Learn how to solo effortlessly using the CAGED system.
- Learn how to map out the neck with five CAGED shapes.
- Create melodic lines by targeting chord tones on strong beats.
- Discover how to enhance your phrases with chromatic notes.
Originally published on March 15, 2015
The CAGED system is a subject we’ve explored many times before in Beyond Blues, and as you may know, it plays a big role in the way I teach. If you need a quick refresher, or if you’re totally new to the CAGED concept, read “A Guitarist’s Guide to the CAGED System." This CAGED approach doesn’t often generate resistance, but when it does, I usually find that it’s because of a misunderstanding of the system—there’s a lot more to it than just barre chords. While we’ve discussed arpeggios and scale fingerings several times over the years, this lesson will finally bridge the gap between those two.
When I was first learning the CAGED system, there was a time when I lacked harmonic grounding. For example, I’d be improvising over an F Lydian vamp and once you removed the chords, my lines would sound like A minor. This proved that although I was able to navigate the neck well enough, there was no sense of hierarchy in my phrasing. I was viewing all the notes in a particular scale as equals. Over time I discovered that laying a foundation in chord tones was the key to breaking out of this rut. I had to learn which notes were chord tones and which notes served as melodic embellishments. This meant I’d be able to hit all the important notes at all the important times! No more landing on the 4 of a chord and suddenly panicking.
In previous columns, we’ve focused heavily on arpeggios, and if you’ve been following this series you’ll hopefully have a solid grounding in these patterns. But to be sure you’re clear on the details, let’s highlight these again using the “C” shape of the CAGED system.
As you can see above, we’ve got three things to learn, but really they’re all very similar since the arpeggio contains the chord and the scale contains the arpeggio—that’s very important. Your goal is to be able to see the chord right away and instantly fill in the arpeggio and the scale around it.
In my experience, confusion can sometimes come when guitarists move between the chord, scale, and arpeggio. To deal with this, I came up with a little exercise (Ex. 1) that alternates between the arpeggio and the scale. You’ll start to see the scale, but won’t lose sight of where the chord tones are. I’ve done this for eight measures, but you could easily do it for 100. Remember that it’s not about numbers, you’re not learning patterns or thinking about tab, you’re seeing the two pieces of information and how they sit—and work together—with each other.
Now if we transfer this arpeggio-scale relationship to other shapes of the CAGED system, you might find yourself in the “E” shape, which would look like this:
The next step would be to transfer the concept from Ex. 1 into the “E” shape (Ex. 2).
Now check out how this would work in the “G” shape with the corresponding diagrams and exercise in Ex. 3.
Now we can apply these ideas to some actual music. Ex. 4 shows a 12-bar blues progression in the key of G. We’re using the shapes we outlined above and simply moving them around the neck as needed. I’m still thinking of the relationship between the chord, arpeggio, and scale, rather than a mode. For example, even though I’m technically playing C Mixolydian in the second measure, I’m just thinking of C7. I see the chord and the arpeggio and just fill in around it. Simply look for the chord shape.
That’s the way to do this: Look for the chord shape, make sure you land on a chord tone when the chord changes, and allow the scale to fill in around it in that position. This strategy really gives us the sound of each chord as we move through the progression.
In the final few examples, we’ll use the same approach but add in some chromaticism to enhance the lines. This highlights the fact that we’re not thinking about scales. In fact, we’re so focused on chord tones that we play melodic embellishments even if they aren’t diatonic to the key of G. Check out the last note of the first measure in Ex. 5. The Bb doesn’t actually fit over a G7 chord, but we don’t have to worry about that since we’re targeting a chord tone on the first beat of the next measure.
In Ex. 6 we take the same approach, but in the “E” shape with a few additions. In measure two, approach the chord tone on the downbeat of measure three from above. Going into the fourth measure, we descend chromatically from the b7 to the 5 and add some chromatics in the fourth measure before resolving on the 3.
We use the “G” shape for Ex. 7. It’s the same thing as before, only we’re using an enclosure at the end.
Our final example (Ex. 8) applies our chromatic approach notes to a 12-bar blues progression—an approach that really helps to smooth things over between changes. Take this one slowly and try to come up with some of your own ... then apply them while playing over the backing track below.
If you devote time to this technique in all five CAGED areas, you’ll open up your knowledge of the fretboard in a significant way. You’ll soon be in control of your phrases, no matter where you are on the neck. So good luck and get practicing!
Learn the ins and outs, ups and downs of sweep picking with this lesson by uber-shredder Nita Strauss.
• Understand the basics behind sweep picking.
• Combine sweep picking and tapping to create blistering licks.
• Learn how to play through minor and major arpeggios at warp speed.
