Why CAGED Doesn't Work Part 3: Why 5 Shapes and What Has the Tuning to Do With It?

Dividing the fretboard in 5 shapes is a commonly used strategy in the CAGED guitar system, but it is impractical, illogical, and there are better alternatives to it.

Why CAGED Doesn't Work Part 3: Why 5 Shapes and What Has the Tuning to Do With It?
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Do you know a number of different scale positions on a fretboard? Should you be learning more of them? And why should you be asking this question?

Some people learn to play scales on the guitar fretboard by breaking it into different segments ("positions"), and learn each one separately. This method is known as "position playing" and is very popular. But that doesn't mean it isn't without its problems: most notably how exactly do we break apart the fretboard? While it seems inconsequential, it does have some real-world effects on your playing.

The vast majority of scale systems for guitar use "position playing" in some way or another. Among them is the system we're talking about today: the infamous CAGED system.

In both online and offline discussions I have heard many players who use the CAGED system affirm that CAGED is the "correct" system because the fretboard divides "naturally" into five shapes (I'll go into detail on this momentarily), that happen to be the five CAGED shapes. And this is typically followed by "the five shapes are a consequence of the structure inherent in the standard tuning of the guitar" or something along these lines.

But this idea of "natural division" is chock full of discrepancies, of which, in the interest of time, I will highlight just a couple:

1. Not all CAGED systems divide equally. The Berklee CAGED system touted in their numerous books has seven shapes and yet, the CAGED system described in Joe Pass's book shows six shapes. How can more than one method of dividing the fretboard be the natural one?

2. The fretboard only divides into five shapes naturally when using five-note scales (like pentatonic scales), but try plugging in a seven-note scale like a natural minor, and you'll find nothing but problems. Sure, you can divide it into five sections with seven-note scales if you twist these patterns enough, but it's far from being a natural division.

Logically and technically speaking, trying to divide the fretboard into five equal parts regardless if you are playing diatonic scales, pentatonic scales, and triads is just fraught with problems and inconsistencies.

To go more in-depth on this topic, and answer some of the questions I'm sure you might have at this point, see also to the last two videos in this series: CAGED Sucks Part 1: Right Hand Consistency and CAGED Sucks, Part 2: Scales-Arpeggio Integration.

Part 1: Inconsistent Picking
Part 2: Scales/Arpeggios Mechanical Integration
Part 4: Learning to Stretch

About the Author:
Tommaso Zillio is a prog rock guitarist and teacher with a passion for Music Theory applied to Guitar.

