QUICK SUMMARY: As a guitarist, you hear about the CAGED system all the time. But, what is it? Michael Palmisano takes us through the CAGED system structure, theory and all the implications.
The great thing about learning the guitar is that it's not linear like a piano. This means that you don’t have to learn a different fingering for each key.
From the simplest chord to the most complicated scale, everything exists in five shapes.
To play something in a different key, you can just move the shape.
This approach is commonly known as the CAGED system, and when it comes to learning your neck, you can't beat it for simplicity. To be sure, this is not the only way to learn the guitar neck, and some people vehemently oppose it. Yet, there’s good reason it’s so widely taught, especially as a common fixture of the beginner's guitar lesson:
From the simplest chord to the most complicated scale, everything exists in five shapes.
It’s simple and it works.
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One of the main reasons people struggle to stick with learning an instrument is because the initial hurdles are too substantial. As an instructor, it is imperative to strike a balance between a “proper education” and accessibility. The CAGED system is designed to get you playing quickly with five basic, connecting, movable shapes.
Of course, over time you will naturally grow out of it and be able to see the whole neck as one giant shape. In the mean time, breaking things down into simple, bite-sized pieces is incredibly effective and makes learning your neck much easier.
What are these shapes made of? Octaves.
An octave - if you’re not familiar - is the same note played in a different harmonic register. For example: A high C and a low C, on a single string, are 12 steps (frets) apart, which is equal to one octave.
Try playing the open E string and then the 12th fret on the same string. That note on the 12th fret is a higher E.
Now try the open A string and then the 12th fret of the same string. That’s a higher A.
Now, try the third fret of the fifth string, which is C. Go up 12 frets to the 15th fret of the fifth string. Another C, but higher. This technique works from any note anywhere on the neck.
Using Octave Shapes
Because the guitar has six strings, we don’t have to always jump 12 frets to reach our octaves. We can simply reach across to an adjacent string. Because of how the guitar strings are tuned, these octaves exist across the neck in five specific shapes. These shapes are the same regardless of key or fretboard placement.
If you learn the shapes, you can learn the whole fretboard.
Why is it called the CAGED System?
The idea behind this system is that there are five octave shapes and each one relates to a common open chord that we already know. Here we'll go through each pattern based off a particular chord.
Pattern 1 Based off the C Major Chord
Pattern 2 is based off of the A major chord.
Pattern 3 is based off of the G major chord.
Pattern 4 is based off of the E major chord.
Pattern 5 is based off of the D major chord.
For example: Play an open position C major chord. In this shape, you are actually playing two C’s. One is the lowest note in the chord played by your third finger on the fifth string. But, there’s another: The note being played by the first finger on the second string.
Isolate these two notes from the chord and play them at the same time. You should be able to hear that they are both the same note (C) but one is higher and one is lower.
This is the Pattern 1 octave shape.
Now comes the beauty of the CAGED system: If you slide that whole shape up two frets, you are now playing two Ds in pattern one. Slide the shape up two more frets and you are playing two Es. One more fret and you’re playing two Fs, etc.
Now let’s try Pattern 2 (based on A major):
Play the open A major chord.
Look at the diagrams provided and note that pattern two has a root (octave) on the fifth and third string.
Find these roots at the open fifth string and the second fret, third string
Isolate these two notes and hear that they are the same, but in different octaves.
Now, shift this shape up two frets to achieve two B notes. To do this, you must account for the open string. The result will be your first finger on the second fret of the fifth string, and your third finger on the fourth fret of the third string.
Move this shape up one more fret to achieve two C notes.
Now let’s try Pattern 3 (Based on G major):
Play the open G major chord.
Look at the diagrams provided and see that pattern three has three roots (octaves) on the sixth, third and first strings.
Find these roots at the third fret on the sixth string, open third string, and third fret of the first string.
Isolate these three notes and hear that they are the same, but in different octaves.
Now the hard part: Shift this shape up two frets to achieve two A notes. Anchor with the first finger on the third string, then bounce back and forth to sound out the notes on the sixth and first strings.
Move this shape up one more fret to achieve two B notes, etc. You’ll find the fingering gets easier as you go up the neck as the fret gaps get smaller.
Repeat this same process for each of the five octave shapes and get comfortable moving them around the neck.
