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The Guitarist's Guide to the CAGED System

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What’s in a name?
Up to this point, we’ve focused on acquiring the chord shapes and laying the foundation for realizing the full potential of the CAGED system. Think of each shape in the system as a puzzle piece: When all the pieces are connected, you will have mapped the entire fretboard. Again, the best way to see how this works is to play through it. Play each of the chords listed in Fig. 7, paying attention to the fret markers and spacing of the shapes.

What did you notice? If you played the chords correctly, you should have heard that they were all the same chord—all C chords. Hopefully you realized that all five shapes were used and that you ended with the same shape you started with (assuming you have a cutaway on your guitar that allows you to access the higher frets).

By the way, did you notice the order of the shapes used in this example? The name CAGED not only tells you what chord shapes make up the system but also the order that the shapes connect to one another to map out the fretboard. Fig. 8 places all five shapes as C chords in one fretboard diagram.

What if you want to map out the chords in the key of A the same way you did for C? To do this, start with the open position A chord—an A chord with an A shape. Then think of the spelling of CAGED and find the letter following A, which is G. So, play an A chord with a G shape. Then it’s an A chord with the E shape, and so on until we return to the A shape. So in this example, our CAGED shape sequence is AGEDC. This sequence is mapped out in Fig. 9.

Making Connections
Earlier I said to think of the CAGED shapes as individual puzzle pieces that, when connected, map out the entire fretboard. By playing through the above examples, you’ve experienced this. When mapping out a chord, it is important to be visually and physically comfortable with how two adjacent shapes connect to each other. A general rule to keep in mind: Between two adjacent shapes, there will always be at least one note that’s common to both shapes. In Fig. 10, I’ve diagrammed all pairs of adjacent shapes for the C chord. Common notes between two shapes are indicated with a diamond.

In almost all cases, the common note(s) between shapes span a one-fret region. However, the common notes between the D and C shapes span a two-fret region. Pay attention to the placement of your first finger when setting up the barre for the C shape. The common error is to place the first finger a fret higher than it’s supposed to be.

Assignment #3
Play through the CAGED sequence starting on each of the CAGED chords in open position (like we did in Fig. 8 and Fig. 9). Once you’re comfortable with this, play the sequence in all keys. For example, start with a Bb chord using the A shape (an A shape barred at the 1st fret), then play the CAGED sequence in the key of Bb. Pay attention to the common note(s) between two adjacent shapes—this will help minimize errors in shifting and connecting shapes.

Congratulations, you’ve made it to the end of the lesson and covered a lot of territory! The CAGED system provides a logical way of visualizing the neck using basic chord shapes you’ve most likely known for quite some time. In this lesson, we’ve laid the foundation for being able to find chords all over the neck. It doesn’t stop there though. The CAGED system is just as useful for scales and licks. In fact, I think of the CAGED system as five containers where I can put fretboard information. New chords, scales, licks, and melodies can all be related to one of the five shapes, and this allows you to integrate this information into your playing quickly and efficiently.

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