9 Ways The CAGED System Is Making Things More Confusing For You

You may have heard about the CAGED system to learn guitar scales. You may have tried to learn it. You may even have been successful in learning it. And yet you still do not feel like you are mastering the fretboard. Is there something wrong with you? I have been in your same situation and I can tell you that it's not your fault. What is happening is that the CAGED system as is commonly taught has a number of problems that prevent you to reach your full potential. Keep reading.

Since the CAGED system of learning guitar scales is the most widespread method to learn guitar scales, many guitarists think that it is also the only "real" or "correct" method. For this reasons many obvious observation regarding the fretboard are credited to CAGED: for instance, I have read countless articles saying that the patterns of octaves on the guitar is "a consequence of the CAGED system". Well, there are other methods to learn guitar scales and all of them obviously use the octave pattern.

The fact that some people think that CAGED is "the only way" reaches sometimes ridiculous proportions: I know a couple of local guitar teachers that do not use CAGED but they teach it to their students because, hey, it's the "right way". When they play, on the other hand, they both use "a system they invented", but they readily concede that "of course CAGED is better". And yet, I can't help wondering why you should need to invent your own system if the "right" one already exist. Also, these teachers are both unable to tell me exactly how CAGED is superior to their own system.

In my experience as a music teacher, I have seen countless students confused and frustrated by this scale system. I also have seen a few who raved about it, only to drop it like a hot potato once I showed them how the system was limiting their playing ability. I am going to elaborate on that in detail in the points below. Keep reading.

It integrates poorly with arpeggios

This may be surprising for some of you, since most people who use the CAGED system say that the chord/scale integration is one of the main features of their system. Let me show you how this is actually not true, or at least not as true a advertised. The problem is that the chord patterns that in the CAGED system are shown superimposed to the scales are not useful patterns to play arpeggios. They seem to have been chosen because they resemble the classic "cowboy chords" that most players learn when starting, but this is quite a poor choice later on.

You can see immediately that if you try and play the CAGED chord shapes as arpeggios (i.e. one note at a time in order, on all strings) then you run into strange problems. The "G shape" does not cover strings 2,3, and 4: these notes must be borrowed from the "A shape", but the resulting pattern is not easy to play as an arpeggio. The "D shape" covers only the first 4 strings. These shapes are far harder to play than what we would have expected. Simple playing situations, like ascending on a scale and descending on the arpeggio become difficult. Or if you prefer: the CAGED system seem to integrate well visually, but not mechanically, making things more difficult than necessary when playing.

... and only major arpeggios are featured

As we have see above, all the scale patterns in CAGED are usually shown superimposed to a major chord shape. As it is easy to verify, it is not as common to see them superimposed with a minor chord instead, and they are only rarely shown with diminished, augmented or altered chords. Even the seventh chord patterns are rare. Why it is so? Well, because the shapes for the minor arpeggios in CAGED are less attractive and are more technically difficult than the major arpeggios, and the problem is even worse for diminished, augmented or altered chords.

Of course, many CAGED apologists will say that this is not true and that you can use CAGED on minor chords, or on any other chords for that matter. I'm sure this is the case if you are willing to twist your mind enough and put enough hours of work into it - after all a week of hard work can sometimes save you an hour of thought. In some case, though, the proposed solutions border on the absurd: for instance I have seen some horrible ways to patch this problem such as using the relative major chord instead (on the Am chord we use the shapes for the C chord). Such patches make the CAGED system much less direct and intuitive as it seemed at first sight, and still do not address the fact that there are tons of other chords types you need to learn to solo on.

Requires a considerable memorizing effort

CAGED apologists like to say that "you just need to memorize only 5 patterns". As we will see in the next point this is not actually true... but let's concede the point for the time being. Other scale systems, like the 3-notes-per-strings system have only one pattern if they are taught correctly (not 7 like most people think). Yes, you heard me well. I may dedicate a future article on that if you guys are interested (let me know if the comments).

