We all know the CAGED system is a great way of learning the fretboard, but are we truly applying that knowledge in a musical way? This lesson will help you do exactly that, by explaining the CAGED system and then putting it to use in real-world chord progressions. This will allow you to better accompany another guitarist, create cool-sounding overdubs, and eventually play riffs, lines, and arpeggios all over the neck. Dig in and learn to fly!
Learning to Fly (with CAGED)
Understand key facts and definitions of the popular CAGED guitar chord system with our simple guide.
What is the CAGED system?
The CAGED system is based on five chords—C, A, G, E, and D—and provides a way to organize a guitar’s neck into five different sections, which can be linked together to play melodies, major scales, and arpeggios across the entire fretboard. The shapes of those chords can also be used anywhere on the fretboard to play any major chord in any key.
Why is it called the CAGED system?
For starters, that name contains each of the five chords used in the system, but it also helpfully alludes to the order in which the chords connect up and down the neck.
Is the CAGED system hard?
If you can play basic C, A, G, E, and D chords, you’re essentially all set. It involves some manipulation and extra fingerwork to make the chords as you move up the neck, but you’ve already got the essentials.
In this introductory installment, our new columnist Anthony Tidd considers his own path to discovering the most important role of the bass—and it’s not lightning-fast technique!
In a world where Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube are literally saturated with teens and younger kids who have bass chops capable of scaring most grown bassists into an early grave, the prospects of ever becoming the next to achieve Jameson- or Jaco-level status seem bleak. Last week, a friend sent me a video of a very young girl ripping through John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” solo as Coltrane played along in the background. She sounded great, and so did Coltrane! I, too, learned that solo in my late teens, so I know firsthand how hard it is to play up to speed, but she did it with a smile and made it look easy.
When I first began learning the instrument at 14 (I’m still learning), like most young people I was attracted to shiny things. For me, that particular shiny thing was Mark King of Level 42’s otherworldly ability to slap a bass at what seemed like the speed of light. His amazing technique was indeed so shiny that it was able to pull me from the guitar to the bass. I spent what seemed like an eternity (probably a year in adult years) learning how to slap really fast, and for my first two years as a bass player, slap was all I did!
Photo by Dimitri Louis
Many years later, I learned something else that was difficult to grasp, which becomes rarer by the day: “The bass” is not only an instrument, clef, or stave (nearer the bottom of most scores), it’s more importantly a role, or more aptly put, a function essential to almost all modern music. It’s the root of it all. Bass plays a role that forms a unique bridge betwixt rhythm, harmony, melody, and groove. The greatest bassists have all understood this fact in their own ways, and many of these masters never lusted for, and understood that they did not require, Paganini-like gymnastic mastery in the lower hertz. Don’t get me wrong … I personally love and have even pursued technical mastery. Thus, I’m a lover of great bass, sax, and whatever else solos. But those two things—soloing and becoming a technician—are not necessarily immediately related to the “bass function.”
As we go back in time to the root, the number of players who focused on function over flashy technique, and support over soloing seems to increase. I soon learned there was more to bass than slapping. (I also learned that slapping—though not quite at the speed of light—went back decades before Mark King.) I had no idea of the long and storied history of bass, and how this fit into the African American musical canon, which included blues, jazz, gospel, rock ’n’ roll, R&B, funk, soul, disco, hip-hop, house, and a seemingly never-ending procession of subgenres—which is to say most American music.
“The bass” is not only an instrument, clef, or stave (nearer the bottom of most scores), it’s more importantly a role, or more aptly put, a function essential to almost all modern music.
Eventually, with the help of American mentors Rich Nichols and Steve Coleman, my quest to understand bass, and music in general, would lead me to Philadelphia (and, later, to Harlem, NYC). Through Rich, a Philly native who also happened to be manager and patriarch of the Roots, I became an integral part of the exciting mix of music happening in Philadelphia in the late ’90s and 2000s. This formed the foundation of my education as a producer and provided opportunities for me to produce records for many well-known names in hip-hop, soul, funk, pop, etc. Through Steve—a Chicago native who moved to NYC in the ’70s and was responsible for creating the M-Base movement, which many consider to be the font of at least 50 percent of today’s NYC jazz scene—I learned about America’s rich jazz tradition. Between decades of touring, hanging out listening to much older musicians, and the wealth of things that Steve and others taught me directly, this formed the foundation of my music education. It gave me the tools to begin the Creative Music Program, which served as a foundation for many young creative musicians coming out of Philadelphia.
