The CAGED System: A Brief Overview

The CAGED system refers to an innovative method of understanding and navigating the fretboard of a guitar. Just as one might use a map to traverse an unfamiliar city, we use the CAGED system to explore the relationships of notes and chords on a guitar fretboard.

‘CAGED’ is an acronym that represents five open major chord shapes: C, A, G, E, and D. These shapes form the skeleton upon which countless other chords are built. The system was largely developed in response to a common challenge faced by novice guitarists – getting lost on the fret board.

CAGED system

The CAGED System Basics

The term ‘CAGED’ is an acronym where each letter represents one of the five basic open major chords: C, A, G, E, and D. These chord shapes form the foundation of this system. Using these shapes can unlock your understanding and expand your chord vocabulary across all frets.By recognizing chord shapes across the fretboard you begin to see how they link together to create endless possibilities for creating new harmonies. 

For instance, if you relocate an open chord shape along with its root note up the neck you have effectively created other chords using this same shape—a phenomenon that can be applied to any other open chord shapes.

Open chords play an essential role in forming the basis for understanding and applying this system effectively. They’re termed “open” because they are played using some open strings along with fretted notes.

The simplicity of these basic chord shapes make them ideal as building blocks. Understanding how to transpose these shapes by moving around the root note will help you navigate through more complex closed chords and progressions while maintaining a clear mental map on your guitar’s fretboard.

Exploring Each Chord Shape

The C Shape

The C shape is the foundation of all the CAGED chords. The root note of a C major chord is found on the fifth string. As with other open chord shapes, the C shape can be moved up and down the guitar neck to form any major chord.

A key characteristic of this shape is its rich, full-bodied sound, making it a favorite among many guitar players for its resonance and depth. However, care must be taken when moving this shape around – maintaining the open voicing without accidentally muting strings can prove challenging for beginners.

The A Shape

The A shape takes its name from an open A Major chord; its root note is located on the fifth string. Transposing it across different frets allows you to play any major chord while preserving this distinctive sound. 

It’s worth noting that transitioning smoothly from one A shaped closed chord to the next requires meticulous finger positioning, as improper placement can result in muffled or unintended tones.

The G Shape

The G shape is derived from an open G Major Chord with a root note situated on both sixth and first strings. It provides a wide tonal range due to its extended structure covering almost one-third of the entire fretboard; however, it may pose some challenges given its unusual fingering layout. 

Guitar players often find it hard initially to hold all six strings down properly while striving for a clean sound.

Related: Learn To Play G Major

The E Shape

Next up in our exploration of CAGED shapes is E shape which originates from an open E Major Chord being transposed across the fretboard by using the barre technique. It has two root notes on sixth and fourth strings offering wide scope for pentatonic scales improvisation. 

This convenience makes E shape a fan-favorite among guitarists everywhere but beware – inadequate pressure when barring can lead to muffled or missed notes.

Related: Learn To Play E Major

The D Shape

Unlike others in caged system repertoire where root note lies on lower strings (4th-6th), D-shape’s root notes are located on 4th & 2nd string providing novel opportunities for creative pentatonic scale solos. 

Mastering D-shape requires dexterity as erroneous finger placement could obscure true tonal beauty hidden within this complex structure.

the caged system

Related: Open Guitar Chords: Made Simple

Benefits of the CAGED System

In addition to enriching your chord vocabulary, the CAGED system is proven to be a useful tool for other skills essential to being a great musician. For example, The CAGED system can be applied to improvisation, transposition, understanding scales, and experimenting with new chord voicings. 

The paragraphs below explore the many ways which the CAGED system can help you become a competent and expressive guitarist.

Visualizing The Fretboard

A common stumbling block among budding guitarists is developing an intuitive sense of where notes fall on their instrument’s fretboard. Thankfully, employing scale patterns within our fundamental CAGED shapes can provide an invaluable tool for demystifying these spatial relationships. 

Take for instance; if we start with our open position C shape, we can derive a corresponding scale pattern by filling out our remaining degrees of the corresponding major scale.

As we move this entire shape up two frets, we now have access not only to our new D Major Open Chord but also D Major’s corresponding scale degrees across multiple octaves. 