It does not end here. To use a scale pattern effectively when soloing you need to know more than just the pattern: you also need to know where the scale degrees are in the pattern i.e. which note is the root, which one is the fifth, etc... These must be learned by heart separately for each shape in the CAGED system since these shapes do not have any intervallic regularity.

It forces you to focus only on scales

I have noticed that more and more often there are people online advising other players to not learn scales because otherwise "you may end up sounding too scalar". Other common lines are that "scales are bad for you", or that "scales are stupid". My answer is that you should definitely learn your scales, but not be imprisoned by them. But what has this to do with the CAGED system? Well, every method out there who explains the CAGED system shows the scale patterns superimposed to the chord shapes... but how many of these methods have you actually play these arpeggios? It seems to me that most players that use CAGED as their basis tend to play mostly scales. Scales are the centre of their system, and so naturally the approach they revert to most often.

Do yourself a favor and learn your scales, but don't learn only them or learn them in a system that does not shows you practically how to break free of them.

It is inferior technically

It is not a mystery that most shredders do not endorse the CAGED system, and for a very simple reason: because it is difficult to play scales at high speed using these scale patterns.

You may or may not be into shred and fast playing, but it is a fact that if a scale patterns make it difficult for you to play at a high speed, then it is putting an unnecessary technical burden on your playing at any speed. Or in other words: stuff that can be played faster is usually easier at any speed.

The reason why CAGED patterns are more difficult technically is that they are not consistent in the number of notes they have per string: some strings have 2 notes, some 3. This is because CAGED patterns are derived from the principle used in classical guitar playing of "one finger per fret" — and this is all good but this principle is not helping you to play electric guitar (that is a different instrument than classical guitar, goes without saying). A better option, that will make easier to play also melodic patterns ("sequences") is to lay down your scales with 3 notes per strings.

Another technical problems most CAGED users but the most advanced tend to have is that they stay in "position playing" i.e. they never move from one position on the fretboard. Needless to say, this reflects on the quality of their soloing.

To realize how the CAGED system is technically inferior, I suggest the two following three exercises: 1) try and play the scales as fast as possible. 2) Try to play a scale sequence such as: C, D, E, D, E, F, E, F, G, etc... 3) Restrict your playing to only the first two string, and play the scale patters all across the fretboard. In all three cases you will see that the CAGED system produces some awkward fingering when the scale pattern passes from 3 to 2 notes per string.

It makes difficult to use different scales

"So you learn these 5 patterns and you are set for the major scales and its modes". "Ok, but what if I want to use something different, like the melodic minor scale, or an exotic scale?" "You can see it as a variation of the major scale". Ok, well, this is technically true. Any scale can be seen as a "variation" on the major scale, simply because if you change enough notes you can obtain any other scale. But is this a goos way to think?

I think the real problem is if we it is convenient for us to think of the new scale in term of the major scale. And the answer is: often this is not the case. Some scales are simply "too far" from the major scale for the original patterns to be of any use. Even changing only one or two notes, in fact, it's quite difficult to manage. Ultimately you will find yourself learning a new set of patterns for each new scale you want to use. Want to play the neapolitan minor scale? Learn a new set. Want to use the melodic minor for some Jazz? Learn a new set. The CAGED system does not look like an elegant and economic system in this respect.

But Hendrix used it?

Even if Hendrix used it, a scale system is good for you if it helps learning the fretboard in an efficient way, and then does not limit you. It does not matter who used it or not. But since I've heard this Hendrix thing countless times, let's get rid of it once and for all.

The CAGED system was invented and popularized in the late 70's, while Hendrix died in 1970, so it's unlikely that he used it. He could have figured it out by himself, of course, but he left no indications of the scale system he used, and from his solos you can see clearly that he's not using the standard CAGED patterns.

