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An Intro to Demystifying the Fretboard With the CAGED Guitar System

Learning all the notes on the guitar fretboard is a daunting task; six strings against a fret-studded ebony fingerboard can seem like an abyss of chaos and mystery.

Just kidding! It’s not actually as difficult as you might think—all you need is the CAGED system.

The CAGED system refers to the geometric shapes that 5 basic chords/scales make (C, A, G, E, and D) and how they connect to the next shape up the neck.

I was first introduced to the CAGED system through a series of YouTube videos—and once I got the hang of it, everything clicked into place.

Here’s an example of the CAGED system in action: if you move from the C major
chord in open position to the C major bar chord at the 3rd fret, you can see that it is the same shape as an A major chord with the bar replacing the nut. If you then move the bar up to the 5th fret and make a G major chord shape with fingers 2, 3, and 4 (easier said than done), you have again formed a C major chord.

If you keep following this formula according to the next letter of the word CAGED, you will soon be able to recognize and play chords anywhere on the fretboard with ease (if you’re still having trouble grasping the concept, this visual to the right should make it a bit more clear.)

My upcoming workshop on the CAGED guitar system (January 25th) is the first installment of the Fretboard IQ series that I created to give students a clear path to understanding and being able to use the entire fretboard.

This workshop will cover how each of the five basic open chord shapes relate to a corresponding major scale and how you can move and connect these shapes to play in any key, anywhere on the fretboard.

This workshop, which will be entirely virtual, is geared towards the advancing beginner and intermediate student. A PDF that references all of the workshop’s material will be included in the price of the class. Participants will have an opportunity to ask questions and suggest topics for future workshops!

If you want to keep an eye out for some of my other upcoming Fretboard IQ workshops, I will be covering concepts like improvising with scales and arpeggios, reading and understanding chord diagrams (Dm7, Cb9, F∆#11, etc.), and exploring jazz chord inversions.

Justin Heath’s passion for music ranges across a variety of instruments, including acoustic guitar, 5-string banjo, mandolin, ukulele, and violin. His musical interests range from jazz to folk and bluegrass to flamenco, but he is now focused predominantly on solo classical guitar and performing tango music with his band the Toccata Players. Justin works at the House of Musical Traditions and teaches guitar, banjo, and ukulele for the School of Musical Traditions.