It doesn’t matter if you play in a ’90s country cover band or play in a band that only does metal versions of pop tunes—the system still works.
- Understand the basic elements of the CAGED system.
- Learn to visualize chords and phrases all over the fretboard.
- Develop a more global view of harmony within a key.
The CAGED system is simple way of visualizing the fretboard. Learn to visualize five chord shapes and pretty soon you will be flowing up and down the neck. The main thing I love about the CAGED system is that it can be applied to any type of music. It doesn’t matter if you play in a ’90s country outfit or play in a band that only does metal versions of pop tunes—the system still works.
When we first pick up the guitar the main goal is to play songs we like quickly, and that often involves working up the open-position chords. It’s not usual to start with C, A, G, E, and D—especially if you’re playing in the key of A, G, or D. All of the chord shapes can be moved up the neck to create patterns that you can use to craft solos or embellish chords. Let’s start off with the basic patterns in open-voiced chords (C) and then work our way up the neck into block or barre chord shapes (A through D).
The first two examples will familiarize you with the shapes we want to use. To make things a bit easier, we will stick in the key of C for all our examples. Ex. 1 and Ex. 2 will give you the foundation for what we will be working with. Ex. 1 consists of open-voiced “cowboy” chords that we first learn as beginners. Ex. 2 shows how you can take a C major chord and move it through all the various CAGED shapes.
Now it’s time to play some music. In Ex. 3 I’ve outlined a simple lick in the “C” shape. Notice while it does imply melodic ideas for other harmonies, it still stays in one position. Plus, we stay entirely in the key of C.
In Ex. 4 we now will be using “A” shape, but still play in the key of C. This example contains blue notes (b5 and b3 ) which give it a different, almost dominant-sounding vibe.
With Ex. 5 we move up to the “G” shape. This is a nice pedal-steel lick with a couple of added notes like a b3 and b6. Make sure to use your ring finger for the bends at the 7th fret of the 3rd string, and bend towards the floor, or away from the held G on the 4th string.
Let’s move up the neck again to “E” shape for Ex. 6. This lick is almost a line to a fiddle tune and mostly diatonic except for a b3. I also used repetition here to give it a more melodic feel. I simply took the phrase I played on the 1st string and moved it down one string to repeat it and extend the idea.
Ex. 7 is a nice pedal-tone idea with a repeated theme in the “D” shape, which can be the most difficult to get your hands around. Rhythmically, I wanted to change things up, so I started on the “and” of beat 4 before diving into the repeated pedal-tone idea. In the second measure I outline a 1st inversion F major chord, overlap it with a 2nd inversion F major chord, and then descend a D minor motif before resolving in the final measure.
In Ex. 8 we combine several CAGED patterns and move up the neck. A common way to do move between position is to repeat a motif through the scale. Here, I’m using a double-stop bluegrass lick with some dead note clucks.
Now let’s approach that same idea of an ascending line but do it diatonically (using notes only in the C major scale). There’s a thematic component to Ex. 9 as we are ascending and mimicking the same part up the neck with different notes.
Ex. 10 is a diatonic lick that has rhythmic hits embedded into it. It also implies other chords to make it harmonically more interesting.
Our final example (Ex. 11) is a complex descending line with a bluesy feel to it. It borrows notes not found in the C major scale as chromatic passing tones to spice it up.
And there you have it. The CAGED system is an incredibly powerful tool. But remember, with great power comes great responsibility.
The silky smooth slide man may raise a few eyebrows with his gear—a hollow, steel-bodied baritone and .017s on a Jazzmaster—but every note and tone he plays sounds just right.
KingTone’s The Duellist is currently Ariel Posen’s most-used pedal. One side of the dual drive (the Bluesbreaker voicing) is always on. But there’s another duality at play when Posen plugs in—the balance between songwriter and guitarist.