Of course, other famous players may be using CAGED. Many for instance claim that Joe Pass was using it. He certainly mentioned it. On the other hand, I do own Joe Pass' scales book, and the system he explains in it actually used 6 different patterns, not 5 as CAGED. Also, Joe Pass was using this system more to visualize different chords, not full scales. Based on this, it seems to me that what Joe called CAGED in his days and what is passed as CAGED today are actually two different systems and we should not use the same name for them.

Of course someone is going to mention in the comments that famous schools like Berklee use the CAGED system in their curriculum. Well, this is true, but are their most successful graduates using it? Take for instance the solos of John Petrucci, arguably one of the most famous Berklee students, and you will notice that any non-pentatonic scale in his solos is actually played with a 3-notes-per-strings pattern. Curious, eh?

It's taught in a confusing way

For all the faults we have found up to now, the CAGED system does have a good point to it. Suppose you already know your pentatonic scales, and you want to be able to add some modal notes to it. For instance, if you are playing the Am pentatonic scale and want to solo in A Phrygian, you just need to add the notes Bb and F to the pentatonic pattern. If you do this for all the 5 pentatonic shapes (for the different modes), then you will ultimately obtain the CAGED patterns.

In other words, the CAGED patterns are a nice way to go between pentatonic scales and diatonic/modal scales... and that's about it.

The curious thing is that I have never seen the CAGED system taught this way. All the educational resources that I have about CAGED insist a lot about the fact that the scale patterns are superimposed on the major chord shapes, but do not even mention the pentatonic/modal connection. It is quite interesting that the CAGED system is branded as a "general" system that can handle any playing situation well (which is not true) and it is not explained in the area where it would shine.

It's not a single system!

Every time I talk about, write about, or otherwise explain why the CAGED system does not live up to the hype, one or two people are bound to say: "Wait a moment this is not the CAGED system. The CAGED system is...".You see, this is another problem with CAGED. It has been "copied" over and over by so many less-than-competent authors that everyone now is teaching a different thing and calls it CAGED.

Strangely enough this situation insures that if you are willing to invest time and resources, before or later you will find a system that you will like (at least for a while) that is taught under the name of CAGED. In fact, nearly every single way to see the fretboard has been taught under the CAGED name... I have seen teachers explain the octave patterns on the fretboard and call it the CAGED system, I have seen people explaining the tuning on the guitar saying that it "derives from the CAGED system" (standard guitar tuning dates back to the 16th century...), I have even seen the 3-notes-per-string patterns explained as "a variation on the CAGED system"!

So when it seems that everybody out there uses the CAGED system... they are not using the same system at all! So when somebody criticizes the CAGED system (as I do in this article) they are bound to see a number of comments along the lines of: "but this is not the CAGED system I use". Well, I have a 4-feet long shelf of instructionals and DVD's on the CAGED system (should I say "systems"?) so I think I have half an idea of what I am talking about!

So why so many people recommend it?

You may be wondering why the CAGED system is so recommended by many people despite the obvious problems. I can see 3 reasons for that: 1) Because it can be marketed as a "magic bullet system": just learn the 5 easy patterns and you are on your way. And yet the magic never seems to work the way it's supposed to be. 2) there is a large "industry" behind this. Search online for guitar methods, and you will see that 90% of the results are about the CAGED system. Everybody can sell an eBook about the CAGED system: copy the 5 patterns, put some text around them and bam! You are in business! 3) It's easy to teach. After all, you are just handed down the 5 pattern and supposed to make sense of them. I have seen the consequence of this method in many students who come to me form other teachers: they know these patterns by heart, but they can't apply them to save their life. My final recommendation is to simply shun the CAGED system. You are going to be better off in the long run.

Tommaso Zillio is a professional prog rock/metal guitarist and composer based in Edmonton, AB, Canada.

Tommaso is currently working on an instrumental CD, and an instructional series on fretboard visualization and exotic scales. He is your go-to guy for any and all music theory-related questions.

Tommaso Zillio

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