So I’m guilty of one of the main sins of guitar playing. You know which one I mean. A lot of us do it. You spend all this time at home on a metronome working out these tricky licks and then you get on stage and you want to show them off—to everyone. Loudly. All the time. Tapping slides or pinch harmonics in between phrases of verses (cue dirty look from singer), unbelievably loud lead channel with ridiculous delay (dirty look from FOH), syncopated string-skipping nonsense (unison dirty looks from rhythm section), playing between songs when the singer is plugging the band’s website, etc, etc. I’ve lost count of how many times the other guitarist of the Iron Maidens has looked at me and said sternly: “Nita, Dave Murray does not do any dive bombs!” We do it because it makes us happy! And we feel like it’s appropriate—as in, all the time.
All of that goes to say this: Drop Dead Shred is going to be a column by one of us, for us. Guitarists who aren’t into this may not like it, but for the rest of you, I’m going to share some of my favorite fun techniques to integrate into your playing and spice things up a bit. It’ll be up to you to use your powers wisely and not get kicked out of bands for overplaying. What I plan to do in each installment is to show you a bit of the journey I went on technique-wise to get to the final version. Obviously everyone learns things in a different sequence and because I’m entirely self-taught, I’m in no way saying this is the only right way. This is what I did that worked for me. We’ll be starting with the basic version and working up to what I do now.
When I was a very early/intermediate-level guitarist—meaning just barely starting to hate life—I was not the most well-rounded player out there. I hated alternate picking, so I would sweep and tap and dive bomb my way through everything. In this first installment, we’re going to take a look at some basic ways to develop your sweep technique following the same path that I did, and in the next part we’ll start to integrate it with other licks. Sweep picking is actually an early jazz technique (the more you know) and now it’s grown to be an absolute essential in any proficient guitarist’s shred vocabulary.
Let’s talk for a minute about the metronome—every guitarist’s best friend and worst nightmare. After particularly brutal practice days or long sessions, I literally hear the click in my ear when I lay my head down as if it’s coming from inside the pillow! It’s important all the time, but in my mind it’s absolutely essential when it comes to speed-training sweeps. I’ll typically start the metronome at an almost unbearably slow speed, and set a goal of how many times I have to play it perfectly in a row. Once I’ve played it 10 times in a row perfectly—no cheating—I’ll move the metronome up, usually in increments of five bpm.
Just about all of my early solos had this three-string sweep (Fig. 1) in them, generally repeated more than once. If you’re new to sweep picking, this is a great place to start. Make sure each note is cleanly articulated, especially the pull-off at the top, which is often glossed over in the hurry to finish the shape. You’ll have heard a lot of people saying, “Just let the pick fall down the strings,” or “Just let your fingers roll.” While that’s true in a sense, it is absolutely crucial that you isolate the motions of the left and right hand and move deliberately.
Once you’ve tortured yourself with that one enough, you can move on to Fig. 2 and use more strings in your sweeps. One thing I like to do as an exercise is play a five-string sweep using the same notes, but in different positions. This helps your muscle memory adapt to not just repeating the same old pattern every time you want to achieve a certain sound.
This brings us to a lick from the solo in my band Consume the Fire’s song “There is Only Today” in Fig. 3. But here’s the twist—I’m going to show you how I do it live, not how I do it on the record. If I go to a show and see a guitarist doing their solos absolutely note-for-note like the album, I’ll be impressed. If I see them throw in some cool off-the-cuff tricks, I’ll be absolutely blown away! So I always try to incorporate some fun stuff like this in my live shows.
The beginning of this lick is a standard ascending Dm sweep with a tap, but instead of tapping on the 22nd fret for the octave on the high D, I move up the Dorian scale before ending with a C on the 20th fret. After using pull-offs to descend back down to F at the 13th fret, I move to the 2nd string with a tap on G at the 20th fret. I again use pull-offs to move down to C at the 13th fret. From there I move down a whole-step to an ascending C major sweep and do the same kind of technique.
Feel free to experiment with different phrasings of this. I’ve had grand success with doing the tapping and hammer-on/pull-off bit chromatically too. Get these down and in the next installment we’re going to talk about some more exotic sweep phrasings and more about how to integrate them naturally with other techniques.
Guitarist Nita Strauss began her career playing in clubs at age 13 and has since risen to become one of the most sought-after and versatile female guitarists on the scene today. She has dazzled audiences across the U.S., U.K., Europe, South and Central America, and Africa, and she has been featured on numerous soundtracks, most recently Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance. For more information, visit consumethefire.com.
Uncover the secrets behind Django''s style by learning about three- and four-note voicings, blazing arpeggios, and some cool diminished-sounding tricks.
• Understand the basic elements of Django Reinhardt’s style.
• Develop three- and four-note chord voicings based in the Gypsy style.
• Create arpeggio-filled lines using triads and diminished shapes.
