The “C-A-G-E-D” System Uncaged

The elusive “CAGED System” is, easily, among the best kept secrets in the vast world of guitar. Apparently. As, practically every other guitarist that I’ve ever asked “So, how long had YOU been playing, before you discovered the “CAGED System”?” almost inevitably respond with something on the order of

“What the crap!!  I’ve wasted years of my life!!  Why wasn’t I notified about this sooner??!!”.

I’d rather not say how long I had been playing before stumbling upon it, other than to say, beyond a certain age, one tends not to recover quite as quickly from self-inflicted dope slaps.

New guitarists & aspiring professional musicians, get your pens out now!!

Years from now, you will look back and say to yourself,

“I may not be employed, but I sure have a hell of a lot more free time on my hands, than those other poor slobs, all still doing it the hard way! Thanks CAGED System!!!”

For the “poor slobs” who also learned the hard way, trying to memorize each individual scale pattern, chord inversion, and so on, from old, musty library books, on guitar method, written by a pianist, and independently of some fancy gimmick to tie it all together, may yet find applying this method of visualizing the guitar fretboard, a much faster, more efficient & creative way of “pre-mapping out” improvisational material and jazzing up the same ol’ cowboy chords, and such. (Shwoooh!!!….That was a sentence and a half…)

So, “What’s this whole “CAGED” thing, anyway?”, you ask??….

Well, as it turns out, there is a muuuuuch easier way to memorize your chords & scale patterns than sadists like Mel Bay would have us believe!

In short, the “C-A-G-E-D” System is super simple formula that works by

  1. connecting 5 basic open chord shapes, (these being the C, A, G, E, and D chords, consecutively) with their corresponding 5 basic scale pattern shapes.
  2. then, using these pattern sets, “maps out” the fretboard into, essentially, five consecutive and interconnected chord/scale pattern positions, that provide five different chord voicing, inversion, & scale pattern options, from “open” position through the full octave.

Here’s how it all comes together…

Below, are the five basic chord shapes, in “open” position. Going forward, when referring to a particular “open chord shape”, these are the shapes we will be using.

Having started out teaching myself guitar from, mostly, old Lightnin’ Hopkins and Link Wray albums, one of the first things I picked up on was, …you guessed it… The Bar Chord!!

And, as in both cases, often famously involving “open ‘E’ shaped” and “open ‘A’ shaped” barre chords, and pentatonic scale, to boot. In fact, these patterns have become such a ubiquitous staple of blues and rock guitar, in particular, (and in no small part, due to the influence of the these two great guitar legends), that one would be hard-pressed to cite examples not built around these chord shape/scale patterns.

So wait, what’s a “bar chord”??

A “bar, or “barre”, chord involves transforming your favorite “open chord shape” into a “moveable chord” by “barring” one or more fingers across multiple strings, on a given fret. Often, as in the case of using your 1st finger to replace the guitar nut, for the open notes, found in said “open chord”.

For example, say the song calls for a D maj. chord. But not just once or twice, but a whoooole lot of D. And there you are, just plugging along, driving that open D chord into the ground, and desperate for something to mix things up a bit. Perhaps, something with more of the sound and feel of an “open C” voicing.

Well, given that…

  1. the chord shape is a fixed pattern, & thus intervals remain the same, and
  2. “D” is a whole step up from “C”,
  3. in order to play a “C shaped” D maj. chord, simply
  4. slide everything up two frets, using your 1st finger to “barre” across the 3rd & 1st string! *(see example below)

*HINT: In the next two examples, pay close attention to each chord’s notes, marked just above each chord diagram, and in relation to it’s shape & fret position, and you may just spot it, before I even get to the punchline.

Okay, now that we’ve covered open chords & moveable chords…..

Back to “C-A-G-E-D

So now that we know we need not just stay chained to the guitar nut, and you’re ready to stretch out a bit, and explore what other kinds of chord voicing & inversion options there are out there,…

Say, there you are, in the middle of a song, with a whole lot of “C maj.” to do something with, you’re bored out of your mind with “open C” and open to options. What’s a quick & easy way to locate and memorize the many different ways to play C maj., up & down the neck?? And why is it called the “CAGED” system, anyway??

First, let’s take a look at the chord shapes, side by side, that are created as we locate the notes within the C maj. chord at 1st fret position, 3rd, 5th, 8th and 10th fret position.

  • in 1st fret position, we have, of course, an “open C
  • at 3rd fret position, like magic, the chord notes form an “open A” shape
  • at 5th fret position, the notes form an “open G” shape! But wait!!….
  • at 8th fret position, mind be blown, an “open E” shape!! Why stop there?!
  • at 10th fret position, we get an “open D” shape!! Because what the hell!

Hence, the name “C-A-G-E-D” system!!

All you have to do is remember “caged”, and you will always know what the next available chord voicing/inversion option, up the neck, looks like!! The order follows from any starting point to repeat.

If you are in the key of “A Major”, and playing an “open A” chord shape at 1st fret position, the next chord shape, at 3rd fret position, would then be an “open G” , at 5th, an “open E” shaped chord, and so on. Like so…

A – G – E – D – C

There you have it!! It’s as simple as that!!

Now, let’s see what that looks like, full fretboard view, and how these different patterns interconnect. And while we’re at it, let’s include the scale patterns that are created, at each of the aforementioned positions, that each of these chord shapes are derived from.

As you are memorizing your 5 scale patterns, and connect them with their corresponding open chord shapes, simply apply the same formula, to find out what scale pattern to play at the next consecutive scale pattern position, and so on!



Here, in 1st fret position, we have an “open C” shaped C maj. chord, and surrounding scale notes, from the Key of “C”. A main staple of folk & country-western, fingerstyle guitar.


In 3rd fret position, here is an “open A “ shaped C maj. chord & surrounding scale notes. Great for funk, R&B, soul, rock styles.


In 5th fret position, one of my favorites, the “open G” shape, lends itself beautifully to a wide range of guitar styles. From folk ballads to bluegrass, pure finger/flat-pickin’ heaven.


In 8th fret position, the “open E” shape & corresponding scale pattern (particularly, when played with a pentatonic scale) makes up, approximately, 99.9989% of all the blues & rock ‘n’ roll you’ve likely ever heard.


At 10th fret position, to me, the “open D” shaped C maj. is the most mysterious and dramatic, of them. Great for everything from Spanish classical to dust-bowl ballads.

And, for you bluegrass players, it would look something like this…..

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