Learning How to Connect the Shapes
After you get a good feel for each of these, we need to learn how to connect them. Once you can connect these shapes, you can play anything, anywhere on the neck.
Here’s how it works:
The patterns increase sequentially as we go up the neck. To go up the neck, we simply connect to the next octave shape.
Let’s use this to play every C note on the guitar:
Start with C Pattern 1 with your first finger on the first fret of the second string and your third finger on the third fret of the fifth string.
In order to connect to the Pattern 2 shape, we put our first finger where our third finger was on the third fret of the fifth string and then reach our next octave with our third finger on the fifth fret of the third string.
The stretch to Pattern 3 is tricky. You want to place your first finger where your third finger was on the fifth fret of the third string, and reach to get the eighth fret on both the sixth and first strings. Don’t worry about playing both the first and sixth strings at the same time. You can bounce back and forth with your fourth finger.
When you go to Pattern 4, you’ll notice that this shape shares the same roots on both the sixth and first strings at the same fret as Pattern 3. But - unlike pattern three - it is common to play both the first and sixth strings with your first finger if you lay it across all of the strings. This is known as barring. The result should be your first finger barring the eighth fret to get your roots on the sixth and first strings, with your third finger (or pinkie if that’s easier) playing the 10th fret on the fourth string.
Place your first finger where your third finger (or pinkie) was on the tenth fret of the fourth string and reach up three frets to the 13th fret of the second string with your pinkie to achieve your final C.
After pattern five, the cycle just starts over at pattern one again. To continue up the neck, you simply place your first finger where your pinkie is on the 13th fret of the second string and grab the 15th fret of the fifth string with your third finger. You’re then back in pattern one. Keep connecting until you run out of frets.
What about a different note, perhaps E♭? Simple:
Find an E♭ note, which is the note between D and E. To do this, find an E and go down one fret or a D and go up one fret. The lowest one on your guitar is the first fret of the fourth string (one fret above D).
Look at the above octave shape diagrams and identify which patterns have a root on the fourth string (the string where we found an E♭). In this case, pattern four and pattern five have roots on the fourth string. There will always be two diagrams that share the root.
Choose the one that is possible to play. Again, don’t let the open strings fool you. Pattern four is impossible to play because the open string is only one fret below the first fret and you need two frets to achieve pattern four. Therefore, pattern five is the lowest playable octave shape.
Connect to Pattern 1 by putting your first finger where your pinkie was in Pattern 5 (fourth fret second string) and reach over with your third finger to reach E♭ on the sixth fret of the fifth string.
Connect and continue as you did in C.
How to Practice, Review and Master
To practice, choose random keys and try to connect all of your roots up and down the fretboard, going both backwards and forwards. Choose keys like F♯ or B♭ to make sure you really understand the concept. You will know you have fully absorbed this concept when you can play any note anywhere on the guitar neck by connecting these patterns.
What’s next? How do we use this information? What’s the point?
As you might have assumed, we will be adding notes to these shapes that create our chords, arpeggios and scales. This turns our “can you play every C note” into “can you play every C major chord.”
Or “Can you play every C major pentatonic scale?”
If you dig into this, you will not have any “difficult keys” or need a deep understanding of music theory before you can start enjoying playing. You’ll be able to confidently jump into most musical situations and feel comfortable. This is the goal of the CAGED system in a nutshell: To be able to use the whole fretboard quickly and efficiently so you can get playing.
The CAGED system is not the only system for learning guitar, and everyone learns differently. Of course music doesn’t “exist in shapes”, but it does naturally exist on your guitar neck. Embrace the resulting shapes. Over time, you will organically grow out of depending on these shapes, but you have to start somewhere.
I implore you to make it easier on yourself and make your learning experience more enjoyable by starting with CAGED.
There’s a reason I teach it on Guitargate.com and why it was taught to me at GIT (Musicians Institute - arguably the best guitar school in the world). It’s the quickest and most effective way for most guitar players to get playing proficiently.
If you’d like to learn more from me, I hope you’ll come over to guitargate.com for all of my courses and weekly live lessons. You can even post videos for feedback from me directly. I’m excited to take you on this journey, and if you need any help at all please don’t hesitate to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org anytime. I respond to every message.
Cheers and good luck.