“These days, I like listening to songs and the story and the total package,” Posen told PG back in 2019, when talking about his solo debut, How Long, after departing from his sideman slot for the Bros. Landreth. “Obviously, I’m known as a guitar player, but my music and the music I write is not guitar music. It’s songs, and it goes back to the Beatles. I love songs, and I love story and melody and singing, and there was a lot of detail and attention put into the guitar sound and the playing and the parts—almost more than I’ve ever done.”
And in 2021, he found himself equally expressing his yin-and-yang artistry by releasing two albums that represented both sides of his musicality. First, Headway continued the sultry sizzle of songwriting featured on How Long. Then he surprised everyone, especially guitarists, by dropping Mile End, which is a 6-string buffet of solo dishes with nothing but Ariel and his instrument of choice.
But what should fans expect when they see him perform live? “I just trust my gut. I can reach more people by playing songs, and I get moved more by a story and lyrics and harmony, so that’s where I naturally go. The live show is a lot more guitar centric. If you want to hear me stretch out on some solos, come see a show. I want the record and the live show to be two separate things.”
The afternoon ahead of Posen’s headlining performance at Nashville’s Basement East, the guitar-playing musical force invited PG’s Chris Kies on stage for a robust chat about gear. The 30-minute conversation covers Posen’s potent pair of moody blue bombshells—a hollow, metal-bodied Mule Resophonic and a Fender Custom Shop Jazzmaster—and why any Two-Rock is his go-to amp. He also shares his reasoning behind avoiding effects loops and volume pedals.
Brought to you by D’Addario XPND Pedalboard.
Blue the Mule III
If you’ve spent any time with Ariel Posen’s first solo record, How Long, you know that the ripping, raunchy slide solo packed within “Get You Back” is an aural high mark. As explained in a 2019 PG interview, Posen’s pairing for that song were two cheapos: a $50 Teisco Del Rey into a Kay combo. However, when he took the pawnshop prize onstage, the magic was gone. “It wouldn’t stay in tune and wouldn’t stop feeding back—it was unbearable [laughs].”
Posen was familiar with Matt Eich of Mule Resophonic—who specializes in building metal-body resonators—so he approached the luthier to construct him a steel-bodied, Strat-style baritone. Eich was reluctant at first (he typically builds roundneck resos and T-style baritones), but after seeing a clip of Posen playing live, the partnership was started.
The above steel-bodied Strat-style guitar is Posen’s third custom 25"-scale baritone. (On Mule Resophonic’s website, it’s affectionately named the “Posencaster.”) The gold-foil-looking pickups are handwound by Eich, and are actually mini humbuckers. He employs a custom Stringjoy set (.017–.064 with a wound G) and typically tunes to B standard. The massive strings allow the shorter-scale baritone to maintain a regular-tension feel. And when he gigs, he tours light (usually with two guitars), so he’ll use a capo to morph into D or E standard.
Another one that saw recording time for Headway and Mile End was the above Fender Custom Shop Masterbuilt ’60s Jazzmaster, made by Carlos Lopez. To make it work better for him, he had the treble-bleed circuit removed, so that when the guitar’s volume is lowered it actually gets warmer.
"Clean and Loud"
Last time we spoke with Posen, he plugged into a Two-Rock Classic Reverb Signature. It’s typically his live amp. However, since this winter’s U.S. run was a batch of fly dates, he packed light and rented backlines. Being in Music City, he didn’t need to go too deep into his phone’s contacts to find a guitar-playing friend that owned a Two-Rock. This Bloomfield Drive was loaned to Ariel by occasional PG contributor Corey Congilio. On the brand’s consistent tone monsters, Posen said, “To be honest, put a blindfold on me and make one of Two-Rock’s amps clean and loud—I don’t care what one it is.”
The loaner vertical 2x12 cab was stocked with a pair of Two-Rock 12-65B speakers made by Warehouse Guitar Speakers.
