Understand the basics of the CAGED system, learn how to move around the fretboard in all 12 keys, and create phrases that fit over the V chord in a blues.

Chops: Intermediate
Theory: Beginner
Lesson Overview:
• Understand the basic elements of the CAGED system.
• Learn how to move around the fretboard in all 12 keys.
• Develop soloing strategies for playing over the V chord in a blues progression.

Click here to download MP3s and a printable PDF of this lesson's notation.

Hello all, and welcome back to another installment of Beyond Blues. While you all seemed to dig the focus of the last lesson, an overwhelming percentage of the feedback seemed to be a mixed understanding of the CAGED system, which I reference a lot. Some of you had an understanding of what it is, but not really understanding just how powerful a tool it can be for learning blues and jazz, so I figure this month we could dig into the concept and then use it to help you outline the V chord.

The CAGED system is, in essence, a way to learn the entire neck in five small, manageable chunks. On our guitar we have five basic open chords—C, A, G, E, and D—that we could consider as a shape or position. Now just about all of you will have used this concept countless times over the years. For example, there is no open F chord, so we have no choice but to play a barre chord derived from our open E chord. This idea of moving an open chord up in barre form is something that you’ve probably also done with an A chord too. On top of that, this idea can be applied to minor chords, 7th chords, or just about any other open chord you may know.

This essentially means we could play any chord in five different places or positions on the neck. If you take a look at our first set of diagrams in Fig. 1, you’ll see I’ve given you a C major chord using the “C” shape, the “A” shape, the “G” shape, the “E” shape, the “D” shape and then the “C” shape again an octave higher. For the more studious of you out there, you could stop here and work out how to play the five positions of a few other chords.

The beauty of this is that each shape isn’t just a chord—it’s a position, which can contain any chord, any scale, any arpeggio or musical idea. Once you have an understanding of the system and learn some scales and arpeggios, you be able to instantly transpose an idea to any key.

As I already mentioned, this is something you do all the time. For example, when I say “solo in G,” you can move your pentatonic scale to the 3rd fret, if I say “solo in B” you move your shape to the 7th fret and so on. Studying this system will allow you to treat any part of the neck as home without being forced to jump up or down to our tried-and-tested box pattern.

Now it’s worth talking about the naming convention, which is where a lot of people seem to have been confused. As most of you already know, the first (and in some cases the only) pentatonic scale we learn starts with the root on the 6th string played with the 1st finger. It’s the same with bar chords, power chords, and just about everything else. Seeing as this seems to be the starting point for most players, it makes sense to treat this as the first position than calling it the fourth shape (as in the fourth letter in CAGED), so with E as our new first shape, we refer to each shape from the EDCAG system. So when I refer to position four, I mean an idea that fits around the fourth shape of the system—the “A” shape.

Obviously we haven’t had a comprehensive look at the subject, but it should give you the basic idea. Let’s dive in and try to expand on our knowledge of the neck and use the CAGED system to take our blues beyond the box.

We’re going to focus on licks in position three today that would fit around our “C” form. My method of finding this on the neck is that we have the root on the 5th string and the notes all fall behind the root. Below in Fig. 2 you can see the diagrams for a Bb major chord using this shape along with a 7th chord and the basic 7th arpeggio.

Once you’re comfortable finding this 7th chord in any key, the next step would be to work on the Mixolydian, major pentatonic, and minor/blues pentatonic scale in that position.

Our first musical example in Fig. 3 uses the Bb major pentatonic scale (Bb–C–D–F–G). Starting out by approaching the major third from a half-step below, we move up the scale, and then bend from the 9 up to the 3. This is one of my favorite features of this position and is an idea I go to all the time. The idea repeats before finishing with another simple repeating motif that ends on the root.

The next lick in Fig. 4 is short and sweet, moving around the middle strings with a bop-inspired pattern (note the chromatic approach to the D). Again, when ascending through the shape, I’ve used the same major pentatonic motif—this just feels right here—though the line ends with a different idea showing you just how easy it is to take one simple idea and turn it into a handful of new phrases.

Fig. 5 begins as a simple phrase using the Mixolydian scale, but towards the end of bar one it gets a bit more classic blues with a switch to the minor pentatonic scale, a great sound over the I chord of a blues. It’s also worth noting the speed and ferocity of this triplet flurry. I would suggest economy picking, but if you have the technique to alternate pick it, by all means do. The line finishes by sliding into the major 3rd, hitting the root, and then jumping up the octave.

Now that you’re a little more comfortable with this position, lets try and put it into context. For this we’re going to look at the last four measures of a standard blues. After the V to IV movement the progression traditionally moves back to the I before hitting the V in the last bar for a very simple turnaround. In Fig. 6 we apply this starting in position one (the E shape), then the V chord (F7) fits nicely under the fingers when you’re playing in position three. Our first lick is very simple, sticking closely to the chords and using the phrase from Fig. 3 but transposed to F.

The last lick (Fig. 7) is a John Scofield-style idea using rhythmic displacement, you’ll also notice that to navigate the F7, I play the same motif we played earlier but transposed to F. Ideas like this should flow feely over the backing track with practice, so stick at it until you can freely switch in your mind into this new shape. For the backing track (Fig. 8), I’ve extended how long you would stay on the I chord—just so you can settle in musically.

Levi Clay
Levi Clay is a London-based guitar player, teacher, and transcriber. His unique approach to learning keeps him in constant demand from students the world over, and his expertise as a transcriber has introduced his work to a whole new audience. For more information, check out leviclay.com.

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