What is the CAGED System and How Can It Help in Guitar Playing?

The CAGED system is a method of organizing the fretboard into five chord shapes. Each shape has a name that comes from a simple open chord: C, A, G, E, and D.

CAGED provides a framework for thinking about the guitar neck and allows players to easily find chords, scales, and arpeggios across the entire fretboard. 

Once you know the system, you can use it to

  • Learn new chords
  • Learn new scales
  • Transition between chords using voice leading
  • Play the same melody or chord progression in different parts of the neck

Common mistakes guitar players make are

  • Learning scale after scale without knowing how they are related
  • Building up a random collection of chord shapes 
  • Learning new skills in bits and pieces without having a big picture 

It’s like trying to finish a puzzle without knowing what the end result looks like. Sure, you can do it, but it’ll take a lot longer and you might quit because it’s too frustrating.

Learning the CAGED system means you’ll understand how chords are constructed and how chord and scale shapes are related to one another. Whatever you learn first will help you learn the next skill much faster. You’ll also likely retain new information better.

Below is a diagram of the five shapes that cover the entire guitar fretboard

That’s the big picture that’ll help you sort out what music theory looks like applied to the guitar.

Understanding the Importance of Triad Shapes in Guitar Playing

If you find yourself always playing the same licks or feel uncomfortable soloing outside of familiar pentatonic boxes, triads are your ticket to fretboard freedom. This is true across all styles of music and it’s applicable to both rhythm and lead guitar playing.

  • Knowing triad shapes allows you to play the same chord in different spots on the guitar neck. This gives you a lot of flexibility.
  • Triads also provide a foolproof way of choosing notes when it’s time to solo over a chord progression.
  • Understanding triads and their relationships to one another can also help in developing a good ear for music and with it the ability to play by ear.

What are Triad Shapes and How are they Constructed?

Triads are three-note chords consisting of a root note, a third, and a fifth. They can stand alone but they are also the building blocks of many four and five-note chords.

Follow these steps to building triads from any scale:

  • Choose a note to build a chord from
  • From there, apply the triad formula: Take a note – skip a note – take a note – skip a note – take a note

We’ll use the C major scale as our example:


Ex. To build a D chord, we start with D (take a note), skip E, take F, skip G, and take A

This gives us D F A, which works out to D minor.

If you do this for every note of the scale, you’ll get seven chords and since they all live within a single scale, we call these diatonic chords:

C major = C E G

D minor = D F A

E minor = E G B

F major = F A C

G major = G B D

A minor = A C E

B diminished = B D F

Types of Triad Shapes

There are four types of triads:

  • Major
  • Minor
  • Diminished
  • Augmented

The first three all occur naturally in any major scale. 

The augmented triad - not as common as the other triads - can be found in the harmonic minor scale for example. 

Tips for Applying Triad Shapes in Guitar Playing

  • You can use triad shapes to simplify any song
  • If a song calls for a Gm9 and you don’t know how to play it, just stick to the foundation: a G minor triad. Another example: G7/#9 is just a G major triad at its chore.
  • Use triads when you accompany a second guitar player. One of you can play an open G chord, the other can play a G triad higher up on the neck.
  • If you want to play a solo over a chord progression but you don’t know any scales or the chord progression doesn’t fit neatly within one scale, use the notes of each triad to play your solo.
  • Chord tone soloing is a great starting point. Even when your phrases are more complex, use triads to orient yourself. This way you don’t get lost on the fretboard.

How do you know if a triad is major, minor, diminished or augmented?

The answer lies in the distance between each note of the triad.

Remember our take a note, skip a note triad formula?

The fact that note distances in our scales vary causes our triad formula to give us notes with different intervallic relationships.

Before we go deeper, here is what the C major scale looks like on the B string. You can see that some notes are one fret apart instead of two frets.

Note: The rainbow dots represent the root note, and the black dots represent the scale degrees as they relate to the root scale.

Now, let’s look at two chords in the key of C major, starting with C major (C, E, G)

  • The distance from a C chord’s first two notes (C → E) is 4 half steps or a major 3rd interval
  • That’s why a C chord in the key of C (C, E, G) is major – it features a major 3rd interval
  • The major third in a chord is the determining factor of whether it’s major or minor

A D chord (D, F, A) in the key of C on the other hand, is minor.

  • The distance from a D chord’s first two notes (D → F) is 3 half steps or a minor 3rd interval.
  • That’s why a D chord in the key of C (C, E, G) is minor – it features a minor 3rd interval
  • The major third in a chord is the determining factor of whether it’s major or minor.

