This article will teach you one of the easiest approaches to learn how to solo on guitar: using the CAGED system to navigate your fretboard. It takes time to develop your ear and play what you hear in your head. You’ll get a lot closer to that goal when you take advantage of the CAGED system for soloing.

CAGED system for killer guitar solos

The CAGED system is a method for organizing and visualizing the fretboard of the guitar. It’s based on five open chord shapes for C, A, G, E, and D that you can move around your fretboard.

In the context of soloing, you can use the CAGED system to: 

  • Find notes that sound good over a certain chord or a whole progression
  • Figure out how to play one lick in different positions on the neck
  • Make it easier to solo over key changes without jumping to a different neck position

Note: If you’re brand new to the CAGED system, this blog will likely be too advanced for you.

Using CAGED shapes to solo over a key change

Soloing over key changes is an advanced skill, but the CAGED system makes the process less daunting. 

Below is a backing track for you that is made up of:

  • Four bars of D major
  • Four bars of F major

How to choose the right CAGED shape

You have have five CAGED shapes to choose from, so let’s narrow it down.

  • Pick a register – Where on the neck do you want the guitar solo to start? Pick an area that sounds good to you. 
  • Starting in a lower register and ending in a higher register will add dynamic life to your solo.
  • Look for overlap – Find the shape for the second chord that is located close to the first shape. 
  • Proximity is the goal – it’ll enable you to take full advantage of voice leading your solo phrases.
  • Pay attention to the location of your chord's root notes.
  • Make sure the shapes you choose overlap as much as possible. 

(Note: This is a rule we’re making up for practicing purposes. You may want to choose to mix and match shapes differently based on what you’re trying to achieve sonically.)

Use these CAGED shapes to solo over two major chords

For our example, we’re choosing the major pentatonic scale. You can apply the same process to other scales.

Let’s go with the C shape for the D major chord

Note: The numbers represent scale degrees. 

Next, we’ll use the D shape for the F major chord

Note: The numbers represent scale degrees. 

You can see how many notes the two scales have in common. That’s where the CAGED system really shines – it helps us visualize and connect all these shapes and patterns.

Practice steps to play a guitar solo combining two CAGED shapes

  1. Make sure you can play each individual shape comfortably (or pick 1-2 strings only and stick to the notes on that string).
  2. Identify which notes they have in common so you can use voice leading.
  3. Come up with one phrase for each shape or use a lick that you’ve transcribed.
  4. Find ways to connect the two phrases via the common tones.
  5. Repeat until you feel comfortable improvising.

If you’re not familiar with the concept of voice leading, here’s a simple way to think about it:

  • Voice leading means that you play a melody (or chords) in a way that achieves the smoothest transition between phrases when changing to another chord. 
  • You can use common tones between two chords.
  • You can also use notes that are a half or whole step away.

Common tone example from our two CAGED shapes: 

  • In the key of D – there’s an A note (the 5th of D) in the C shape.
  • In the key of F – there’s an A note (the 3rd of F) in the D shape.
  • This note will help you connect keys while fluidly soloing.

Before we get into more exercises, let’s look at some different ways to approach a guitar solo. 

How to play a guitar solo

There are three main types of guitar solos:

  • Composed – You write and rehearse a guitar part from beginning to end before performing it.
  • Improvised – You compose a guitar part on the fly as you’re performing.
  • Prepared – Mix the previous two approaches. You rehearse some parts beforehand (maybe prepare a few licks that work well over certain changes), but you improvise a large portion of the solo during the live performance.

Some methods are easier than others, and often, the situation will dictate what’s best.

  • At a jam, you’re more likely to experiment and improvise.
  • At a recording session something more concrete may be better.

Composing vs. improvising a guitar solo

Improvising is composing in real time. The two are clearly related and influence each other so it’s not a bad idea to work on both skills in parallel. 

  • Once you nail improvising in a practice scenario, improvising live will become easier. 
  • Practicing improvising and listening back to a recording will also inspire ideas for composing.

