The CAGED system is method of mapping out your guitar’s fretboard by visualizing the common open C, A, G, E, and D chord shapes up and down the guitar neck in any key. CAGED is incredibly useful for unlocking your fretboard in the context of lead guitar. In this article, we’ll run you through the fundamentals of what is the CAGED system.
Imagine you just moved to a new city where the streets are laid out in a grid: Every block is the same length and width, much like frets on the guitar neck. Every street corner looks like the last.
In the beginning, you have to pull out a map whenever you want to go somewhere. Maybe you let your phone guide you: “In 100ft, turn left.” In time, you get to know the grid until it becomes easy to navigate the city via landmarks. Eventually, the map is ingrained in your mind, and you can navigate the grid with ease.
The same is true for navigating your guitar fretboard. In the beginning it all looks the same, and the right map is crucial for helping you get around – ‘If I play a G on the lowest string, A is just two frets up.’
Landmarks are the way to go, and that’s the CAGED system for us guitarists. It’ll help you solo across your entire fretboard with ease and pave the way for improvising within complex scales. If you dedicate enough practice time to learning the CAGED map, you won’t even have to think about navigating your fretboard – you’ll have an intuitive sense of where to place your hands.
With CAGED, your fretboard landmarks are the open chord shapes most guitarists learn first:
For the system to cover the whole neck, we can’t simply play these chords all in the open position. though. We’ll connect them in a row across the fretboard, one by one. We’ll show you next how they connect.
Full introduction to the CAGED system
CAGED is kind of our thing at Pickup Music. We partnered with Dr. Molly Miller to create an extensive Learning Pathway on the CAGED system that’ll teach you how to map out your entire fretboard so you can solo in any key and style.
If you don’t want to take the full 90 minutes with Molly, keep on scrolling for a brief overview of CAGED system fundamentals.
How to find CAGED shapes on the guitar neck
To properly internalize the CAGED system, you need to memorize five chord shapes that you can move to any fret along with where the root notes are in each shape.
The first CAGED shape: C
Below, you’ll find:
- The C CAGED shape as an open C chord
- The C CAGED shape as a C# chord
- You’ve likely never played a C shape this way, so it’s natural for it to feel uncomfortable at first.
- The numbers refer to which finger is used to fret each note (1 = index finger).
- The root note of the open C chord is on the 3rd fret on the A string.
- Once you move everything one fret up to the C#, you get the moveable C shape.
Important: Keep in mind the difference between CAGED shape and chord name. The second chord below is a C# chord, that we’re playing with a C CAGED shape.
Remaining CAGED shapes
Your task now is to analyze the rest of the open chord shapes. Use the list above and do this for each chord, one by one:
- Play the open chord
- Memorize where the lowest root note in the chord shape is (ie. where the lowest note C is in the C chord, the A note in the A chord, etc)
- The lowest root note is either on the low E, A or D string
Then, work on developing the ability to play the shape anywhere on the neck:
- Notice where the chord shape includes open strings
- Move the whole shape up one fret
- Adjust your fingering to account for the notes that were previously open-string notes
Once you’ve figured out what each open chord shape looks like without using the open strings, you’ll have your moveable chord shape.
Now, play each shape but make the root note a C. You can check your work using the graphic below.
- See how they all connect?
- Each shape shares one or more notes with the next shape.
- This means the system covers the entire neck.
How to use CAGED shapes for improvising
At first, the CAGED system might seem elementary. Why waste time moving these chord shapes around your guitar, anyway?
The answer lies in scales! By developing an innate sense of these CAGED shapes and learning how to connect them across your fretboard in different keys, you’re building a framework for scales that you can use to improvise lead guitar parts.
The CAGED system ensures you won’t get lost when it comes to navigating scales on your fretboard. For example:
- You can play a melody up and down one shape
- Or you can play a melody only on the B string moving horizontally along each shape
- You can include notes that aren’t in the shape before returning to familiar territory
Just like in our city map – there are a million ways to get from point A to point B. The CAGED system provides landmarks so you can get to your sonic destination in creative ways.
Improvising with CAGED: Application in D major
Let’s check this out in the key of D. Here’s the D major pentatonic scale in the A and G shapes:
There are three other positions, but we’ll leave those for another day. Before you get overwhelmed, grab your guitar and familiarize yourself with both shapes.
Once you can play them both, connect the two. Start by playing the A shape ascending and the G shape descending (and vice versa).
Below is a jam track from the Pickup Music library. Use the two scale shapes to improvise a solo and try to keep track of your landmarks: the root notes and the chord shapes.
- If you’re new to the world of improvisation, don’t think too hard about what to do!
- You’ll find that simply playing through these scales sounds musical.
- Get creative and try to come up with mini phrases that sound like a guitar solo.
You might want to give yourself limitations while exploring the two scale positions.
Play a solo:
- using only two adjacent strings.
- using only five notes.
- using only the notes from the D chord in each shape
- ascend the scale but skip every other note
Once you start looking at your fretboard through the CAGED lens, you will see connections that you’ve never noticed before. It’s a game changer for many guitarists, especially those who are stuck learning chords and scales but lack the skill to utilize the entire fretboard and improvise freely.
We get it, arpeggios, scales, and chord shapes can be tedious to learn. That’s why we decided to make this process more fun and, most importantly, musical.
Check out a free 14-day trial to our CAGED Learning Pathway. In this three-month program, you'll learn how to map out your fretboard through the lens of CAGED so you can solo in any key. You'll know exactly what to work on at every step of the way.
Plus, you’ll lay a foundation for advanced soloing techniques like playing the changes, soloing with modes, and even jazz soloing.
CAGED Learning Pathway
Your step-by-step pathway to fretboard freedom.Learn more
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Dr. Molly Miller
Dr. Molly Miller is one of Pickup Music's most popular instructors. Her acclaimed 3-month CAGED Learning Pathway has helped hundreds of students unlock their fretboards and reach their playing potential.Explore Lessons