. I just wonder if time spent learning how to play arpeggios all over the neck by learning what the chord tones were and thinking about all the different ways of playing them (including along a single string - you don’t get EVH’s tapping out of a CAGED world) might be the more effective way of structuring the neck.

I broke this out into a new thread because it was starting to diverge from the topic in the other one.

I know this is that the acronym implies, but it’s really more general than that. It’s the bigger-picture concept that for any harmony you can think of, you have a sequence of “areas” or “neighborhoods” that repeat up the fretboard which act as a filing system for both chords and phrases you know how to play — like a memory palace.

I gave you he blues example. Here’s another one. Think of something simple like Yngwie. If you’re in E minor, at the 12th fret, you can play box blues. OR you can do that diagonal 4nps / 3nps harmonic minor lick of his that moves across positions. The diagonal lick uses a “weird” fingering of fours and threes and ends in another part of the neck, so you might say, aha, that’s not CAGED. But it is, because you access it by knowing that it starts in the same spot where the box position starts. A CAGED person would say it starts in the “E” area, because that’s also where you find your E barre chord. But you can call it whatever you like.

If the key changes and we’re in C, then that whole thing moves down to the 8th fret. But the shapes are still connected there: the barre chord, the box blues, the diagonal lick — they all start right there. It is still the “E” area, in a sense.

That’s basically my idiot’s version of CAGED. It’s not about literally using CAGED chord shapes or playing scales in a position. It’s knowing how to rapidly find phrases that match the current harmony because the shapes are always connected the same way.

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Ok, now I’m REALLY confused. :rofl: I’ve seen a whole bunch of explanations that are really more focused on the chord ‘shapes’ like so:

First example on a google search hit, but here’s the second, which is also pretty similar:

Busy day, so this is a drive-by post, I’m afraid, but isn’t that kind of the gist about it, thinking of those five main chordal “shapes” and how they in turn can be expanded into scales, along different positions in the neck? And that, for example, playing Em in the 7th position is sort of the “Am shape” of the E minor scale?

The actual fingerings of phrases, chords, and scales you use don’t matter, and all the tutorials hyper-focusing on this are missing the point by a little or a lot. CAGED is a simple statement which addresses what is essentially the biggest question in improvising on a guitar, which is this: if you have a certain harmony that’s happening, and you put your hand in some part of the fretboard, how do you know what notes you can play? It seems like a simple question, right? Like, so obvious why would we even ask it? But it’s not.

The sucker answer is that you have to know the names of the notes in the whatever key or mode is happening at that moment, then find those notes on the fretboard, and play only those notes. But that’s a lot of mental math. Nobody can do it in real time.

So I would ask you this same question. Let’s say you’re in some key, doesn’t matter which one — let’s say G. And let’s say the harmony is dominant. So “G dominant”, whatever phrases and lines you would normally play in that context. Now take your hand and pick an arbitrary area of the fretboard, let’s say around the 8th fret or so. We’re just choosing a comfortable middle spot on the fretboard, not too high not too low. How do you know where the notes are?

In your case for you personally, what mental process would you go through to figure out which notes are available to you and which aren’t? Now, within those notes, do you know where the chord tones are? How do you know where the passing tones are? Do you know any blues licks in that area? How do you know where the blues licks are?

I’m not being Socratic, I actually want to know! I ask some version of this in every interview we’ve done for the past few years and to varying degrees, even with very technical jazz improvisers, it’s actually a challenge to draw out the answer.

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I may have learned CAGED by accident! That’s not true really, it wasn’t an accident, but it certainly wasn’t described as CAGED or referred to it in that regard and I still don’t quite understand the reasons why associating the positions with chordal ‘shapes’ is helpful, but as I’ve said before, I’m a simple man.

As a (almost) first order of business when I started learning guitar through a teacher (Chet Breau) I was tasked with learning the ‘Major and Minor Scales’ starting from the C root and A roots respectively, in 5 positions. They were not named, they were just called ‘Shape 1, 2, 3’ etc. Same for the Major and Minor (blues) Pentatonics also C and A respectively.