Benefits of composing a solo

When you take the time to carefully write out and rehearse a solo:

  • There’s room to experiment with different sounds and make mistakes.
  • Audition various phrases and listen back and choose your favorite.
  • You can use your ear to decide what works and what doesn’t.
  • You don’t need to know any scales.

As soon as you’re venturing into improvisational territory, hitting random notes to see what happens as you’re performing your solo isn’t going to cut it. 

Learning how to apply the CAGED system will help you improvise great-sounding solos. 

Prepare for guitar solos with the CAGED system

Learning scales and licks is a good idea when you want to start improvising. It’ll give you fail-safe material to use over a chord or a progression.

  • Without a roadmap, you’ll quickly be overwhelmed. 
  • The CAGED system is a great way to break your guitar practice into bite-sized sessions.

When you learn scales, the goal is to be able to play notes all over the fretboard. That’s a huge endeavor. 

  • Instead of looking at the entire guitar neck, learn scales by shape and then start connecting them. 
  • The more you learn within one shape, the more things will start to look familiar.
  • You know how to play the D chord in the E shape?
  • Great. The same notes are also part of the D major pentatonic scale.
  • And the D major scale.

Whatever tool you’re looking to develop as an improviser – licks, arpeggios, triads – using the CAGED system as a framework means

  • You can break a concept into smaller chunks during practice.
  • You have a clear path with fixed steps to follow.
  • It’s easy to keep track of your progress.

Using the CAGED system to learn to solo on guitar

In this next section, we’ll show you a few ideas on what to practice in preparation for your next guitar solo.

Linear soloing through the CAGED shapes

Linear soloing involves moving freely along strings, as opposed to getting locked into positions for extended periods of time. 

Playing linear is not better or worse than playing in position. Knowing how to do both is optimal. 

Exploring the linear approach will:

  • Help you achieve a greater sense of freedom and fluidity in your playing.
  • Teach you to move around comfortably all over the fretboard.
  • Open up a range of expressive possibilities on the guitar.

Below is a diagram of the C major scale on the B string

  • Grab your guitar and give it a go.
  • Do your best to remember the sequence 
  • This pattern will create a major scale starting from any root note!
Note: The rainbow dots represent the root note, and the black dots represent the scale degrees as they relate to the root/scale. 

We can then also zoom out and see how this fits into our CAGED system.

It travels through the A → G → E position. Focus on visualizing these shapes as you slide through them.

If the rhythm is too complicated for you, just make up your own.

When you feel comfortable with that, you can apply the same concept to other strings and start coming up with your own licks.

Finding double stops with the help of CAGED shapes

Double stops are two-note “mini chords” and a great way to enhance a guitar solo.

  • Double stops are used for harmonizing a melody.
  • Phrases with double stops sound fuller and more intense than a single-note melody.
  • The most common intervals are 3rds, 4ths and 6ths.
  • You can either stick to one CAGED shape or travel up and down the fretboard along the shapes.

Using 6ths as double stops

Here’s an example using 6ths in E major across the CAGED shapes.

In the major key, we naturally have major and minor 6th intervals.

When you know your CAGED shapes, you don’t have to worry too much about those details though. 

When you play these double stops, try to visualize the scale on both strings and use your perspective of the CAGED system.

Below is a backing track to try these out in a musical context.

Double stops without knowing the theory behind intervals

You can use the CAGED shapes to find other double stops without getting lost in music theory too much. 

To explore more double stops:

  • Pick a key
  • Pick a scale
  • Choose two strings and start combining notes across the neck following the CAGED shapes
  • Remember the sounds and shapes you enjoyed and use them in your next guitar solo

Soloing techniques to make the CAGED system sound more musical

CAGED shapes and scales are not really musical by themselves, they are just tools we use. 

  • They make it a lot easier (and quicker) to find melodic notes and lines that work well harmonically. 
  • The next step in creating a great solo is to think about the rhythm, melody, and expression of your chosen notes.

Use rhythmic variation to improve your phrasing

The reason why noodling around aimlessly isn’t very attractive to an audience is because our listeners’ ears and brains have nothing to latch onto. 

