Supercharge your solos with the potent fretboard approach used by legendary players like Robben Ford.
• Improve your understanding of the CAGED system.
• Connect fretboard patterns to create longer lines.
• Learn how to use Lydian dominant and diminished scales.
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Over the years I’ve received many questions about the CAGED system, and that’s why I continue to emphasize this approach so much. Typically the questions come from people interested in learning what all the fuss is about—and this can be especially true if they’ve encountered someone who is critical of the CAGED approach. A detractor might say, “Do you want to be stuck in a cage?” or “You can’t play fast using CAGED.” (Speed is the end goal of playing music?)
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. In this lesson we’ll revisit the time-tested technique to discover how useful it can be. If CAGED is entirely new to you, take a moment to read “The Guitarist’s Guide to CAGED” before going any further.
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. When it comes to learning about the guitar neck, I learned pentatonic scales like everyone does and found the three-note-per-string patterns via Zakk Wylde and Paul Gilbert. From there I picked up triad arpeggios from Jason Becker, 7th-chord arpeggios from Mike Stern, Frank Gambale’s economy picking, and even Derryl Gabel’s “313313” pentatonic system. Exploring these methods doesn’t hurt, and I still use them, but I find that as a player and teacher the tool I use the most and that had the biggest impact on my playing is the CAGED system.
You may think the CAGED system is about chords, but it’s not. In the same way that a car consists of a lot more than the body, the chordal principals of CAGED are its foundation, but the system goes so much further than that.
Instantly knowing all the notes of a scale all over the fretboard appears to be a feat of superhuman memory, but:
- If you can see root notes, then you can see chords.
- If you can see chords, then you can see arpeggios.
- If you can see arpeggios, then you can see scales.
From this perspective, learning scales or improvising doesn’t have to be stressful. You’re at the 9th fret and you need to play A Lydian dominant? No problem. I can see the root note, the A7 chord, the A7 arpeggio, and I can see the scale. If you’re struggling to see any step, then it’s as simple as working on the previous stage until it’s effortless. In the diagram below you can see how we would handle A Lydian dominant from root to scale.
Of course, it doesn’t matter if you use the term CAGED or not, CAGED is merely a method of communication. If you play the pentatonic scale in five shapes, you’re using CAGED. If you play barre chords, you’re using CAGED. Going back to our bread analogy, you may think of yeast as magic smelly brown powder—you don’t need to understand what it is or why it works to use it. In my experience as a transcriber, there are very few players—maybe fewer than five—who don’t demonstrate any trace of CAGED in their playing. Allan Holdsworth and Pat Metheny are the two who first come to mind.
So how does this all apply to us actually playing the guitar, and what benefits are there? I’ve played and transcribed three solos below with each one becoming progressively more harmonically complex.
In our first solo (Ex. 1) we’re sticking almost exclusively to the A minor pentatonic scale (A–C–D–E–G). This is something you might expect from one of the great blues-rock players like Eric Clapton or Stevie Ray Vaughan.
The solo starts in the “E” shape, which is closely related to the minor pentatonic box shape in 5th position. Clapton’s influence is extremely apparent in the phrasing here. In the first four measures we move between the “E” shape and “D” shape. It’s a great example of moving between positions by sliding up the 2nd string.
We are sticking with these two shapes for the IV chord (D7), but I’m also adding the b5 (Eb) for a little Stevie Ray Vaughan-style lick. The phrasing here is simple, just using the notes of the minor pentatonic scale with some interesting rhythms to keep the solo moving. Never forget the power of this scale no matter how much you learn. It’s always going to be a major contender for the best option when soloing.
More SRV influences start to appear in the seventh measure. Notice the b3-to-3 hammer-on over the A7 before a triplet-based line that also touches on the b9 (Bb). This is obviously classic Stevie, and it’s very much a case of, “It sounds good, so it is good.” The CAGED system just allows me to better visualize it.
To finish the solo, we’re just using more of the minor pentatonic scale. There’s nothing really complicated in this solo—apart from perhaps the pace—but it’s a great place to start before developing.
In Ex. 2 we’re using more of the Mixolydian scale. When you compare the minor pentatonic (1–b3–4–5–b7) with the Mixolydian (1–2–3–4–5–6–b7), you’ll notice the only additions are the 2, 3, and 6. If you can learn where these notes are in relation to each chord, you’ll be able to use them freely.
In measure one we start in the “A” shape with a bend from the b3 to the 3 before touching on the 5 (E) and 6 (F#) on the 1st string. For the “quick change” in the second measure, I move down to the “A” shape in the key of D and descend through D Mixolydian (D–E–F#–G–A–B–C) scale before sliding into the 3 (C#) of the A7 and resolving to the root.
Measure four features some straight-up Mixolydian playing over the A7 that targets the 3 (F#) of the D7 chord in the next measure. Over the next few measures we’ll take simple fragments and move them through the CAGED shapes. I start with a three-note fragment based around the 3, 5, and b7 of D7 before moving up to the “G” shape and focusing on the root, 5, and b7. The resolution into the A7 comes with a simple move up to the 3 (C#).
Technically, we move to the “D” shape here which isn’t one of my favorite places, so the move to the “E” shape is quick. Check out how I touch on the b5 (Eb) on the way down. I’m comfortably back in the A blues scale here.
Over the E7 we target some chord tones based in the “A” shape before moving down and hitting the 5 and b7 of the D7. For me, this is where the system really took my playing to the next level. Suddenly I was able to outline chords very simply, and with time that became more sophisticated.
The final solo (Ex. 3) isn’t balanced at all—there are far too many triplet runs—but it showcases how we can use the system to outline chord changes, and also bring in new sounds, either in the form of superimposed harmony or chromaticism. The CAGED system will make sure you never lose sight of the chord sound.
The solo starts in the “C” shape and moves up the A major pentatonic scale (A–B–C#–E–F#) before changing to the D Mixolydian scale for the IV chord. In the fourth measure, we’re treating the A7 as an altered chord and choosing notes from the A half-whole diminished scale (A–Bb–C–Db–Eb–E–F#–G). I’m using simple triadic concepts that are loosely based around C major and minor triads before moving down to an F# triad (which gives us an A13b9 sound). We then resolve the tension over the D7 with our trusty Mixolydian scale in the “A” shape.
For the second half of the D7 chord, we use the jazzy-sounding D Lydian dominant scale (D–E–F#–G#–A–B–C). Although this is a mode of the melodic minor scale, using the CAGED system and knowing the intervals makes it easier to put into practice. (It helps to think of this scale as a Mixolydian scale with a #4.) I know where the root, chord, and arpeggio are so I only need to focus on one note (G#) to get that sound. Over the IV chord, it has a real Robben Ford or Scotty Anderson sound—especially when we resolve to the sliding sixths in the “C” position.
For the E7 chord, we start in the “G” shape and descend chromatically playing the b5 and the b3 in the “A” shape. This combination of the Mixolydian and blues scale is a staple of any fusion player.
We use a similar approach over D7. By sticking tightly to the D Mixolydian scale and adding the occasional chromatic approach note (F to F#), we ultimately land on the 3 of the A7. For our final E7 chord, we enter the “E” shape and use notes that fit within the E half-whole diminished scale (E–F–G–Ab–Bb–B–C#–D) to create tension that resolves upward to the A7.
Now, it’s your turn: Use this simple backing track in A to not only practice some of the licks in these examples, but to also create your own.