CAGED is a simple little system for broadly mapping out the fretboard as it relates to any chord. Not every guitarist thinks in terms of CAGED, but my opinion is that it’s extremely effective, and extremely easy to learn. I often say that CAGED is like a map of the U.S. Interstate highway system. It can get you from Chicago to L.A., but it can’t get you to your mother in law’s house in Orange County. CAGED simply provides you with a broad road map of the fretboard for a given key/chord.
Truthfully, the basic concept of CAGED can be learned in, literally, just a few minutes. Of course, it will take more time to fully assimilate the concept into your playing so that it’s available to you on the fly, as you are improvising. But the general concept can be learned quickly and easily.
The Importance of Chord Tones
Chord tones—the notes that make up a given chord—are an essential aspect of improvisation because they provide “target points” on which to begin and/or end your improvised lines. This isn’t to say that you ALWAYS have to target chord tones in your lines, but it will just about always sound good if you do. The CAGED shapes provide a quick, easy-to-understand way to visualize the chord tones for a given chord. This can then provide a good framework for you as you delve deeper into the modes, etc.
The 5 CAGED shapes
The CAGED shapes are based on the basic forms of the open-position C, A, G, E, and D chords that most guitarists learn in the earliest stages:
Now, imagine turning each of these shapes into a moveable barre chord form that can be placed anywhere on the fretboard:
The A and E shapes are probably familiar, as they are the most common barre chords that most of us use all the time. The C shape is less commonly used, but in my opinion, very useful and good-sounding (especially if you need to play a Db or Eb chord).
The G and D shapes are very difficult to actually play as chords. It’s important to remember, at this point, that these shapes aren’t really intended to be used as chords per se, at least not in their entirety (although I do recommend investigating how you can break them into smaller, more useful portions). But mainly, they are really just intended to be visual aids—they just help you visualize where the notes sit on the fretboard.
These shapes are easy to visualize and will provide you an easy road map. Now we’ll “zoom in” and delve into a little more detail.
For a somewhat more complete picture of the CAGED shapes and all of the chord tones that are available within them, we can then look at the full arpeggio of each shape. This is a bit of an extension of the CAGED shape itself, and gives us a few more note choices, all of which are part of the chord that the CAGED shape represents. Again, these are known as chord tones, and provide target points for your improvised lines.
If you add just a couple of notes (specifically, the 2nd and the 6th) to the triad arpeggio, you end up with a pentatonic scale. Most guitarists who have done any improvising at all have encountered them. Pentatonic scales are just about always good for a go-to scale when you want to play a lick or melody that is right in the pocket, with no “questionable” note choices. Wherever a CAGED shape sits, the corresponding pentatonic scale will offer you a few additional note choices that are safe and will sound good in most circumstances.
Applying CAGED to minor keys
One of the limitations of CAGED is that it doesn’t apply directly to minor keys—it takes a little bit of mental gymnastics to get there. There are a couple different ways that you can think of it, and they will both get you to the same result, so check them both out and see what works for you.
1. Relative major/minor. This may, in fact, be the simplest way to apply CAGED to minor keys. Every major key has a relative minor key, and every minor key has a relative major key. These relative keys contain the exact same notes, so when you’re improvising, they are practically interchangeable. For example, the relative minor of C major is A minor. If you are improvising in A minor, you can treat it as though you are improvising in C major, and use the CAGED shapes as they apply to C, because it would be made up of the same notes as A minor.
Here’s a quick little chart that shows the relative major & minor for each key:
2. Use 5 minor CAGED shapes. There are actually 5 shapes for minor chords that can be used just as CAGED is used for major chords. A couple of them should be pretty familiar to you (the Em and Am shapes), but others are likely to be less familiar. And they don’t conveniently spell out a word as simple as CAGED, so it’s a little harder to remember. The Am and Em shapes are probably familiar to you already as common barre chords. The Dm shape probably looks familiar to you too, although you may not have actually used it before. I also encourage you to check out the F#m and Bm shapes (actually F#m7 and Bm7)–they are very handy if you are looking for a jazzier way to play a m7 chord.
One thing to remember as you work through these fingerings is that you don’t need to learn ALL of them right away, and you’ll also find that you prefer some fingerings over others. THIS IS TOTALLY OK. Start with getting one or two of the CAGED shapes down–learn how to apply them to different keys, and come up with a few melodies within the corresponding pentatonic scale (targeting chord tones!). Over time, you can expand that bag of tricks.
For me personally, when improvising, I find myself using the C and G shapes quite a bit, and the E shape too, especially in blues/rock stuff. I spend much less time in the A and D shapes overall, although each has a few very useful clusters of notes…which brings me to my next thought:
Note Clusters: You might find some of these fingerings (especially the triad arpeggios) to be rather inconvenient to play in their full 6-string forms. I encourage you to break these up into clusters, 3 strings at a time, and spend some time playing with them in order to find the juicy ones. These 3-string clusters can be easier to visualize on the fretboard, and easier to access “on the fly.”