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Master The Fretboard With CAGED System Scales for Guitar (Plus 9 Scale Practice Tips)

Guitar players can have it hard, but systems like the CAGED system scales can help you understand the guitar fretboard maze. You’ll become a more competent guitar player by memorizing the CAGED system, which associates major scale patterns with basic open chord shapes.

In this article, we’ll explore the CAGED system and how it works. Then will use it to discover the C major scale all over the fretboard.

We’ll go over the CAGED system’s uses, advantages, and drawbacks. You’ll be one step closer to mastering the entire fretboard by the end!

But before we begin, I have a quick question—

Do you find yourself struggling to understand the guitar?

You’ve probably spent hours watching every guitar YouTube channel trying to understand the fretboard and music theory related to the guitar. You might pay hundreds of dollars monthly for lessons and still find the fretboard confusing.

If you want to get past the roadblocks and accelerate your guitar playing and comprehension, then you need to check out the Learn Jazz Standards Inner Circle.

The Inner Circle not only helps you become a better musician, but with our Jazz Guitar Accelerator Course, you’ll have the power to unlock the secrets of the fretboard and become a better soloist.

If you want to master jazz guitar and how to solo on it, check out the Inner Circle.

See What We’re All About.

Why Use The CAGED System To Memorize the Major Scale?

Despite occasional eye-rolls from other instrumentalists, guitarists should not feel bad that their instrument is confusing.

Whereas a piano has one axis of pitch—left to right—instruments with a fretboard, like a guitar, have two pitch axes. You can raise the pitch by moving up the fretboard, or you can raise the pitch by moving across the strings.

This leads to something called the paradox of choice. There are so many options that beginner players often don’t know where to start when trying to learn the major scale, play it in different keys, and branch out of their comfort zone to different positions.

The CAGED system was one solution for organizing and conceptualizing the guitar fretboard.

History of the CAGED System

The guitar’s standard tuning (EADGBE) results in a particular arrangement of notes on the fretboard, and naturally, there are multiple places where you can play the same pitch.

Guitarists realized they could create chord “shapes” based on the open chords of C, A, G, E, and D and then move them up and down the neck to play these chords and associated scale positions throughout the entire fretboard.

This is the foundation of the CAGED system. However, the history of this method is a bit murky.

While it’s hard to pinpoint the exact origin or inventor of the CAGED system, it has long been an integral part of guitar pedagogy. It was likely used informally by guitarists for many years before it was officially recognized and named as a system.

The term “CAGED system” seems to have gained popularity in the late 20th century and can be tied to an article in the 1975 edition of Guitar Player Magazine.

What is CAGED? (How The CAGED System Works)

The CAGED system breaks the fretboard into five manageable major scale shapes. These five scale positions are associated with easy-to-remember open chord shapes, the basic cowboy chords all guitar students learn.

  1. C Major Chord
  2. A Major Chord
  3. G Major Chord
  4. E Major Chord
  5. D Major Chord

The CAGED system of scales is based on these five open chord shapes:

C guitar

Despite being named after major chords, all CAGED scales and chords are transferable, meaning they can be slid up or down the frets and applied to any key. For example, the C major scale shape can be played from any position on the fretboard. The name of the scale shape may be the C major chord shape, but the scale’s actual notes (and the major scale’s key) can be completely different.

It’s important to remember that the scale shapes’ names are just for memorization purposes. Any one of the C form, A form, G form, E form, or D form scale shapes can be played in any key all over the guitar neck.

While the positions change for different keys (determining where your hand starts, whether it’s higher or lower on the neck), the shape of the major scale stays the same. Memorizing only five scale patterns allows you to play the major scale and chord shapes in all 12 major keys.

Additionally, the relationship between all the shapes remains consistent no matter what key you are playing the major scale in: the C form scale pattern will always connect to the A form scale pattern, which will always connect to the G form scale pattern, which connects to the E shape, which then connects to the D shape. Then the D shape connects back to the C shape one octave higher.

And thus, the sequence continues until you run out of frets!

The Sequence of the Five Shapes of the CAGED System

The Main Takeaways

Here are the main takeaways so far:

  • The CAGED system is a way to play a major scale all over the guitar fretboard.
  • By associating five major scale shapes with five major chord shapes, guitar students can easily remember the five different positions of the major scale.
  • The names of the five shapes—C, A, G, E, and D—do not necessarily reflect the actual names of the notes in the scale. The idea is to connect an easy-to-remember major chord shape with one position of the major scale.
  • No matter where you jump into the CAGED system sequence, the sequence remains the same: the C scale shape is connected to the A scale shape, which is connected to G, and so on. D connects back to C to start the sequence again.

