The CAGED System 1: Basic Chords

The CAGED system is a convenient way of thinking about chord and scale shapes. It makes it easy to link positions together and create larger scale patterns and alternative chord voicings.


Prerequisites

To make full use of this article you should first have a basic knowledge of common open position chords – especially C, A, G, E and D major chords – and have at least a vague understanding of barre chords, what they are and how they work. Its also helpful if you know what notes in each of these open chords are the root. Beware that this is not necessarily the lowest note in each chord, and that most chord shapes have the root occurring simultaneously in different octaves (more on that later).

But for those who need a refresher, here are the basic chords you’ll need.

The roots in each chord are marked ‘R’. The note names of the roots are the same as the letter name of the chord – so the root of a C major chord, is C and the root of A major is the note A etc.

Benefits of the CAGED System

The CAGED system is a simple way of visualising how common chord shapes, scale shapes and arpeggios inter-relate and overlap with one another. The CAGED system works for all chords, scales (including the blues scale) and even modes, and works in both major and minor keys. It gives us a way of linking up smaller shapes into a larger ‘fretboard map’.

If you want to easily navigate the neck then the CAGED system is a good place to start (though there are other more complicated ways of visualising the fretboard)

The Caged System

If you hadn’t gathered by now, the CAGED system is an acronym of the C, A, G, E and D chord and scale fingering patterns. Each of these open chords has a movable barre chord shape. The most common barre chord shape being the ‘E shape’ barre chord, which can be found by taking the regular open E chord, moving the chord up a fret, and adding a barre behind it.

If you are familiar at all with barre chord construction it should be clear how these two shapes are essentially identical. Note that when you play the ‘E shape’ barre chord, although it is known as being an ‘E shape’, its actual root (letter name) will change. For instance an ‘E shape’ barre chord at the first fret is an F chord, while an ‘E shape’ barre chord at the fifth fret is would be an A chord.

If this sounds like double dutch read the Wikipedia entry for barre chords first.

Barre Chords for the Other Shapes

All common open chord shapes can be made into a barre chord, simply by moving the shape further up the neck, and laying a barre behind it in lieu of the nut. The barre chord shapes of C, A, G, E and D are listed below (click the pic for a larger and clearer view).

Also, note that even though the ‘D shape’ chord isn’t technically a barre chord (since it doesn’t actually use a barre), it is still a movable shape, and can be treated exactly the same as the actual barre chords.

Mapping the Fretboard

Now, for simplicities sake lets begin mapping the fretboard for the D major chord, beginning with a D major chord at the second fret using the ‘C shape’ barre chord.

We could also play a D major chord using the ‘A shape’ at the fifth fret.

Note that both the ‘C shape’ and ‘A shape’ D major chords are built off the same root, D, on the fifth string. Its good to draw both of these shapes on the one fretboard diagram. This way we can easily see how the two chord shapes relate to one another, and we can see that the two shapes overlap at the root note on the fifth string.

As well as having a root on the fifth string, the ‘A shape’ barre chord also has a root on the third string. The only other barre chord with a root on the third string is the ‘G shape’ barre chord. Since the ‘A shape’ and ‘G shape’ barre chords share the same root they can also be drawn together on a single large fretboard diagram.

As well as having a root on the third string, the ‘G shape’ barre chord also has a root on the sixth string. The ‘E shape’ barre chord shares this root on the sixth string.

Finally, the ‘E shape barre chord’ share its root on the fourth string with the ‘D shape barre chord’.

Of course, we can also arrange all of these chords onto a single large fretboard diagram (click the image for a larger view).

And there we have it – every common chord shape laid out in a key on the fretboard with all roots overlapping. And, as we would expect, the chords came out in the order C-A-G-E-D giving us the CAGED system. Of course, when you get to the end of the word CAGED the process just repeats itself in the next octave – the image above shows how the final ‘D shape’ links onto the next ‘C shape’.

So to easily remember how all of the chord shapes inter-relate and overlap with each other, you can recite the letters of the word CAGED to quickly recall the sequence.

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One Comment

  1. Jen says:

    Just looking at your open chord diagrams at the beginning of this lesson. Are you aware that you’ll be confusing a whole lot of beginner players with the D chord diagram up there? I understand that the 4th string D is crucial for later on the article when you’re talking about barre chords and shapes etc, but by showing the open string D I the first fret, there’ll be beginners playing a horrible sounding D chord, thinking they’ve been playing it at the wrong fret. Could be really quite confusing, probably worth addressing that point next to the diagram in the open chords…

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