And like, to be clear here, this was barely 2 years ago. I could play chords and strummy songs, but that’s pretty much it. I’d told him my musical goal was to be able to jam, live with real musicians as an end-goal to what I wanted and why I was learning.

The explanation was basically that I’d need to know what notes I could play to have what I was playing sound ‘right’ if say, I was trying to trade blues lines or licks or whatever with someone. I dutifully learned all 5 positions as instructed. I’d no idea how I’d end up applying it, but it seemed important. The revelatory part of it all (to me, as mentioned earlier, a simple man) was when he said that if you want to play the corresponding minor version of the scale, for instance if you’re soloing in Dm and you need to know what notes you can work from, you can transpose the ‘previous’ position’s shape over your current location using the root as your guide-post.

So like, A string 5th fret is a D, you can play ‘shape 1’ starting from the D root but using the fingering you’d use to get the A Minor scale if it was in position 1 and get the Dm scale.

Anyway, it took me memorizing them and then doing the Blues Pentatonics to realize, hey I actually know all these shapes that people keep yammering about in the CAGED system, I’d just no idea that’s what I was learning while doing it.

The first time I applied it (Layla unplugged) I started foofing around using the example above. You can basically play any note in that shape during the break for the solo and it’ll sound perfectly fine, that was revelatory to me. Like I was giggling while playing because I every note that I was playing worked in the key/chord I was soloing over, if the song switched I could have navigated it (eventually) using that system to find another root and go from there. It was/is pretty cool to me.

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What you’re really doing is associating the general area or neighborhood with both chords and phrases. It’s helpful because you might want to play both! A good Gypsy jazz player will give you ten versions of a minor 6 chord in different parts of the neck, just because that chord is so common in their songs. And in each of those spots where they know a chord, they can also play phrases too. It’s more just like, everything you know gets filed away into one of these zones for rapid access.

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I basically use the 5 pentatonic shapes as a way of knowing what’s “in” in a given part of the fretboard/as a way of moving around the neck - you’ve always got the possibility of adding in your various 2nds/6ths to change the colour.

If I’m improvising over a jazz tune I’m always thinking about trying to make new melodies and never thinking about the chords.

This does mean that some tunes are off the table for me.

CAGED is one of a few practical ways to visualize / organize the fretboard that let’s you follow the changes when improvising in e.g. jazz where you have to follow the chord changes to sound good. Here’s how that works:

  1. You pick a key for the song and an area of the fretboard you want to play.
  2. In this area of the fretboard there’s a CAGED shape (one of five) that matches the first chord.
    You find this CAGED shape by identifying the root note of the first chord on one of the 3 lowest strings (the only time you worry about note names is this once, to get started)
  3. Now the chord is going to change at some point and you pre-hear that the root note moves e.g. up a fourth (or you just remember all the chord movements of the song…). You also pre-hear that the next chord is a dominant chord. Since you know the current root note you can visualize the next CAGED shape that has a root a fourth away and you also instantly see all the notes that are good over a dominant chord to craft a line from one chord to the next.
  4. Keep pre-hearing chord changes and moving the root note accordingly until it’s time for applause.

There’s nothing really magical about CAGED, but you need some sort of system where you can push all the stuff that isn’t about expressing yourself to the background because you can’t think about everything at once. If you’re good at this you never have to think about where to find the note you’re hearing in your mind.

The remaining pieces of the puzzle are:

  1. Training your ear to recognize root movements and chord qualities so you don’t have to think about the chord changes.
  2. Training your ear to instantly recognize that the note you’re pre-hearing is this or that degree (in relation to the current/upcoming chord!).
  3. Having some solid vocabulary so you’re actually pre-hearing good stuff in your mind. This is just like when you’re speaking: If you don’t know any words nor any of the common idioms of the language then nobody is going to listen to you for very long…
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By all means, be Socratic if it leads to better understanding! :rofl:

Good question, and I’m sitting here with a cup of coffee and a guitar with a couple minutes before work trying to think through it as close to real timer as possible (I think, in an improv context, pausing and thinking is cheating, within the context of this question).

