Why the Guitar CAGED System is Not Bad For You

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Why the Guitar CAGED System is Not Bad For You

CAGED forms guitar

There is a lot of talk going on about whether or not the so-called “CAGED system” is beneficial or detrimental to a guitarist’s development and progress. Detractors say your playing will be stuck in a cage and you can’t play fast with the system. In this free guitar lesson you get to know what this CAGED idea is all about and you explore the pros and cons of its different uses.

Using CAGED Chord Forms

In the world of guitar, CAGED refers to the five basic chord forms played on the neck. If you know the basics of guitar playing already, then you’re familiar with the chords C, A, G, E, and D in the open position (that is, at the end of the neck near the nut and utilizing some open strings). In addition to these shapes being played in the open position, they are also moved around the neck to form chords for different root notes in other positions. Of course, some adjustments need to be made when you move away from the nut–without the open strings you must barre with your index finger (creating a new nut) and then build each CAGED shape with your remaining fingers. Barring and fingering CAGED chord shapes in this manner is rather difficult, but luckily there’s more to it than that. Rather than play the chord shapes in their entirety, most players reduce them to more manageable pieces, usually creating more pleasing chord voicings while they’re at it. To learn more about this approach to building chord shapes on the fretboard, see my page Playing Guitar Chord Shapes, Inversions, and Voicings with the CAGED System.

Using CAGED Position Scale Patterns

Another way in which the CAGED system is used is as a means to arrange scale patterns on the fretboard, and this is where the controversy lies. With this system, each of the five chord forms has a corresponding scale pattern, as you see below in Figure C1 using the key of G. Wherever you are on the neck, you identify the underlying chord form and play within its corresponding scale pattern. This is not a bad way to map out scale tones across the neck, however it’s important to know that it’s just one way to do it, there are other approaches you ought to learn, and these other approaches often lend themselves better to certain techniques and styles.

CAGED position scale patterns

Figure C1: With this group of five major scale patterns, all the notes are G major scale, and the red colored notes outline the basic shapes of the corresponding CAGED forms (starting in the middle of the system on G since this is the key of G). Click to enlarge.

The CAGED system forms five patterns in five positions on the neck. These patterns feature a mixture of two- and three-note-per-string fingerings as you see in Figure C1 above. Sometimes the inconsistency of the patterns negatively effects your fingerings and picking efficiency.

Another option is to arrange scales on the fretboard using patterns that always feature three-notes-per-string. In this case, seven patterns are formed. See Figure C2 below, which features the same G major scale notes as the previous figure, but this time with the scale tones divided up into patterns with three notes on each string. These are the very same patterns that you would pay a CAGED critic to teach you. Learn them here for free.

three notes per string major scale patterns

Figure C2: 3-note-per-string major scale patterns for guitar in G. Click to enlarge.

There are even more possibilities than what you see in the previous two figures. Without getting into all the details, I’ll give you just a few more examples that make my point. You can arrange scales using two-notes-per-string. You can use a combination of three- and four-notes-per-string. And let’s not forget that you can move horizontally up a single string too. See examples of all these options in Figure C3.

more major scale patterns for guitar

Figure C3: Some other guitar major scale variations include using two-note-per-string patterns, three-and-four-note-per-string patterns (which require you to slide your index finger as indicated by the dotted lines), and moving horizontally up and down a single string. Click to enlarge.

Whatever approach to forming scale patterns you opt for, you still may see them as simply crossing over between CAGED positions, or crossing over between three-notes-per-string patterns, or crossing over between some other type of patterns, and that’s OK. If you play guitar scales long enough, in time the positions and patterns blend together and you see the neck as one unit, not individual positions. This can occur regardless of what types of patterns you initially start with as long as you don’t unnecessarily restrict yourself.

Advice on Learning Guitar Scales

So is the CAGED system–as a means to arrange scales on the fretboard– bad or not? My answer is, it depends on how you use it. Confining yourself to only CAGED position patterns is an unnecessary restriction that may have a negative effect on your playing. If, however, you view the CAGED patterns as simply one option, and opt for other ways to arrange scales when needed, then you won’t hold yourself back. Furthermore, some players prefer the CAGED system because the patterns are arranged in a manner that happens to work best for their hands. For them, using other types of patterns poses problems and holds them back. This might be you. So the bottom line is that you ought to explore your options and go with what works best for you.

In regard to the various articles and methods you see expounding the pros and cons of using the CAGED system as a means to arrange scales on the fretboard, I have a few pieces of advice.

  1. Be cautious about any material that unnecessarily restricts you to CAGED position patterns and discourages you from exploring other options.
  2. Be cautious about any material that unnecessarily restricts you to some other type of scale patterns and discourages you from giving the CAGED system a try.
  3. Be cautious about instructors who have overly-critical attitudes toward this subject and overly-hype themselves and their programs. These instructors are typically into heavy metal styles of music where the goal is to play as many notes as fast and as efficiently as possible, but this may not be well suited to your interests.