This knowledge – which notes are only a semitone apart and the formula for the major scale – is something you simply memorize. 

Applying the triad formula to every note in a major scale (or other types of scales) and measuring the distance between each note in relation to the root note is a fantastic way to really understand this concept.

Intervals in major, minor, diminished chords and augmented:

Major chord = root, major 3rd (4 half steps), perfect 5th (7 half steps from root)

Minor chord = root, minor 3rd (3 half steps), perfect 5th (7 half steps from root)‍

Diminished chord = root, minor 3rd (3 half steps), diminished 5th (6 half steps from root)

Augmented chord = root, major 3rd (4 half steps), augmented 5th (8 half steps from root)

Use Inversions to Play Triad Shapes All Across the Fretboard

The notes of a chord can be rearranged in any order. When we do this, it’s called an inversion. 

  • The chord's name remains the same, but the root note will no longer be in root position.
  • We use inversions for voice-leading purposes, to give a chord a different sound or color, and to smooth transitions between chords (among other reasons).

For example, a root position C triad is made up of C (Root), E (Third), and G (Fifth).

  • If we take the root, and move it one octave higher, we get the 1st inversion of a C triad made up of E (Third), G (Fifth) and C (Root).
  • The second inversion C triad moves the E up an octave, so we have G (Fifth), C (Root) and E (Third). 

All three of these chords can be called "C”, we’ve just shuffled the order of notes.

Take a look at the diagram below. The three circles on the highest three strings represent each version of a C chord.

On the three highest strings alone you can find three different C major triad shapes. 

You can easily see why learning triads means you can easily use the entire fretboard for your creative expression. 

How to Apply the CAGED System to Triad Shapes on the Guitar

Each CAGED shape is made up of the same notes you would find in the corresponding triad. 

The C major chord in the C shape has the notes C, E and G - just like the C major triad. Some notes just appear more than once in a different register.

For example, in this C chord in C shape the root note and third are both doubled:

In order to entangle the CAGED shapes and find the triad shapes, you need to look at the grid horizontally

This brings us to the best way to learn triad shapes: one string set at a time.

Similar to the CAGED system, you can divide your fretboard into sections based on groups of three strings.

  • String set 1 contains the highest three strings: G, B, and E
  • String set 2 contains the next three strings: D, G, and B
  • String set 3 contains A, D, and G
  • String set 4 contains the lowest three strings: E, A, and D

Those four string sets cover all of our strings. The reason we group the strings in three’s is because we’re playing triads (three-note chords) with one note per string.

Diagrams and Examples of Using CAGED with Triad Shapes

We’ll give you an overview of one set of triads on all string sets, so you can see how powerful this knowledge is. 

Don’t feel like you have to memorize all of these immediately. We’ll give you some tips on how to practice triads in this article as well.

Below you’ll see all C major triad shapes and how they relate to the CAGED system.

First String Set:

Second String Set:

Third String Set:

Fourth String Set:

From these triad shapes you can derive a lot of other information:

  • You can use these shapes for any triad, not just C. 
  • Ex. Move the shapes so that the root note is on a D and you’ll be playing D major triads all over the fretboard.
  • Shift the third down one fret in any of the shapes and you’ll be playing minor triads.
  • Use the same approach for diminished or augmented triads.

Benefits of Using the CAGED System for Triad Shapes

By now your head is probably buzzing from all the shapes, string sets, and types of triads. Learning all this information is quite a big undertaking.

Don’t worry though. With the help of the CAGED system this will become a manageable task.

The CAGED system is a great tool for learning new concepts:

  • If you’ve already learned the CAGED system, you already know all the triad shapes in theory. All you have to do is isolate the triads to become more familiar with them.
  • Each CAGED shape serves as a landmark, the root notes will become visual anchor points. This way you’re not learning random shapes across the guitar neck in a vacuum.
  • When you practice triad shapes from the lowest to the highest string in one position, each CAGED position is an item on your to-do list. You can easily measure how much progress you’ve made and what you still have to tackle.

The Importance of CAGED Shapes for Mastering the Guitar

Simply put: By mastering the CAGED system, you’ll achieve fretboard freedom and break out of the restrictive boxes that beginner and intermediate guitarists find themselves trapped in.

CAGED provides a simple and effective way to visualize the entire fretboard, allowing for easier chord transitions and overall improvement in playing ability. It is a crucial step in becoming a skilled and versatile guitar player.

