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!
When learning guitar, the biggest challenge isn’t mastering fingerings, but rather how to put them together in a musical way. Here are some cool tricks for moving from one shape to another.
• Connect different areas of the fretboard with some clever fingerings.
• Create lines that outline changes and move through various CAGED positions.
• Learn how to target chord tones.
Click here to download a printable PDF of this lesson's notation.
One of the most frustrating aspects of learning the guitar is that feeling of being stuck in a box. Some people will tell you it’s a byproduct of the system you use. In reality, unless you have hands that can cover 24 frets without having to move, learning the guitar in sections is inevitable. Whether you choose to see the neck in five small chunks (CAGED), or seven chunks (three-note-per-string shapes), or something entirely different, connecting these positions is essential if you seek the freedom to play what you want, not merely what your shape allows.
As an example, here’s the A Mixolydian scale (A–B–C#–D–E–F#–G) covering three octaves (Ex. 1). I’ve started around the 5th fret, but shifted up on the 1st string to reach the high A.
But fretting eight notes on one string isn’t ideal, so here’s the same scale, but played starting in a higher position on the neck (Ex. 2). The result? Reaching the high notes requires fewer position shifts, but you sacrifice the scale’s lowest octave.
To me, it seems logical to have a collection of musical ways to connect these positions. I use the CAGED system when I play blues and jazz, so I have five box patterns as a framework, but that alone isn’t enough to guarantee interesting or inspired phrases. Instead, I like to use other ideas to connect these areas. Ex. 3 shows a series of diatonic thirds moving up the neck. This is a great way to melodically navigate from the 5th fret to the 12th fret, and while I won’t play these thirds as harmonic intervals like this, they offer an effective framework for constructing melodies.
Before looking at the eight licks I’ve got for you, here’s the rhythm guitar part (Ex. 4). It uses simple triads on the middle three strings taken from the key of D against an A bass note to create a cool Mixolydian modal vamp.
Ex. 5 begins at the 12th fret and uses the notes from the A Mixolydian scale, with the b3 (C) added as a passing tone between the B and C#. Beats 3 and 4 take advantage of the thirds we looked at on the 3rd and 2nd strings, this time descending and played one note at a time. The second half of the lick completes the transition into the 5th position, targeting the C# in the chord, and ending on the b7 (G).
The next lick (Ex. 6) does the opposite: It starts in 5th position and ends at the 17th fret on the 1st string. The first two beats are classic blues-fusion phrasing, again using the b3-to-3 move. Beats 3 and 4 ascend up the neck in thirds on the 3rd and 2nd strings before jumping over to the 3 (C#) on the 1st string via the C. There are shades of bluegrass in the second half of the phrase. I’d suggest using the second finger for the A on the 10th fret and then jumping up to the 12th fret with your first finger.
Ex. 7 begins in the open position, again taking advantage of that bluesy b3-to-3 movement and transitioning to 5th position at the end of beat 3 with a slide on the 3rd string. To take this lick to a new place, I opted to use diatonic sixths, rather than thirds.
In Ex. 8, we begin by approaching the 3 (C#) on the 1st string before beginning our descent. The lick then moves up to the 9th fret and ascends the A major pentatonic scale (A–B–C#–E–F#) before shifting up to 12th position via a slide on the 2nd string and playing the Mixolydian scale with the added b3.
I can’t overstate how valuable the Mixolydian scale is in these situations. Again, for Ex. 9 we’re in 5th position and use some well-placed thirds to get down into open position and resolve with both the 7 (G#) and b5 (Eb) added in for fun.
Arpeggios are key to playing through Ex. 10. After a few scale fragments, we move into a C#m7b5 (C#–E–G–B) arpeggio on beat 3. We then descend through the minor pentatonic scale before sliding into an Em7 arpeggio on beat two.
The A blues scale (A–C–D–Eb–E–G) plays a starring role in Ex. 11. We start in 3rd position before sliding up to 5th position and transitioning to the Mixolydian scale. It ends with a subtle shift and some sixths on the 3rd and 5th strings.
The final lick (Ex. 12) begins with the A blues scale at the 5th fret before climbing the neck using thirds on the 2nd and 3rd strings. The lick finishes with a classic idea that includes walking chromatically from the 3 to the 5, then approaching the 3 again from a half-step below.
Finally, here’s a backing track for practicing some of these ideas. As always, try the phrases I’ve shown you, but don’t be afraid to use them as a springboard for your own ideas. The sooner you start developing your own vocabulary, the sooner you start sounding like you.