Ariel Posen’s Pedalboard
There are a handful of carryovers from Ariel’s previous pedalboard that was featured in our 2021 tone talk: a TC Electronic PolyTune 3 Noir, a Morningstar MC3 MIDI Controller, an Eventide H9, a Mythos Pedals Argonaut Mini Octave Up, and a KingTone miniFUZZ Ge. His additions include a custom edition Keeley Hydra Stereo Reverb & Tremolo (featuring Headway artwork), an Old Blood Noise Endeavors Black Fountain oil can delay, Chase Bliss Audio Thermae Analog Delay and Pitch Shifter, and a KingTone The Duellist overdrive.
Another big piece of the tonal pie for Posen is his signature brass Rock Slide. He worked alongside Rock Slide’s Danny Songhurst to develop his namesake slide that features a round-tip end that helps Posen avoid dead spots or unwanted scratching. While he prefers polished brass, you can see above that it’s also available in a nickel-plated finish and an aged brass.
Open-string licks, hand-wrenching bends, blazing double-stops, and much more.
- Learn how to incorporate outside notes to a Mixolydian scale.
- Understand how to phrase in both traditional and modern country settings.
- Create a deeper vocabulary over dominant chords.
How many times are you paralyzed by the sheer number of options you can play over a dominant chord? It’s probably one of the only chords where nearly anything works if you land correctly. One of the most common sounds to use is the Mixolydian scale, which is simply a major scale with a lowered 7. But let’s add on to this sound by expanding our musical Mixolydian palette with a few blue notes and some chromatic embellishments.
The first four examples will be played over a “train” beat. Think more old-school and traditional country. We will look at a few modern applications later on. In Ex. 1 we are thinking C Mixolydian (C–D–E–F–G–A–Bb) over a C major chord. It’s very common to treat major chords as dominants. Other than the hammer-on to the 3 on beat 3 the entire lick falls nicely within the scale.
Ex. 2 is a nice way to incorporate open-string ideas over a major I chord (in this case, C). The back half of the lick has a nice chromatic passing tone that leads nicely into the next chord (F). Make sure to let each note ring out as long as possible.
Connecting chord tones is a crucial element of country guitar. In Ex. 3 I start with a double-stop that directly outlines the essential notes of an F7 chord (Eb and A) before I slip into another double-strop phrase that hints around that same sound. In measure 2 I approach the chord tones of a G major triad (G–B–D) chromatically before winding things up with a trademark country bend.
Ex. 4 is an alternate way of approaching the same two chords (F and G). This would be more how a pedal-steel player might phrase the line. The string of sixths gives the pre-bends a connecting theme. Make sure to hold the last bend, hit the G on the 1st string twice, then release. This creates cool tension that resolves nicely back into the C chord.
You now have several ideas that work well over a 1–4–5 progression on a train beat that’s common to more traditional country. Let’s move to a different groove and vibe that might be considered more modern.
Ex. 5 is played over a E7 chord. This one gets to the heart of using chromatic connecting notes or passing tones. You can really hear the tension the extra possibilities add to this slippery lick.
This lick (Ex. 6) reminds me of how Larry Carlton might approach playing over a E7 chord. Once again, using notes not found in the Mixolydian scale offers a different texture to the musical line, especially the slides in the first measure and the chromatic approaches to the root and 3 in the second measure.
Same groove, different chords. In this case (Ex. 7), one measure of G and one of A. I approach the 3 of the G chord by a half-step right at the top and then repeat it an octave up in the next beat before immediate descending back down to the open 3rd string. The double-stops in the second measure offer a hint of tension before resolving on beat 3.
Ex. 8 is a “no frills” approach and sticks entirely within the A Mixolydian scale (A–B–C#–D–E–F#–G). The entire second measure reminds me of the main lick to Eagles’ “Life in the Fast Lane.”
So, there you have it. More note options will lead to more possibilities to choose from. Some examples just add one extra note, others much more than that. The most important thing is finding what works for you. Until next time!
Steal inspiration, vocabulary, and picking techniques from legendary acoustic players.
- Improve your alternate picking.
- Discover how to use the “country” scale.
- Create a deeper understanding of chord shapes across the neck.
There have been many bluegrass guitar icons, from the pioneering Doc Watson, Clarence White, and Tony Rice, to such modern masters as Bryan Sutton and David Grier. Today, younger players like Molly Tuttle and Carl Miner keep the genre alive.