A few final points to consider, especially if you came here after reading someone’s criticism of the CAGED system, are:

  1. You don’t need to use the CAGED system as a means of arranging scales on the fretboard. It is, first and foremost, a system for arranging chords.
  2. You don’t need to use CAGED position scale patterns. You’re free to explore all your scale pattern options and pick the ones that best suit your guitar playing needs.
  3. If you try CAGED position scale patterns and like them, and they seem to serve your needs well, then there’s nothing wrong with using them.
  4. If you do opt for a CAGED position scale pattern, you don’t need to confine yourself to it. You’re free to move horizontally from position to position, or combine parts of different positions to form hybrid patterns.
  5. There is no magic scale pattern that turns everyone into virtuoso guitar players. Each player will play and express himself the best when he explores his options and plays to his strengths.

Quotes From Other Guitar Instructors About Using the CAGED System

“The positions are just a means to an end. As we get better at the guitar, I believe the real goal is to transcend scales and work on building a connection between our ears and the guitar. Scales help us to find the notes on the neck, but all too quickly everything becomes visual which has the effect of cutting out the musical part of creativity. While CAGED is a useful map, and a great way to memorize scales and modes, I think it is a stepping stone more than anything else.” -Joseph Alexander, Fundamental Changes

“The CAGED system is a nice way for beginners to intermediates to see the fretboard in context. Getting locked into the CAGED system will have its disadvantages I am sure, but I think most guitar players know when to seek alternatives and will probably be curious to explore other options anyway. To criticise the CAGED system makes as much sense as criticising the 12-bar blues. You can choose to stay locked into that one progression or you can step out and explore other possibilities.” -David Hart G4 Guitar Method

In his Premier Guitar magazine article, Beyond Blues: CAGED Developments, London-based guitar player, teacher, and transcriber, Levi Clay, says, “Generally, the most vocal arguments come from those who don’t actually understand how the system works. That would be like me saying flour, water, yeast, and salt can’t help hunger because I never learned how to bake bread.” He also adds, “It’s incredibly important to remember that knowledge can never harm you. You can learn about anything and then decide it isn’t relevant in your day-to-day life.”


Fretboard Theory and Guitar Scale Patterns

For the record, as an author and publisher of books and videos that teach, among other things, scales patterns, I do not teach the CAGED system as a means to arrange scales on the fretboard. As I mention at the beginning of this article, I teach players how to use pieces of the CAGED chord forms around the neck to play different chord voicings, inversions, fragmented chords, and barre chords. I relate this to popular rhythm guitar parts as heard in songs like “Tears in Heaven,” “Stairway to Heaven,” “Jack and Diane,” and many others. In my book and video course Fretboard Theory Chapter 3 CAGED, I do not teach a single scale pattern. It’s all chord shapes and rhythm guitar parts. In my book, Guitar Theory For Dummies, I use the CAGED system only as a method for building chord shapes.

Regarding the teaching of scale patterns, I teach the five pattern variety with two- and three-notes-per-string, and the seven pattern variety with three-notes-per-string. I mention that the five pattern variety can fit together neatly with the five CAGED chord forms, but I warn against always making this association. I also warn against guitarists unnecessarily restricting themselves to any position or pattern, and I encourage them to explore their options. In Volume II of my Fretboard Theory book and video series, I teach the method of basing all lead lines in pentatonic patterns and then adding scale tones, like 2nds and 4ths, as well as the method of visualizing CAGED chord forms over scale patterns in order to target chord tones while soloing. I do not prescribe any of these approaches as the “correct way,” but rather present them all as useful options worth exploring. Ultimately, it’s up to each individual player to explore his/her options and settle on the approach or approaches that work best.

One final thought… While you don’t want to unnecessarily restrict yourself to any one type of scale pattern, you don’t need to spread yourself out all the time either. Playing well isn’t about how much fretboard you cover. You explore your options in order to find the positions and patterns that work best for you. It’s perfectly OK to favor particular positions and patterns and use them most or all of the time–a lot of guitarists do this, including me and many of the guitar icons you know and love.

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Comments ( 13 )

  • Josip Curic

    Hello, Desi

    This is a great post! I will print this and put inside your Fretboard Theory, after the CAGED chapter! In my opinion, 3 NPS should be in your excellent book!
    Like I said many times, you have improved my guitar skills, after I completed your Chord progression DVD and Guitar Modes DVD. Without this two DVDs I cannot imagine any progression on guitar, and this was a bridge from beginner level to solid intermediate level!
    Also, you made me motivated to explore more, and so I discovered Three note per string, and it suits my needs because of music I am listening to.

    Josip Curic
    Zagreb, Croatia

  • Jim S.