In this lesson we’ll look at the elements that make up an exciting style of jazz known as Gypsy jazz. Inspired by the fiery improvisations of American jazz masters like Louis Armstrong, Gypsy jazz was, however, not developed in the United States. Gypsy jazz came from Paris in the form of a string band founded by guitarist Django Reinhardt and violinist Stéphane Grappelli, called Le Quintette du Hot Club de France, which set the precedent for the Gypsy-jazz ensemble and instrumentation. In the original quintet, Django and Stéphane were supported by two rhythm guitars and upright bass. To this day, one can find “Hot Club”-style groups with similar configurations flourishing throughout the world.
As a guitarist, it is important to know about Django Reinhardt, as his contribution was profound and his influence far-reaching. Chances are, many of the guitarists you’d call a guitar hero—no matter their style—would count Django’s playing as influential. Born in Liberchies, Belgium, on January 23, 1910 to a family of Manouche Gypsies, he was given the Romany name Django, which means “I awake.” Django started playing the violin, followed by the banjo-guitar, which he excelled at, and at a very young age Django was a working musician in the dancehalls of Paris.
In 1928 Django’s bright playing career was nearly ended. After returning home from an evening gig, the caravan he called home was set ablaze by a candle that ignited celluloid flowers made by Django’s wife, Bella. Both survived the blaze but Django was badly injured. He suffered extensive damage to his left hand thereby greatly diminishing his ability to use his ring finger and pinky. During a long recovery period Django was able to relearn the instrument using his fretting-hand thumb and first two fingers.
Check out this videoto see Django in action (Django’s entrance is at approximately 2:28). It’s amazing to see how he was able to travel the fretboard in such a fluid manner, despite the limitations due to his injury. You can also see how he used the injured fingers to play certain chord shapes. At first listen, this music seems daunting—especially given the virtuosity of the masters. But hopefully you’ll be equipped to begin your journey into the land of Gypsy jazz with this primer. So, let’s get started!
To capture the sound of Gypsy jazz, a focus on the rhythm guitar is a must. For now, we’ll bid open-string chord voicings adieu and focus exclusively on fretted chord grips. This is important because you must be able to control the ringing of the strings. Let’s start with an A chord (using the barred E shape) and play quarter-notes (Fig. 1).
While strumming these quarter-notes, don’t let the chord ring from one beat to the next. To achieve this, release the pressure of your fretting fingers between each strum. This creates a little separation between beats. It’s the same technique swing guitarists use when playing four-to-the-bar style comping, à la Freddie Green.
We’ll tweak things a bit with Fig. 2. On beats 1 and 3, focus on picking only the bottom few strings, and on beats 2 and 4, strum all the notes of the chord. Because the typical Hot Club group lacks drums, the rhythm guitar sonically fills this role. By playing beats 2 and 4 with more snap of the wrist from your picking hand, you can achieve a snare drum-like sound that will help things groove. Also note a common alternate fingering for the A chord.
While barre chords are used in Gypsy-style comping, three-note voicings are also common and are relatively easy to play. Fig. 3 shows a three-note voicing that’s finger-friendly and has multiple uses.
When playing this chord, be sure not to play the 1st, 2nd, and 5th strings. You can use your 2nd finger to block the 5th string, which allows you to strum through the shape. This chord has multiple functions, depending on which note you determine to be the root. Two common chord functions of this shape are the minor 6 chord and a rootless dominant 7. The classic tune “Minor Swing” can be played with only four chords, and you can play three of those four chords using the voicing from Fig. 3. You can see, in Fig. 4, that Am6, Dm6, and E7 are all played using the same chord shape. The empty circle in the E7 indicates the root—don’t play this note. It's there for you to visualize the location of the root, allowing you to create other dominant 7 chords by moving the shape up or down the neck.
With the addition of another dominant 7 chord shape in Fig. 5, we’re now ready to play the chord progression to “Minor Swing.”
Before we dig into the progression, check out the following YouTube clip. This video features Django and Stéphane with the original quintet playing “Minor Swing.” Pay special attention to the groove that is created by the rhythm guitars.
Now it’s your turn. Try playing the progression in Fig. 6 with the three-note voicings.
We can fill out the previous voicings by adding a note on the 2nd string to each chord shape, as illustrated in Fig. 7. In doing so, we add the 5 to the minor 6 chord and the 9 to the dominant 7 voicing. The shape we’re using to play Bb7 has the 5 added to it, as well. Try playing the progression in Fig. 6 with these expanded voicings.
Django also recorded American jazz standards. Here are a few voicings we’ll need to play some of these standards. Let’s start with a minor 7 voicing that flows nicely into the rootless dominant 9 we’ve just learned. In Fig. 8, the chords Gm7 and C9 create a common progression found in jazz standards called the IIm-V progression.