Traditionally, bluegrass is played on acoustic instruments. Some people will tell you that putting the words “electric” and “bluegrass” in the same sentence creates an oxymoron, like “baroque jazz.” Although those purists have a valid point, electric bluegrass and newgrass are accepted genres that take influence from the early pickers and apply it to more modern instrumentation. And that’s exactly what we’ll do right now.
This lesson will focus on the fundamental techniques and note choices you’ll need to unlock the essence of flatpick guitar. Once you digest the basics, you’ll be ready to steal endless amounts of vocabulary from the masters of the style. The first thing to discuss is alternate-picking technique. Traditional flatpickers exist in a purely acoustic world, and being heard over loud banjos, Dobros, and fiddles is extremely important. The best way to achieve this is with a strong picking hand that’s capable of projecting each note to the audience.
Ex. 1 is a simple ascending and descending G major pentatonic scale (G–A–B–D–E). This is played with strict alternate picking: Begin with a downstroke, then follow it with an upstroke, then play a downstroke, and so on.
The problem with alternate picking will always be when you cross strings. (Note: Entire books have been devoted to this subject—we’re just scratching the surface here.) The two aspects we’ll examine right now are “inside” and “outside” picking.
Outside picking is what happens when you pick a string, and then while targeting the next one, you jump over it and swing back to pick it. The flatpick attacks the outside edges of the two strings.
In Ex. 2, play the A string with a downstroke, then the D string with an upstroke. This is outside motion. Each subsequent string crossing motion uses this outside picking technique.
Most players find the outside mechanics easier than the more restrictive inside motion. As you may be able to work out, inside picking technique is where your pick is stuck between two strings.
The following lick (Ex. 3) uses only this inside motion. Play it slowly and then compare how fast and accurately you can play it relative to Ex. 2.
You won’t have the luxury of structuring all your phrases to eliminate one motion or the other, so it’s best to accept this reality and develop the skills needed to get by with both approaches. The best of the best didn’t make excuses, they just played down-up-down-up over and over for decades.
Ex. 4 features one note per string. This fast string-crossing motion requires a good level of proficiency with both inside and outside approaches to build up any sort of speed.
The secret to alternate picking isn’t to always alternate pickstrokes between notes, but to keep the motion of the hand going. In short, the hand will move in the alternating fashion whether or not you strike a string. If you have a stream of eighth-notes, they’ll be alternate picked, but if there are some quarter-notes thrown in, the hand won’t freeze and wait for the next note. You’ll play the note with a downstroke, move up and not play anything, then drop back onto the strings and play the next note with a downstroke (Ex. 5).
This way all your downbeats are played with downstrokes and upbeats are upstrokes. You’ll see people refer to this as “strict alternate picking.” With that out of the way, it’s worth looking at the note choices of a typical bluegrass player.
A quick analysis of some bluegrass tunes will reveal this isn’t harmonically complex music. Nearly all of the chords you’re going to be dealing with are major and minor triads, so note choice isn’t going to break the brain.
One approach would be to play a line based on the major scale of the key you’re in. For example, if you’re playing a song in G, the G major scale (G–A–B–C–D–E–F#) makes a good starting point.
A more stylistically appropriate approach would be to use the “country scale,” which is a major pentatonic scale with an added b3. In G that would be G–A–Bb–B–D–E. Ex. 6 shows this scale played beginning in the open position and moving up on the 3rd string.
Let’s put all this into practice. Ex. 7 shows a line built around a G chord using this strict alternate-picking motion applied to string crossing mechanics in both directions. This sticks closely to the country scale, but there’s also an added C in the third measure to allow the 3 to land on the downbeat of measure four.
This next line (Ex. 8) uses the same idea, but now beginning up at the 5th fret area and moving down over the course of the lick.
It’s worth looking at each string crossing to categorize it as inside or outside. This will help further your understanding of the importance of these two picking techniques.