The Five Chord Shapes and Scale Shapes of the CAGED System

Without further ado, we finally arrive at scale and chord shapes.

Check out the following diagram. You’ll notice the basic chord shapes in the top row and the scale shapes in the bottom row. Notice the root notes in red. The diagram below shows every scale position as it relates to the named open chords (C, A, G, E, and D).

Note: scales with asterisks cannot be played in that particular position due to the open strings.

CAGED System Scales 2

1. C Chord Shape (Phrygian Mode)

With the C form scale, the root note is on the A and B strings. This scale shape is identical to the Phrygian Mode of the major scale (the third mode of the major scale).

2. A Chord Shape (Lydian Mode)

With the A form scale, the root note is on the A and G strings. This scale shape is identical to the Lydian Mode of the major scale (the fourth mode of the major scale).

3. G Chord Shape (Aeolian Mode)

With the G form scale, the root notes are on both E and G strings. This scale shape is identical to the Aeolian Mode or natural minor scale (the sixth mode of the major scale).

4. E Chord Shape (Locrian Mode)

With the E form scale, the root notes are on both E and G strings. This scale shape is identical to the Locrian Mode (the fourth mode of the major scale).

5. D Chord Shape (Dorian Mode)

With the D form scale, the root note is on the D and B strings. This scale shape is identical to the Dorian Mode (the second mode of the major scale).

Are you confused by modes? Check out this post for a crash course in understanding the major scale modes.

How Do I Practice CAGED Scales? 

Here is the CAGED system as applied to the key of C Major (the C major scale across the entire fretboard):

CAGED Scales C Major2

Here are the best practices when practicing CAGED scales (and other scales, for that matter):

  1. Start Slowly: When first learning a new scale, start by playing it very slowly. This will help you focus on accuracy, finger placement, and the sound of each note. Speed can come later once you’re comfortable with the scale.
  2. Use a Metronome (or drum beat/backing track): Always practice scales in time! Practicing scales with a metronome helps develop your sense of rhythm and timing. Begin at a slow tempo and gradually increase as you become more comfortable with the scale. Alternatively, keep the metronome at a slow tempo and break the big beat into smaller pieces to play faster.
  3. Practice Regularly: Consistency is key when practicing scales. Even just 10 to 15 minutes of focused scale practice each day can lead to significant improvement over time.
  4. Play in Different Keys: Once you’ve mastered the CAGED system in one key, try transposing it to another. This will help familiarize you with the instrument’s fretboard or keyboard and increase your versatility as a musician.
  5. Use Different Articulations: Try playing the CAGED scales with different articulations, such as staccato (short and detached) or legato (smooth and connected). This not only provides variety but also enhances your expressiveness as a musician.
  6. Practice Scales in Sequences: Instead of playing scales up and down linearly, try playing them in sequences (e.g., thirds, fourths). This will make your practice more interesting, challenging, and musically relevant.
  7. Use Scale Patterns: Once the linear scale is comfortable, introduce patterns. Patterns can include skipping notes, playing notes in triplets, or other rhythmic variations. This helps improve your dexterity and musicianship and expands your ability to improvise on the spot.
  8. Apply Scales to Music: Take these scales out of the practice room! Try to apply the scales you learn when playing with other musicians (or with a backing track if none are at hand).
  9. Learn Different Types of Scales: Though the CAGED system we discussed applies to the major scale, the principles of the CAGED system can be applied to other scales. Take the principles of the CAGED system to explore melodic and harmonic minor scales and chords.

Check out this post to learn more about the most important scales you need to know (beyond the major scale).

And if you want a comprehensive crash course that covers everything you need to know to play jazz guitar, then check out our blog post Introduction to Jazz Guitar: A Beginner’s Guide For Jazz Guitarists.

Join The Learn Jazz Standards Inner Circle To Accelerate Your Guitar Chops

Remember, the CAGED system is just one of many methods for understanding and navigating the guitar’s fretboard. It’s a valuable tool for many guitarists, but like any method, its effectiveness can vary based on the individual’s learning style and musical goals.

Trying to master the guitar fretboard? Are you struggling to learn scales in different positions, master arpeggio patterns, and finding it difficult to see progress in your jazz guitar playing despite hours of practice?

Then you need to check out the Learn Jazz Standards Inner Circle.

We have a Jazz Guitar Accelerator course designed to transform casual players into advanced guitar players who know their guitars inside and out.

Don’t let the neck stump you any longer. Become the jazz guitarist you want to be.

James Melton
James Melton
James Melton is a jazz musician, writer, producer, and educator who operates out of the greater Philadelphia area.

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