Next, we’ll add the tonic (or I chord), which in this case is an F major chord, to this progression to create a IIm-V-I progression. We could use a barred F chord, but we can spice it up a bit by adding the 6 to the triad to create an F6 chord. The 6 is a common tone added to the triad, not only for comping but also for solo lines. (We’ll explore the latter a bit later.) In Fig. 9, you can see a few useful major 6 voicings.
Apply these chords to the A section of “Honeysuckle Rose,” as shown in Fig. 10. Use the first voicing in Fig. 9 to play the F6 in this example.
Take Your Pick
Let’s shift our focus to lead playing. Before we dig into some of Django’s lines, let’s talk picks. In this style of playing, thicker picks are preferred over thin ones. Check out pick maker Michel Wegen’s Gypsyjazzpick, which is 3.5 mm thick, and his massive 5 mm Fatone pick. Experiment with various pick materials and thicknesses to find the tone you’re looking for with a comfortable feel. Your pick grip should not be tight. An excessive grip only adds tension to your playing—it’s fatiguing and slows you down.
If you are used to strict alternate picking, you’ll find Gypsy-style picking to be a bit different. Without going into great detail here, follow the general rule of playing a downstroke at each string change and you’ll be off to a good start. For more information on Gypsy jazz picking, check out Michael Horowitz’s book Gypsy Picking, which is available at DjangoBooks.com. At this site you’ll find other resources that may be helpful.
Next, it’s on to lead playing. We’ll start with an overview of common elements and devices employed by Django in his line construction, and then look at a handful of his lines that incorporate these elements and devices.
The first device used to create lines is the arpeggio. Arpeggios play a big part in Django’s line construction. Not always using the extended arpeggios one might expect when dealing with jazz, Django created wonderfully exciting and colorful lines using the triad as the core building block. If you take time to listen and transcribe the melody to “Minor Swing,” you’ll find it is composed of arpeggiated minor and major triads.
Another device used in line creation is the chromatic approach. By approaching chord tones by either a half-step above or below (and in some cases, both) you can add color to your lines without having to learn exotic scales. When it’s time to expand the harmony beyond the triad, a common added tone is the 6. This happens over both major and minor chords. Incorporating major and minor 6 arpeggio practice into your workout routine is time well spent.
Django wove the elements and devices mentioned above (plus many others) into beautifully crafted statements. I’ve chosen a few licks to help illustrate this. You’ll find the bulk of the analysis is placed directly into the music notation. Given the seamless way Django combined these elements and devices, it seems like a clearer way to highlight them.
The first lick, Fig. 11, is a great example of chromatic approaches. The harmony he’s soloing over is a C7, and he approaches the root and the 5 from both above and below. You can hear this in the following YouTube clip of him playing “Honeysuckle Rose” at approximately 0:58 into the song.
The next two licks can be heard on Django’s recording of “Honeysuckle Rose” with the original quintet. In the following video, Fig. 12 is at approximately 0:51 and Fig. 13 is at 1:10.
Fig. 12 is over the A section of “Honeysuckle Rose.” Interesting rhythmic variety occurs in the first five measures of this line, and is created by starting a similarly crafted phrase on different beats of the measure. The first phrase starts on beat 3, the second on beat 2, and the third on the “and” of 2.
The diminished 7 arpeggio is used frequently, typically being played over a dominant 7 chord to create a dominant 7b9 sound. For example, over an F7 chord play an Adim7 arpeggio. The combination of the two sounds results in an F7b9.
Fig. 13 is at the start of the bridge. Check out how the Adim7 arpeggio (over the F7) resolves to the 6 (or 13) of the Bb6 chord. Super cool!
All right, we’ll wrap this section up with a few licks played over the Gershwin standard “Lady Be Good.” These licks can be heard on the following video clip at approximately 0:57 and 2:06.
Django’s playing impacted generations of players (jazzers and non-jazzers alike), and his legacy lives on with “Hot Clubs” found throughout the world, as well as festivals—some bearing his name—devoted to this style. For more in-depth information on Django and Gypsy jazz, check out Michael Dregni’s books (Django: The Life and Music of a Gypsy Legend and Django Reinhardt and the Illustrated History of Gypsy Jazz).
My hope is that this lesson will help tune your ears to some of the nuance in the rhythm guitar, as well as some of the colors present in Django’s lines, and inspire you to dig further into this beautiful and exciting style.
Mike Cramer is an award-winning performer and educator. A stylistically versatile multi-instrumentalist, Cramer has shared the stage with or opened for B.B. King, Tommy Castro, Chris Duarte, Gordon Goodwin, John Hartford, and Steve Kaufman. Cramer co-founded All 12 Notes, LLC where he has a private lesson studio, teaching guitar, mandolin, and electric bass. His most recent CD release, Open Spaces, is a collection of original and traditional acoustic pieces. For more information, visit all12notes.com.