Why is the CAGED System so important?

Guitar Noises #18: October 29, 2021

A lot of people have a thing against memorization. Some of them will tell you “memorizing is not learning” or that it gets in the way of real learning. The thing is, rote learning is an important part of building musical understanding.

Learning guitar won’t be the first time in your life you’ve had to memorize something. It’s how you learned your ABCs and multiplication tables. If you’ve ever tried to learn a new language there was definitely a lot of memorization involved there as well. And since we recognize music as a language it only makes sense that some of it is learned by committing things to memory.

When starting out on guitar some things will just have to be learned by heart. Learning the names of the strings from low to high is probably first. After that, how do you know where to put your fingers without remembering chord shapes? When you’re ready to move past basic open chords you’ll have to figure out how to move up and down the neck. What notes are going to work? It’s not at all intuitive. There are concepts you should commit to memory that will serve as a guidebook for all your future traveling around the fretboard. You can’t go through life as a guitar player only knowing to put this finger here and that finger there because you watched someone else do it.

We’re not all going to Berklee to become musical wizards, but we can learn some musical concepts well enough to have a language to use when speaking on guitar. The sooner you take the time to memorize some basic elements of music theory the sooner you’ll have a permanent language to speak with. Techniques are short-lived if you stop using them. But a language committed to memory is something you’ll never have to learn again. Step away for twenty years and I bet you’ll still know how to play your open chords.

What should you memorize?

Here is a very important guideline:

Don’t memorize things you don’t understand.

The biggest light bulb moment I ever had on guitar was learning the CAGED system. If you are coming to guitar from another instrument, you already have some idea of how music works. If guitar is your first instrument there are some stumbling blocks that arise from the guitars unique tuning. The CAGED system helps clear them up. CAGED is a series of patterns that helps you understand the fretboard. Instead of looking at the whole fretboard at once, it’s split into smaller, more manageable parts. When you connect those parts you can move up and down the neck playing the notes that go together.

Why is it important to know the CAGED system?

Here are the big advantages to learning CAGED as I see them:

  1. CAGED shortens the learning curve. It’s a huge stepping stone from being a beginner to an intermediate player. Going from knowing how to strum open chords to knowing barre chords and playing scales up and down the neck will transform your playing.

  2. CAGED is a way to apply music theory to guitar. What’s the point of theory if we don’t use it? How do we take some of that esoteric knowledge and make music with it. CAGED serves as a bridge between thinking about music to doing music.

  3. CAGED explains music from a uniquely “guitar thinking” perspective. The guitar has a unique tuning system that is different from piano, and even other fretted instruments like the bass. CAGED only works for guitar because it’s guitar specific knowledge. Knowing it unlocks some of the guitar’s mystery.

CAGED is the guitar equivalent of learning to ride a bike. You can’t unlearn it, un-see it, or un-know it.

But you have to understand it first, and then commit it to memory.

Learning the CAGED System

The CAGED system isn’t particularly hard to learn. We just need to take our time and learn it in little chunks.

One problem I’ve run into with CAGED, is that it’s taught in so many different ways. Everyone has a different idea of what position number is what. It may be new to you, but others have known about it for years and it still gets explained like it’s some amazing discovery. It isn’t new. It’s simply a system for labelling the fretboard the way it has always been organized.

Video lessons aren’t comprehensive enough to explain CAGED properly. Who can memorize details from a video? Auto-play will be on to the next one before you finish taking notes. You need to commit CAGED patterns to memory and the best way to do that is have the charts you’re working on printed for reference. You’re going to need to look at these a lot while your fingers learn the parts.

It isn’t necessary to have the entire fretboard memorized to play all over the neck. Having every note memorized could mean you have a lot of information but you don’t know how to use any of it. All you really need to know for CAGED is a handful of notes. Just the notes on the 5th and 6th strings are enough to start.

You should also know the open chords C, A, G, E, and D. These are the only major chords that can be played on guitar with open strings. Hold onto that little tidbit of information. Its importance will be revealed as you become a CAGED master.

And here’s one other interesting thing: if you can already play barre chords. you are already using the CAGED system. Cool, huh?

Resources for learning the CAGED system

The CAGED system and I go way back. When I first learned it, from Fretboard Logic, I was so excited I tracked down the author and interviewed him for Guitar Noise. For some of the author’s insights and other interesting stories you can find my original 2002 interview with Bill Edwards here.

As the author puts it:

“the method fills in a lot of gaps in people’s understanding. This can be very liberating. It also helps them get to a place where they can understand other authors and teachers better.”

“It gives them control over the first stage in the process: knowing what notes are available and where they are.” 

“Knowing all the pattern types gives each player the control over that tonal minefield”

Fretboard Logic’s split page format, with text on half the page and diagrams on the other half, was a superb way to get the ideas across verbally and visually.  You can grab a Kindle version of the book from Amazon. Although the book dates back to the 1980s, I struggled over the past few weeks to find a better resource online.

I do have two recommendations for sites that explain CAGED clearly and effectively. There aren’t any major gaps in either explanation, but I recommend you go through both of them to double up on the explanations. It will be useful to have a printer handy. Getting the charts printed in color is a good way to memorize the patterns more quickly.

Guitar Habits has two good introductory pieces on CAGED. Start with What is The CAGED System? (The Keys to The Fretboard) and then move on to The 5 Major Scale CAGED Shapes – Positions. These two cover a lot.

And then a really excellent lesson that goes into even more detail is CAGED System for Guitar at Applied Guitar Theory. This has helpful colored graphics and a cheat sheet that are worth saving and printing.

These are the clearest and most useful lessons for understanding and using CAGED I’ve found. Once you have these parts committed to memory, videos you find on the subject will make a lot more sense. But you might not need them. Once you understand the CAGED system, the guitar itself will make a lot more sense.

What are some other things you suggest memorizing on guitar?