  • You can easily find any chord, anywhere on the fretboard, by using the five shapes as a reference. 
  • This knowledge can then be used to create chord progressions, improvise solos, and compose music. 
  • Practicing within the CAGED framework can improve your finger dexterity and hand coordination, as you learn to move between the different shapes. 
  • It can enhance your understanding of music theory, as you learn the relationships between chords and keys. In short, mastering the CAGED Shapes.

Tips and Exercises for Mastering Triad Shapes on the Guitar using CAGED System

You could think of eight levels of mastering the triad shapes. Depending on how much time you have to spare, this could take a couple of months or even a year.

We’ve made a list of all the triad master levels below but how about we get started together right now with Level 1?

The first step is to pick one string set. We’ll go with the first one. Go ahead and play through these three shapes of the C major triad:

Get a taste for what you can do with these triad shapes: 

  • Hit play on the track below. It’s a simple jam track in C major. 
  • Improvise a simple melody using only the notes from these three shapes.

Nicely done! Now, let’s move on to Level 2. Can you move these three shapes so they become G major triads?

All you have to do is find the root note of every shape and move it to a G.

Here’s what the G major triad shapes look like:

Can you alternate between the C and G shape all the way from the bottom of the fretboard to the top?

Give it a try and when you’re ready, hit the jam track again and use both shapes to improvise a melody!

As promised, here is what we deem the eight levels of triad mastery:

Level 1: You’ve memorized the three triad shapes in C major on the first string set.

Level 2: You can play the shapes in any key, you are aware of the root note position in each shape.

Level 3: When you’re playing the shape, you can visualize the corresponding CAGED shape.

Level 4: You are aware of the type of inversion you’re playing, meaning you know which note is the root, the third and the fifth. 

Level 5: You can play all triad shapes in minor and major.

Level 6: You can play all triad shapes in minor and major on every string set.

Level 7: You can play all triad shapes as a diminished triad.

Level 8: You’re a total nerd and you’ve also practiced every triad shape as an augmented triad.

Common Mistakes and How to Correct Them

Practice in small chunks

One of the most common mistakes guitar players make when learning triads is to overwhelm themselves. If you bite off more than you can chew, you’ll get frustrated and you’ll quit. Don’t be that person!

If all you ever learn are the three major and three minor triad shapes on the first string set, you’re golden. These shapes will give you so much freedom when improvising. 

Put it to use - immediately

Another common mistake is the lack of application. The whole purpose of learning this stuff is so you can make music with it. So as soon as you understand even just a nugget, go try it out. Use it in a musical context. Otherwise, you’ll forget it as quickly as you learned it.

Understanding is better than memorizing

The third mistake we’d like you to avoid making is to only memorize the shapes. It will really pay off to understand what you’re playing. The more you understand, the less you have to memorize. Because you’ll be recognizing patterns and connections between material you’ve already covered and new material you’re just learning. 

Examples of Exercises that Can be Done Using CAGED Shapes

Exercise 1: C major triads with major scale walk ups

This is a great exercise for rhythm and lead guitar players, who want to combine chords with melodies.

  • Start with any triad shape. In the tab below it’s the second inversion of a C major chord.
  • Pick the string that you’ll be playing every note of the scale on. In our example it’s the high E string.
  • Whenever the note on your “scale string” is a root, third or fifth, play a triad. Otherwise, play the single note that comes next in the scale.

Exercise 2: Say out loud what you’re playing

As soon as you have memorized the first set of triad shapes, play them while saying out loud what you’re playing:

  • Name each inversion (root position, first inversion, or second inversion)
  • For each triad, say the numbers for each note (either root, 3rd, or 5th)
  • Name the CAGED shape the triad lives in

Exercise 3: Use triads to play through a chord progression

This is a great one from rhythm and lead players who want to study voice leading.

  • Pick a song you enjoy and learn the chord progression. 
  • Play through the progression using only the triads within one or two CAGED shapes.
  • Do the same exercise using other CAGED shapes.

To make this exercise more musical, come up with a picking pattern or strumming rhythm.

Summary of The Benefits of Using the CAGED System with Triad Shapes

Triads are foundational tools. They might sound plain, but when you combine them in creative and sophisticated ways, they form complex structures. 

As a guitarist, it’s essential to know your tools inside out. Learning triads will lead to the endless possibilities of an unlocked fretboard.

Learning triad shapes within the CAGED framework means you have a system in place.

  • CAGED helps you visualize triad shapes.
  • CAGED serves as a testing tool of what you already learned vs. what you still have to learn.
  • CAGED will help you memorize triad shapes quicker. 
  • CAGED is a great tool to understand music theory and how the triads are connected to chords and scales.

Author: Julia Mahncke