8th position, G dominant harmony… Honestly, as I’m thinking through this, I probably wouldn’t start a line in the 8th position here very often. You’ve got the G on the 8th fret B string, which I guess if someone yelled “G dominant, 8th position, now!” woul;d be where I’d start off. Again, in the sort of six note chunk way I tend to group scales, you could do 8-10-12 on the B and E strings, with 8 and 12 on the B being your root and 3rd, 10th on the E your 5th. Shifting up a position would give you 10-12-13 on both strings which would bring both the b7 on the 11th fret og the high E into play, as well as the M3/4 on the B string and for some reason I’ve always loved the interplay betweent hose two chord tones in mixolydian - I blame Billy Corgan - and descending down a set fo strings to 13-12-10 on the B and 12-10-9 on the G or 12-10-9 on the G and D would put you back into a position where you’re more able to work on the root/m7 tension. If I wanted to blues it up, the m3 on the 11th fret B would be a good way to hit the M3 with a bend that starts sounding a little sour, and you have a similar opportunity on the D string 11th fret with the b% (though on the heaviuer string I’d be more inclimed to slide this). Though, simply bending to just shy of the root from the b7 and hitting the root, and alternating between the two, does sound pretty cool and gets bluesy in a hurry.

I guess, it’s not lost on me that your chord tones in the area can all be pulled out of a series of dominant chords too loosely based on CAGED shapes:

|-7--10--13--13-|
|-6--12--12--15-|
|-7--10--12--12-|
|----12--12-----|
|----10---------|
|---------------|

…and of course it’s a pretty easy matter to work your way down towards the 3rd position and some of the ways you can extend 7th chords higher up on the neck from there - off the 3rd, say 4th on the G 6th on the B, 7th on the E, etc. So it’s not that I’m entirely shape-agnostic, I guess, since there’s definitely a visualization component here, but I guess I’m also thinking, like, 5th, when I hit the 7th fret on the G string, if I’m trying to play a G dominant harmony.

I’m not sure if I’m muddying the waters further here, lol. I guess as I’m writing this I really rarely DO stay in a single position on the neck for very long, when I’m playing, and if someone pointed a gun to my head and told me I had to stay in the 8th position, I’d give myself 30 seconds, tops. :slight_smile:

EDIT - and now I’m wondering if there’s some sort of a chicken and egg thing going on here, between the first time someone tried to explain CAGED to me, and the point where I understood chord construction well enough to have already harmonized scales across the neck and from there worked out that you could bar G, C, and D chords well enough too and that they only really differed in respect to which string you considered the root, etc. (Like, starting on the A string, 3, 2, and 0 on adjacent strings is a “C” form, but if you play it 8,7,5 on the E string, that’s more like what most people would consider a “G”, even though it’s the same notes, same relationship, and same “shape” on the neck, etc - the exact same chord, only differing in which string you locate the root on).

Then the cages overlap and become new cages until the whole fretboard is one big cage.

It’s funny that you should mention the CAGED system and Jimi Hendrix in the same post, since “Hey Joe” has the chord changes C - G - D - A - E.

It’s a way of identifying positions and shapes on the fretboard. The intro riff of “Sweet Child O’ Mine” is in the “D” form (it is actually in D since it’s on the 12. fret) because it resembles an open D chord with the major third/sus4 on top and the root on the 4. string. Eddie Van Halen’s short solos on “Runnin’ With The Devil” are in the “G” form (not “A” as you might think since barring strings 2-4 looks like an open A chord; Eddie is barring with his index). Most blues riffs are in the “E” form with root on the E strings, index finger. Anything with the root played with your little finger on the E string is the “G” form. Al DiMeola’s favorite box is the “C” form played in the relative minor key, e.g. A minor on the 12. fret, the two top strings both fingered 1-2-4.