By practicing this method across all five primary shapes within the Caged system—we simultaneously expand both our harmonic AND melodic mastery over new regions of the neck.


When improvising over changing harmony or within distinct keys–a firm grasp over your instrument’s mapping is critical. Here again, adopting various CAGED chords can provide a robust framework supporting melodic exploration between chord changes.

For instance, if improvising over progressions steeped primarily in G Chords, it might be practical first to identify all G tonalities across your neck via their respective CAGED positions.

By then superimposing each Major Shape’s related scale pattern—it becomes more accessible navigating between different regions while maintaining melodic continuity throughout your solo.

Transposing With The Cage System

The application where many players find significant utility from their understanding of caged shapes is when transposing songs into different keys. 

A song originally written in ‘D’, composed primarily around open Position D-A-G chords when required to transpose down a whole step into key ’C’, would theoretically now necessitate complex Barre or Jazz Voicings unfamiliar or uncomfortable under players hands. 

If the player visualizes each original voicing through the lens of its related CAGED position, they can simply shift the entire structure down appropriately while maintaining the original voicing’s fundamental shape.

Understanding Scales and Arpeggios within Each Chord Shape

Within each major chord shape of the CAGED system, there lies a major scale that shares the same root note. 

For instance, within the ‘C’ major chord shape, one can identify the ‘C’ major scale. This mirroring effect is observed across all the CAGED chords, providing a consistent framework for understanding and remembering scale patterns.

Notably, this principle extends to minor chords and pentatonic scales as well, thus broadening its applicability across various musical genres. The pentatonic scale, which forms the backbone of blues music, can be seamlessly integrated within this system.

By overlaying these scales onto their corresponding chord shapes, one can visualize the entire fretboard in a cohesive manner.

Another remarkable feature of the CAGED system is its ability to relate arpeggios to specific chord shapes. An arpeggio is a broken chord where notes are played individually. For example, you could play G major’s arpeggio by simply playing the individual notes within this basic open chord shape.

Related: What Are Scales On a Guitar

Mastering Inversions

An inversion fundamentally refers to altering the order of notes in a chord such that the root note is no longer the lowest pitch. When applied to our basic chord shapes, this concept allows us to take our understanding of all the CAGED chords to a deeper level.

For instance, consider an E shape major chord. Normally, we have our root note as E on two places – sixth and first strings, but if we invert this and place G# (the third) at the base by barring 4th fret entirely with index finger and forming rest of E shape with other fingers, it gives us another way to play major chords with different voicing often used in genres like Jazz.

Chord Voicings

Creating unique chord voicings is a sophisticated technique that can add depth and interest to your playing style.

This involves modifying or extending our basic open major chords like G shape or D chord beyond their original forms, producing novel harmonic textures. 

For example, starting from a simple D Major Chord rooted on fifth string, by adding seventh fret of G string (which is F#) we get D Major 9 voicing without root which has a dreamy sound.

The real beauty emerges when these advanced techniques intertwine with elements like pentatonic scales or closed chord versions of CAGED shapes. The relationship between major chord structures and pentatonic scales becomes more vivid when you begin crafting your unique voicings or experimenting with inversions.

Remember that learning these advanced concepts requires patience and practice, but as you spend time experimenting with inversions and creating unique chord voicings using your knowledge about all five caged shapes, it will immensely improve your ability not only to navigate across the fretboard but appreciate the music theory behind what you play.


The CAGED system provides us with a comprehensive understanding that extends beyond simply viewing chords as standalone entities.

This knowledge allows us to perceive each chord as a component within an interconnected network, spanning from one end of the fretboard to another. It brings into light how basic open chord shapes can be repositioned along with their root notes to generate different chords entirely.

It allows you not only to play closed chords but also presents opportunities for creating unique open chord shapes and even complex inversions. Seeing every chord’s root note in its various positions across every string erases the creative hindrance from gaps in your knowledge base.

The CAGED system serves not merely as an intellectual exercise but ultimately one among numerous guides designed for illuminating one’s path toward greater musical freedom.

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