Here’s another idea around G (Ex. 9), but to create some smoother motion, this time we add notes from G Mixolydian (G–A–B–C–D–E–F), as well as a bluesy Db (b5) as a chromatic passing tone. The trick here is nailing all the position shifts as you’re going from the 3rd fret up to the 10th fret.
Our final example (Ex. 10) takes what we’ve learned about approaching a major chord and applies it to two different chords. First, we have two measures of G, then C, and back to G.
When playing over the C, your note choice changes to the country scale, but now built from C (C–D–Eb–E–G–A). Switching between these chords poses a technical challenge, along with a visual one. Take your time with a lick like this, and make sure you’re able to see the underlying chord at all times.
We will be thinking of dominant chords as they relate to a diatonic major scale. All our examples will be based in the key of G major (G–A–B–C–D–E–F#), but first let’s learn how to make a dominant 7 chord from scratch.
The formula, or numerical representation of a dominant chord, is 1–3–5–b7. Simply, take every other note (starting on the root) and then lower the 7 by a half-step. If we base this formula over our G major scale, only one dominant 7 chord appears naturally: D7 (D–F#–A–C). It also implies the D Mixolydian scale (D–E–F#–G–A–B–C), which is the fifth mode of the G major scale.
Ex. 1 starts off with a single-note line played at a moderately fast tempo. Right off the bat, I outline a D9 sound by adding in the E. Slide down with the index finger on the 3rd string from the 7th to 5th fret to achieve the proper fingering. You will also use your index finger on the 4th string for the slide down from the 5th to 4th fret. I recommend playing a D7 chord before and after each lick to help connect your ear with the sound of the line.
Incorporating double-stops and fragmented parts of a D7 chord are central to Ex. 2. Notice how the passing notes of B, G, and E quickly shift the ear to an Em triad (E–G–B). Passing notes add a nice element to your phrases just by using different note and intervallic choices found naturally in the Mixolydian mode.
In Ex. 3 I outline several descending triads in a phrase that reminds me of how bebop musicians would approach outlining a dominant chord. I start with a Bm7 arpeggio (B–D–F#–A) before sliding down into an Am7 arpeggio (A–C–E–G). (Another great idea is to take just the first two beats of this example and work in out in different keys all over the neck.) I then jump down an octave and hit a Bm arpeggio (B–D–F#). I end with a little open-string pull-off before sliding into a D7 chord.
Ex. 4 is a great open-string lick played in only two positions but has so much going on with it. I like the back end of the lick where the rub of those major and minor seconds clash together. I picked most of the notes and let them ring as long as possible. Using a bit of delay at 250ms helps the notes sustain more and “bleeds” the notes together, but each note needs a separate attack.
Ex. 5 is another great open-string sequence. The fingering can be really tricky here, so start with your index finger on the 2nd string and your pinky hitting the F# on the 3rd string. After the pull-off, use your pinky for the A on the 2nd string. After that, the rest of the lick lays out nicely. With any type of flowing, open-string idea make sure to hold the notes as long as possible.
Since we are approaching these licks from a country angle, it was only a matter of time before we got our hands around a pedal-steel lick. Ex. 6 is one way to navigate a D7 sound—but it’s a real finger twister. The key here is to make your bends surgical and really nail the pitch. Take it slow and try to match the recording.
Ex. 7 is a triple-stop chordal idea with some rhythmic syncopation. If we break down the chord shapes, you can see that they are familiar patterns. I start with an A minor triad and slide into a B minor triad before hitting two G triads—all in the first beat! Knowing how the diatonic harmony works in terms of triads is invaluable for phrases like this.
Players like Brad Paisley and Brent Mason are absolute masters of using open-string pull-offs to navigate all over the neck. Ex. 8 is my take on something they might play. Make sure to nail the “cluck” right before the bend as it adds an element of chicken pickin’ to the lick. Grab that bend with your ring and pinky for more strength and control.
As you can see there are lots of ways to be creative with just seven notes. Take even just a tiny piece of these phrases and see if you can work them into your own playing. Until next time!