    Thanks Desi for a great post on the CAGED system. I found your Podcasts years ago, then bought your first Fretboard Theory book, and the DVDs, and the 2d book. I cannot say I’ve got it all down – but I’ve learned more about the fretboard and musice theory than I ever thought I would figure out. Thanks.
    One thing I would encourage you to stress more in this article is the importance of keeping track of where the ROOT is. I must say I struggled with CAGED until I got this down. In fact I developed a set of numbers to help me memorize the interrelationships of the roots. Since we are so used to remembering passwords, combinations and numbers I found this to be easy to memorize and very helpful:
    3163 1642 423 252 532

    3163 – from string 3 to strings 1/6 – 3 frets (G shape)
    1642 – from strings 1/6 to string 4 – 2 frets (E shape)
    423 – from string 4 to string 2 – 3 frets (D shape)
    252 – from string 2 to string 5 – 2 frets (C shape)
    532 – from string 5 to string 3 – 2 frets (A shape)

    This may not be meaning to every budding guitarist, but is made everything click for me. You have a diagram in Fretboard Theory 1 that shows this layout with arrows between the notes.

    Thanks Desi

  • Jeffrey Burton

    The other major use for the CAGED system that seems to be overlooked is it helps you locate all the notes across and up and down the neck. If you are playing a melody and want to plot out where the A (or any other) note occurs on the fretboard you can use the CAGED system to quickly find them. It also give you all the position for all the A chord shapes, which helps you find not only the Root but the 3rd and 5th, as well. This is very important for melodic guitar playing. Using the CAGED system you can quickly start to plot out and develop your melodic solo. It’s also great for locating and plotting out different mode positions. The only people I ever hear bringing up negatives about the CAGED system are Metal guys who prefer the Three Notes Per String scale shapes which really doesn’t tie into the underlying chords to well.

  • Jimw

    I purchased guitar theory for dummies, does that cover the same material as fretboard theory vol I?
    where does volume 2 go or is that covered in dummies.

  • Bruce Weissberg


    After the CAGED system what do you recommend as the next step?
    I am using it to have fun and learn the individual NOTES on the guitar fret. As for speed. I know quite a few guitarists who use or have used the CAGED system to learn guitar and if I get to be half as fast and accurate as they are I will blow peoples minds everywhere I go…

    Yes don’t restrict yourself but know or understand the purpose of something.

    My analogy is I play tennis and use a two handed back hand for 95% of my shots but slice and play net with a one handed back hand…
    Understanding the game of tennis as I do…this work for me and most pros who make money playing the game…but to say you should not learn a one handed backhand now a days makes no sense if it works for you. I had one but switched over…or don’t use a two handed backhand ever…

    From my understanding about the guitar and guitar theory I could study for the next 10 years straight and still have so much to learn.

  • Alec Bourne

    Some really great comments here which help clarify what for me seems to be the usual storm in a teacup which we find everywhere online these days. Having started my learning path with the simple objective of being able to move fluidly through the fretboard and not really so much knowing the theory behind it all I’ve spent a lot of my time drilling scales firstly following the pentatonic scales, and next the caged patterns which to me make sense for a beginner as they build on the open chords which is the first thing you tend to learn. I’m now at a point where I’m also seeing the fretboard for the very first time in 3nps patterns and for me this is all one natural progression which everybody should get to in their playing. I’ve still got a long way to go in all this and my primary interest is in figuring out the modes. In the end it’s all about figuring out what works and what doesn’t in any particular situation and building a broad knowledge eventually helps. I think the single biggest obstacle is developing the ear and getting your hands and ears in sync.

    Thanks for this link Desi, it’s food for thought though I think a lot more could be done to simplify these concepts for beginners. A great point in the Fretboard theory books is that you get this incredibly useful mapping between songs you “think” you know and you start to figure out how they’re constructed.

    If there is one truly great thing about studying guitar it’s that you learn to have incredible patience and perseverance and that follows through to all aspects of life, which is the true bonus.

  • Neil

    Do 3np and CAGED guitar players sound different when they play, or are the systems merely a way to get to expressing musical ideas that end up sounding the same whichever system is used? In other words, can you tell by just listening which system a player is using?

  • Dazed and Confused

    Desi, I read the “What’s the difference between Fretboard Theory and Guitar Theory For Dummies?” but it didn’t really answer the question at all. It basically just said to buy any or all of your books and pushed your video series without explaining how any of the material covered differs, if much at all.

  • Dazed and Confused

    For those of you who sometimes feel a little overwhelmed by music theory, scale patterns in particular, I recommend reading The Music Lesson by renowned bassist Victor Wooten. The audiobook is particularly good.

  • Both books cover the same scope of information. There is a bit more in Fretboard Theory and Fretboard Theory Volume II. Guitar Theory For Dummies was basically a condensed rewrite of the Fretboard Theory series. If you’re on a budget, get the Guitar Theory For Dummies book. It includes some online audio and video clips. If you want more than that, get the Fretboard Theory books and follow the instructions to use them together with their online resources. If you want the most comprehensive instruction, get the Fretboard Theory video series.

  • The Music Lesson is a fun read, but I definitely would not recommend it to people who are trying to learn music theory or how to play. It’s better for people who have already learned music theory and how to play and want to explore a metaphysical/philosophical view of the playing experience. People need to lay the proper foundation first, like the book states.

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