The legendary Elvis sideman was a pioneer of rockabilly guitar, and his approach to merging blues and country influenced generations of guitar pickers. Here’s how he did it.
• Craft simple blues-based phrases that lie within the CAGED system.
• Understand how double-stops are used in rockabilly music.
• Improve your Travis picking.
Click here to download a printable PDF of this lesson's notation.
In 2016 we lost one of the most influential guitarists and unsung heroes the world has ever known. The driving force behind Elvis Presley’s first recordings, Winfield Scott “Scotty” Moore III helped shape the sound of rock ’n’ roll and inspire generations of fans. Born in 1931, Scotty caught his big break in 1954 when he was called to do a session with Elvis at Sam Phillip’s Sun Studio in Memphis. History was made that day when Elvis recorded “That’s All Right,” and for about four years, Scotty provided 6-string magic for such Elvis hits as “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Hound Dog,” and “Jailhouse Rock.”
A huge Chet Atkins fan, Scotty grew up listening to country and jazz. This blend would have a dramatic impact on his sound, as he would mix Travis picking with some ear-twisting note choices based on chords, rather than using an obvious scalar approach.
I used a thumbpick on the examples in this lesson to sound as authentic as possible. Using a thumbpick on some notes makes them stand out in comparison to those plucked with the remaining fingertips. Ex. 1 is a classic Scotty-type rhythm riff in E that uses some Travis picking. Play the notes on the 6th and 4th strings with your thumb, and use your index and middle fingers for the double-stops on the 3rd and 2nd strings. This is illustrated in the notation: Attack all the up-stemmed notes with your fingers and down-stemmed notes with your thumb.
The next example (Ex. 2) reveals one of the more common elements of Scotty’s lead work: double-stops. It makes sense when you consider that Scotty often performed with just a bass player and drummer, so when it came time to play a solo, he needed to create a strong sense of harmony. The first three phrases begin in the “E” shape of the CAGED system before moving down to the “A” shape and returning to the “E” shape. Those last two measures sit squarely in the “E” shape at the 12th position.
Ex. 3 returns to Scotty’s Travis-picking influence by outlining an A chord before leading the idea in a new direction with double-stops. The example begins in the “C” shape and resolves in the “E” shape, though this wouldn’t have meant anything to the legendary guitarist. However, his reliance on moving the five basic chord shapes around the neck is undeniable.
In this version of “Hound Dog”—a song originally recorded by Big Mama Thornton—Moore takes a bluesy solo starting at :45.
The blues was an essential part of Scotty’s style, and Ex. 4 shows something he might play over the first eight measures of a blues in E. To use the moves in any given key, it’s important to understand how intervals work within a chord. For example, over the E7, I’m approaching the root and 3 (G#) with a half-step slide. With that information, you’re able to transpose this musical shape all over the neck. Approach each double-stop with this method, and you’ll get a lot of mileage out of this rather simple lick.
Ex. 5 shows some of Scotty’s single-note ideas, though the phrase still begins with a double-stop on the top two strings to grab the listener’s attention. Measures three and four use a strange collection of notes. Scotty isn’t thinking of a scale here. The phrase begins with a bluesy flourish and a melodic descent to the root. When he gets there, he moves down a half-step to the 7 (an unusual note to play on a dominant chord, but if it sounds good, it is good), and then up again to resolve to the A chord.
Scotty was also a big fan of using three-note grips. In Ex. 6, you can see how these ear-grabbing sounds would work over our blues progression. It begins with an E triad in the “D” shape. It’s genuinely amazing how many great chordal licks Scotty could come up with by using just a few chord forms.
Ex. 7 is a little trickier, but a great example of how to move from an A chord to an E chord using some double-stops and single notes along with position shifts and sixths. This is very much a country phrase and evidence of the genre’s importance to the rockabilly sound.
The final example (Ex. 8) is a longer, 20-measure piece outlining a full progression with Scotty's superb Travis-picking ideas. While this isn’t a column specifically on Travis picking with a collection of exercises to develop that skill, here are a couple of simple tips that should help you navigate this music.
First, focus only on the bass notes. The thumb needs to be automatic. Strive to put no thought into playing the bass part. This takes time but eventually you’ll be free to concentrate on the melody. The last part to absorb is the excellent ending chord. It’s a maj6/9 with the root on top—very common in the rockabilly style.
From here it’s easy to hear Scotty’s immense influence on guitardom. It would be well worth your time to go down a rabbit hole of YouTube vids from the CAAS (Chet Atkins Appreciation Society) conference. Nearly every player from that scene owes a debt to Mr. Moore.