Modes Explained 3: CAGED Modes

In the last modes post I introduced all of the modes of the major scale, and included the fretboard diagrams of each of the CAGED positions of each of the modes. Today we’re going to look closer at how the CAGED system and the modes work together.

CAGED Revision

Thinking back to the second CAGED post, you will recall that the CAGED system refers to the root shapes and the way that they lay out, and overlap, on the fretboard. Obviously, its important to understand how the CAGED system works with basic scales, before we apply it to the modes, so look back at that article if you need a refresher. Even so, I’ve reproduced the root shapes here for easier reference.

NB: Remember that the terms ‘A shape’ and ‘C shape’ etc only refer to the root shapes – don’t think that ‘A shape’ has anything to do with the note ‘A’ or that ‘C shape’ refers to the note ‘C’. If you mix this up things can quickly become very confusing :) .


Lets begin with the C Ionian and D Dorian modes that were introduced last week.

Although the C Ionian and D Dorian patterns are exactly the same, the roots have moved. This has the effect that CAGED naming scheme will be different depending on what mode we are using. For instance, the ‘A shape’ C Ionian pattern, has the same fingering as the ‘C Shape’ Dorian pattern.

Conversely, the ‘E shape’ Ionian mode looks like this:

Whereas the ‘E shape’ Dorian mode is completely different:

Furthermore, since it is the placement of the roots which dictates what mode is being used, a fretboard diagram without the roots shown is absolutely meaningless.

For instance, this figure…

… could be known as the ‘E shape’ Ionian if the roots were placed like this:

But could also be the ‘G shape’ Dorian if the roots were placed like this:

Thinking Modally

Until now, we’ve been thinking entirely in ‘C major’. If we wanted a G Mixolydian, we would think of the C major scale but visualise the new position of the root. Effectively we’ve been thinking “C major”, but calling it something else. As you can see, though, when we start giving them CAGED names it quickly becomes difficult to ‘think in C‘ but play a G Mixolydian mode with the ‘A shape’ pattern. Working with three different letter names is asking for trouble. We need to streamline things if we want to actually use modes in real-world playing.

To play modal tunes, and improvise creatively with modes it’s impossible to calculate the parent major scale, figure out the new position of the root, and then choose the most convenient CAGED shape on the fretboard in an instant. Music should speak emotionally not intellectually, and unless you like sounding formulaic, you don’t want to be thinking formulas, either :) .

So if we want to play modally, we need to think modally by internalising the modes with the same thoroughness and completeness as any other scale. If you want to actually use modes in your playing, and not just think of them theoretically, you’ll need learn and practice each mode as if it were an entirely new scale. Modes are independent scales in their own right, so learn them as such. We want to think of the mode, not its parent major scale.

So Which Modes Should I Learn, First?

That’s a tough question. For instance, if you’re interested in jazz you might like to start with the Dorian or Mixolydian modes, or if you’re into Steve Vai then maybe starting with the Lydian mode would be a good idea. Over the next few modes posts, we’ll look at how each mode is used and in what styles. This should give you an idea which modes are most useful for you, so you can focus on mastering those modes, first.

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One Comment

  1. caged4u says:

    i love the caged system it is definitedly the thing to learn,,,ive studied it for years now
    and yes its the way to go…

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