Philadelphia is home to some of America’s greatest bass legends, and it was once I moved to the city that I met Jymie Merritt, a relatively unsung hero of the bass, but a legend if there ever was one. Not only was Jymie a master of the upright, but he was also an early pioneer of the electric bass within jazz, and a fantastic composer. I met so many other great American bassists who, like me, continue a tradition and culture which stretches all the way back to the days of tubas, wash tubs, and broomsticks—a time somewhere between the abolition of slavery and Louis Armstrong first meeting the horn. These are players such as Henry Grimes, Stanley Clarke, Charles Fambrough, Victor Bailey, Jamaaladeen Tacuma, Reggie Workman, Christian McBride, Gerald Veasley, Reggie Washington, Anthony Jackson, Matt Garrison, Rich Brown, Richard Bona, and many others.
Stay tuned! I’ll surely be focusing on some of these and many farther afield subjects in future Root of It All columns.
- Develop a better sense of subdivisions.
- Understand how to play "over the bar line."
- Learn to target chord tones in a 12-bar blues.
Playing in the pocket is the most important thing in music. Just think about how we talk about great music: It's "grooving" or "swinging" or "rocking." Nobody ever says, "I really enjoyed their use of inverted suspended triads," or "their application of large-interval pentatonic sequences was fascinating." So, whether you're playing live or recording, time is everyone's responsibility, and you must develop your ability to play in the pocket.
So, what is bad time? It's when people rush and speed up the tempo or drag and slow the tempo down in an unmusical way. If your quarter-note pulse is uneven, you can't lock in with what the band is doing because the time keeps moving. If somebody's fills are all wonky and don't land right, that usually means they are not subdividing and are just stuffing notes into the measure haphazardly. These players don't realize what is happening. Don't be one of these players. To develop your own pocket, you will need two things: your guitar and a metronome. A better groove, and a better ability to subdivide the beat, will lead to better phrasing and more control of what you want to play.
The first three examples are designed to eliminate your reliance on the first beat of the measure. Practicing with the metronome on all four beats of the measure is a very common way to practice scales and chord progressions. Remember that in most styles of music, the snare drum is on beats 2 and 4 of the measure. Practice with your metronome as if it's a snare, where the click is on 2 and 4. (A note about tempo markings: Usually the tempo is listed at a quarter-note level, but with the metronome on beats 2 and 4, it's marked as a half-note. So, if the half-note tempo is listed as 120 bpm, the quarter-note tempo would be twice that, or 240 bpm.)
Ex. 1 is a G7 arpeggio played in 3rd position, with half-note tempos of 100, 125, and 150 bpm. The recording of this example has a count off with the clicks on 2 and 4. If these tempos are initially too fast, start with a slower tempo where you can play the example cleanly, putting each note directly in between the clicks of the metronome. You can even start with just a single note at a comfortable tempo, getting used to what it sounds and feels like to put a note directly in between the metronome clicks.
Ex. 2 is the A minor pentatonic scale (A–C–D–E–G) in 5th position, played first in half-notes and then again in whole-notes. This example is designed to help you switch gears between different rhythms.
Ex. 3 is the C major scale (C–D–E–F–G–A–B) in 7th position played in half-notes and whole-notes, but at faster tempo. If you practice different types of scales and arpeggios in this way, you'll discover spots where you may rush or drag the notes.
The last three phrasing exercises are intended to eliminate your need to play on the first beat of the measure. Played over a 12-bar blues in A, each example uses a different rhythm or phrasing structure where you will need to count a lot of empty space to play these rhythms correctly. Ex. 5 is deceptively simple, where you play only on beats two, three, and four of each measure. It takes more concentration than you would think, so be careful that you don't fall back into playing your usual stuff.
Ex. 6 will develop your ability to play over the bar line, which is simply not starting or ending your phrases directly on beat 1. There's a lot of space to count, starting each small phrase on the "and" of beat 3, and finishing on the "and" of beat 1 in the next measure.
Ex. 7 aims to expand your phrasing, creating longer lines by playing a two-bar phrase almost entirely in eighth-notes. The challenge to this exercise is beginning on the "and" of one in the first measure and ending on the "and" of four in the second measure. In each of these examples, practice each rhythm by itself on a single pitch with a metronome, focusing on counting the spaces and playing that specific rhythm. Then, try adding different chord tones or scales when that rhythm becomes internalized.
After working on these examples, play over a track and focus on one concept at a time to see if you really have it under your fingers and in your ears. Always remember to keep things simple to begin with. There's plenty of time to make things complicated later on. Cheers!