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.
What in the heck is “hybrid picking” and why should you care? Learn how to unleash some picking-hand tricks, create open-string phrases and pedal-steel licks.
• Learn how to incorporate your middle and ring fingers into your picking attack.
• Create flowing, open-string phrases full of harp-like dissonance.
• Develop pedal steel-style licks with oblique bends.
What in the heck is “hybrid picking” and why should you care? Hybrid picking is a technique that involves holding your pick as you normally would with your thumb and index finger, but also using your middle and ring fingers (and sometimes even your pinky) to attack the strings.
So what’s the payoff? There’s a different sound you can get from your fingers that you can’t get from a pick. The attack lets you get very sensitive, bluesy tones (think Robben Ford, Mark Knopfler, and Jeff Beck). Robben Ford tends to use a pick for rhythm and switches to bare fingers when he’s getting more aggressive, but playing at lower volumes. He moves to a different texture to highlight big changes in dynamic levels.
Also, when you’re using your fingers you’ll phrase differently because it is harder to play fast—it almost forces you to play more melodically. Check out Figs. 1 and 2. Play them first with your pick, and then try playing them with the hybrid technique.
For these examples, we are using the classical p–i–m–a system for right-hand notation, where m indicates your middle finger and a indicates your ring finger. All notes played with a pick will be marked with a downstroke symbol.
Hybrid picking is also great for playing arpeggios. Many times in slower songs the intro and verse have more arpeggiated sections and the choruses get big—you’ll need to strum and rock out a little more on those. After some practice, you’ll be able to hold your pick just like you always do and go back and forth between pick and hybrid techniques without thinking about it. It just becomes part of the fingerpicking process. In Figs. 3 and 4, you can see how we could apply this technique to a chord progression to not only create space, but also some interesting harmonies with ringing notes.
If you want to cop some of that straight-up chicken pickin’ madness on a Tele, hybrid picking is essential. Snapping the notes with your fingers is a big part of the sound—something that can’t be achieved with a pick. Figs. 5 and 6 are some double-stop chicken pickin’ licks that use the pick along with middle and ring fingers to snap the double-stops.
Also, the attack is instantaneous when you pick two notes at the same time, as opposed to a pick scraping against two notes one at a time. Even though the pick attack is quick, it still sounds different. Figs. 7 and 8 are some steel guitar licks that really jump out when you use a hybrid technique, as opposed to just the pick.
Cascading open-string licks are really effective for reaching a completely different place when you’re soloing, especially playing quick “train beat” country rhythms. The notes ring out against each other and flow more easily when you use the hybrid technique. If you were to just use a pick, it wouldn’t give you the same sound (or speed) as hybrid picking. The effect is like playing a scale on a piano and holding down the sustain pedal.
When creating these types of runs, look for ways to lay out phrases on the fretboard so you can get at least two or three notes ringing together at any given time. That means you want to be scouting for diatonic notes on adjacent or nearby strings. Fig. 9 is a G Major scale (G–A–B–C–D–E–F#) that incorporates open strings.
The next step is to create licks with these cascading patterns. I like the Mixolydian mode—used for Fig. 10—with some chromatic passing tones like the b3 and b5. When I get the opportunity, I’ll combine the rub of the b3-to-3 move with the b7 to emphasize important chord tones in a phrase. Try the cascading lick in Fig. 11 that starts on the b7, weaves from 5 to b5, and has the b3-to-3 move.
Now, let's try a couple of repeating patterns. These can make great warm-up exercises, and they’re also good for breaking up a line or building intensity in a solo. Fig. 12 uses hybrid picking for the double-stops, as well as hammer-ons and pull-offs for the other part of the lick. Practice these slowly at first with the metronome and gradually build up speed as you feel comfortable playing each tempo.
You can also work these licks through a I–IV–V progression by changing only a few notes while staying in the same position. Check out Fig. 13. These licks are great for smokin’ fast tempos because they are very percussive and really outline the chords as they fly past.
Try changing where the double-stops and pull-offs fall rhythmically to keep things interesting—especially if you decide to keep this lick going for a while. Fig. 14 shows how you can go back and forth from one rhythmic lick to the next. This helps hold the attention of your audience and keeps you on your toes.
Erik Halbig is currently touring with Thompson Square and has previously performed with Sara Evans, Blackhawk, Tanya Tucker, Wynonna, and many more. Halbig graduated from USC with a degree in Studio/Jazz Guitar and has taught clinics and seminars all over the country. He has had several books published by Alfred and Hal Leonard, and currently resides in Nashville.
Learn some common Western swing progressions and turnarounds to help you dive into this sub-genre of country and jazz.
• Learn common major 6 voicings.
• Understand how to use passing chords to make progression more interesting.
• Use chord inversions to create movement.
Western swing has always been widely considered a sub-genre of country music, but I’ve never understood why it doesn’t get included in the jazz lineage. Western swing started to gain popularity in the 1920s. It was the South’s answer to big-band music, minus the horn section. Apparently, you couldn’t buy a trumpet in Texas in the ’20s. The role of the sax section and the trumpet section had been replaced with a fiddle and a lap steel guitar. This made lap steel guitar one of the most popular instruments in America, and it’s the reason Leo Fender started his little guitar company. There were other strong influences besides jazz and swing. Polka, folk, cowboy, and blues were all represented in the sound and song selection. Western swing thrived as up-tempo dance music played in halls and nightclubs until the 1940s, when its popularity started to fade.
Important rule number one! All major chords are now major 6 chords. This is one of the trademarks of Western swing comping. In Fig. 1 there are two C6 chord shapes that will get you pretty far. The first one has the root on the 6th string and the second shows a grip with the root on the 5th string. To make a major 6 chord, you’ll need to incorporate the 6th of the scale into the major triad. In this example, I’m using different arrangements of C–E–G–A. You might wonder, aren’t those the same notes as in an Am7 chord? Yes, that’s true! Major 6 chords use the same notes as the relative minor, in this case A minor. Context is everything though, and your bass note determines how the rest of the harmony will be interpreted.
A good amount of Western swing music is in 2/4. This means two quarter-notes in a measure rather than four. Fig. 2 is a common I–Vim–IIm–V Western swing progression in Bb. I don’t let any of the chords ring into each other. I do this by pulsing the beat with my fretting-hand, and releasing string tension between attacks. Also, aim for the lower half of the chord on beat one and the upper for beat two. The low/high treatment with the pulsing puts a nice little bounce in the rhythm.
One of the things I love about Western swing is how melodic you can be with bass lines by adding some passing chords. Fig. 3 is a I–IIm–V progression with a passing chord before the IIm chord. Our passing chord will act as a dominant chord and will set up the IIm–V progression while adding chromatic movement to the bass line.
Don’t just sit there! If you’re hanging on a chord for any length of time, make sure to move that sucker around. Chord inversions imply change when the harmony is static, so you can take advantage of this to create some motion. In Fig. 4, I start with our standard Bb6 voicing and then move through a few inversions of a Bb triad. Inversions of the major 6 chord don’t translate as strongly as inversions of the triad.
Fig. 5 is a common turnaround full of passing chords and chord inversions. If I strip away the inversions and the passing chords it’s really just I–IV–I–V. Without the passing chords the progression is pretty boring but with a few minor changes we now have a catchy bass melody and some forward momentum. We put everything together in Fig. 6. This progression comes from a tune called “Comin’ On” by one of my heroes, Jimmy Bryant.
There are a lot of good box sets and compilations if you’re looking to dive right into the world of Western swing. The really important bands to check out would be Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, the Light Crust Doughboys, and Spade Cooley & His Orchestra. Swing on!