  • It’s like reading a book without punctuation, spaces between words, or capitalization – not fun.
  • One way to hook listeners with your guitar solo is using rhythmic repetitions, as in this example:

Two other ideas you can also focus on are variations of timing and note values.

  • Mixing up note values – Step away from playing only quarter and eighth notes, throw in some triplets or dotted note values.

Here’s what that could look like

  • Mixing up the timing of your phrase. Don’t start every phrase on beat one, explore other starting points in the bar.

Take a look at this lick for some inspiration:

Practice different melodic contours to improve your phrasing

The term melodic contour describes the shape of a melody as it rises and falls in pitch. 

  • Some melodies start in a low register and end high – or vice versa.
  • If your guitar solos tend to sound similar or you’re never paid attention to the way your melodies travel, try coming up with some variations of the same lick.

Here’s an example of a melody with two different endings:

Techniques to make your guitar solo more expressive

Our voice is the most intimate and expressive instrument we have. It’s no wonder that instrumentalists are often looking at vocalists for inspiration.

  • When we practice scales, they can sound a bit monotonous or mechanical. 
  • Knowing all your CAGED shapes, and the scales and triads that live within is great, but the next step is adding an emotional layer of expression to them.

Increase the expressiveness of your guitar solos by using:

  • Bends
  • Slides
  • Hammer ons and pull offs
  • Vibrato

How to incorporate bends and slides in CAGED

Bends and slides are useful techniques that you can use to approach target notes in a scale or triad. 

  • Many players like to use them to vary their phrasing or smooth out melodic lines. 
  • One way to practice bends and slides is connecting two CAGED shapes, let’s try it out with the examples below.

Lick 1

Here’s an example of a lick in D minor

  • The lick moves from the Am → Gm shape
  • Give your ears and eyes a chance to soak up this information.
  • Play the first chord, then the lick, and then the second chord voicing.

Here’s what it looks like on the fretboard:

Lick 2

We’re sticking to D minor, but this lick connects the Gm with the Em shape

Below is a backing track in D minor. Give those licks a try and see if you can connect any other CAGED shapes with a slide or bend.

Biggest mistakes when learning how to improvise a guitar solo

Don’t overdo it! That’s the biggest tip we have for you.

The most common mistake guitarists make when trying something new is that they bite off more than they can chew. 

To avoid this trap, go slow and learn deliberately – one thing at a time.

  • Focus on one CAGED shape and one scale when you start out.
  • Add a second CAGED shape and connect it to the first. 
  • After you memorize a new scale shape, make sure you can apply it.

Try to give yourself limitations when practicing improvisation, for example:

  • Only play on the highest two strings 
  • Incorporate one slide in a four bar jam
  • Play a melody with only three notes

Remember to give your phrases a rhythmic identity. Instead of trying to play as many notes as quickly as possible, make them sound purposeful and interesting.

What’s next?

Keep pushing yourself to grow with you guitar playing, the sky is the limit. Find different ways to challenge yourself and keep your practice time interesting

Here are a few ideas to keep you going:

  • Transcribe one guitar lick from a solo you like and see how it fits into each CAGED shape. Then, make up your own lick inspired by what you learned.
  • Triads are a huge topic when it comes to improvising guitar solos. Read this article that’s entirely dedicated to triads and the CAGED system.
  • Pick a chord progression that stays in one key and solo over it using just one string. Visualize the CAGED shapes you’re passing along the way.
  • Pick a chord progression that changes key and see if you can find the smoothest way to connect two CAGED shapes in the two keys.

If you're looking to dive deeper and learn the CAGED system step by step, check out our CAGED Learning Pathway with a free 14-day trial to Pickup Music. In this 3-month program, we’ll guide you step-by-step through learning how to navigate the entire fretboard and show you exactly what to work on at each step of the way. 

For more advanced players we recommend using the free trial to check out our masterclass Melodic CAGED Soloing.

Author: Julia Mahncke