47 comments sorted by best / new / date

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    oddworld
    Again, not trying to be rude, but could you show some actual examples instead of just talking about this? I'm interested in learning something out of this, but improvising over something, like Wave by Antonio Carlos Jobim, would just destroy my head if I'd use something other than the CAGED-system. To me, you need to back up, what you're saying by actually playing something and showing your theory in practice. Anybody can talk.
    DanMayhew
    It's very simple actually, using the 3NPS system you would learn your scales just like any other system (only it's more efficient and lends itself to faster progress), major scales, minor, harmonic minor, melodic minor. While you're doing that, you would also learn your arpeggios, triads, 7th, 9th, etc... (sweep picking, string skipping, tapping). You would also practice targeting the specific chord tones needed over each chord as you need to for improvising again depending on the complexity of the chord will depend on how many chord tones you will need to memorise for that chord your'e soloing over. In terms of soloing over more complex changes such as blues or jazz, the process is pretty straight forward. How I approach soloing is to target the chord tones for my phrases as a skeleton, then I will flesh out my phrases with notes of the scale I'm using (it could be a single scale or it could be that I use a different scale over every chord in the progression) and of course use different phrasing elements available to us on the guitar that make the guitar sound awesome. Of course to do this you need to know your scales inside and out. Wherever you are on the fretboard if you're soloing in D Lydian for example, you need to be able to play in D Lydian starting on any string and from any fret on the guitar and know the chord tones you're targeting. Then for the next chord lets say I change to G Mixolydian b6, I will need to know where that scale is all over the guitar, again starting on any string on any part of the fretboard and also know where my chord tones are. There are many different ways in order to practice 3NPS scales to achieve this result (e.g. different scale sequences, fretboard memorisation exercises etc...) but don't think for one minute that the CAGED system is the only system where you can play over your Jazz or blues chord changes. You may be thinking "but Dan, I don't want to have to think about all of that while I play" and I agree, you shouldn't have to. Which is why one area of your practice should be devoted to spending some time improvising then asking yourself the question "what am I thinking about?", whatever the answer is, if it's not "to create 'x' emotion" you've found a restriction that's holding you back from being 100% free when improvising. I also have a friend who can solo over all the complex Jazz chord changes at a reasonably high speed using 3NPS.
    tommaso.zillio
    When you use CAGED, you visualize the chord you are playing over and see the scale around it. As I've shown in the 2nd video of the series (linked at the end of the article) that can be done in 3nps too, and more efficiently at that. If you find CAGED easier it's only because you got used to CAGED, and you never trained 3nps in this way... but it's actually easier in 3nps, even (in fact especially) for "complex" chord progressions.
    oddworld
    Maybe I'm not doing it right, but to me, it would be hard to use the 3nps as there's so much room for bad notes. I tend to think about the chords of the progression as close to each other and go with that when soloing over fast changes. Doing it with 3nps feels like there's just too much to think about compared to just thinking of the chords.
    tommaso.zillio
    So you are essentially playing arpeggios? That's one way to do it. Remember that 3nps does not mean you have to shred the whole scale pattern from top to bottom and vice versa: you can also play the arpeggios and the scale around that (again, see the 2nd video linked above)
    DanMayhew
    Oddworld I want to break down your comment just to try and help you see where your thinking isn't in the right place. "Maybe I'm not doing it right, but to me, it would be hard to use the 3nps as there's so much room for bad notes." This is simple, practice your scales so you don't hit bad notes. As I said in my first reply, there's many ways to train on practicing scales and practice fretboard memorisation so that you don't hit 'bad notes' by mistake. "I tend to think about the chords of the progression as close to each other and go with that when soloing over fast changes" This is good, in fact this allows for better soloing instead of jumping around all over the place to find the nearest scale or arpeggio you happen to know. You can do all of this with 3NPS though and it can be done much more effectively. All it takes is practice and you can be much more musically free. "Doing it with 3nps feels like there's just too much to think about compared to just thinking of the chords." You need to read my first reply again. If there's 'too much to think about' you need to spend 30 seconds improvising then ask yourself the question. Whatever your answer is, that's what you need to work on to get yourself more free in terms of thinking when you are improvising. Even though 3NPS is a far superior method for learning scales, it will not solve all your problems instantly. There will be some work that needs to be done.
    Chocomalk
    1. Why should there be "one natural way"? 2. If the major pentatonic lies within the major scale, and it does, then it is present in every mode of the major scale, regardless of system.
    DanMayhew
    1. We're not talking about what is 'natural', we're talking about, and finding out about what is the most effective way to bring the same result in the shortest amount of time while putting you on the right path to achieving your flu potential as a guitar player. 2) The point of learning scales, arpeggios and chords is not to squash them all into one system. it's to have a bunch of super effective systems that all integrate together and work to help each other. CAGED falls short by a long way of achieving this.
    Chocomalk
    1. Every player I have ever taught or known has a different style and potential. Some take to 3nps, some just want to learn how to rock. Say what you want about true potential, but for others, it may not be the same thing. 2. But they are already in the same system if they are derived from the same theory. The problem here is arguing for one approach when there are many. An arpeggio and a scale seem like different animals until you are playing a Maj 13th arpeggio. I had the pleasure of meeting Joe Pass and he gave some of the best advice, he said: "Hey man, back in the day, we didn't have any mixolydian flat whatever scales, we had 12 notes and the blues. Just learn the chords and how they work together."
    tommaso.zillio
    1. No idea. It's not me saying stuff like "CAGED is how the guitar works and comes directly from the tuning of the instrument combined with western harmony". I'm just commenting on that 2. True, but irrelevant to the point at hand. I could as well propose you play pentatonic scales and triads following the 3nps diatonic patterns... after all CAGED is playing diatonic scales and triads following pentatonic positions.
    Chocomalk
    1. I see, but in a sense the claim is true that CAGED is derived that way, just as any method is. How could they not be? Outside of the tuning issue(open note preference and ease of play) Any system is likely going to follow the theory it is derived from. 2. You are moving goalposts here, in this article you mention the Berklee system. A 3 nps concept. The CAGED system you fall back on to criticize is one that straight blues/rock/country players use to play pentatonic/blues scales<< not 3 nps for most of us without super big fingers. What you should be doing, instead of criticizing it,is to show how standard CAGED fits into your concept, because it does.
    tommaso.zillio
    1. "Any system is likely going to follow the theory it is derived from." This is just a soundbite, there is no meaning attached to it. Both CAGED and 3NPS "derive" from the same theory of scales, modes, and chords. And yet they are very different. BTW, did you actually watch the video? 2. The Berklee system is not 3nps at all, just read their books to see that they have a mixed 2 and 3 notes per strings. Also bonus points to reiterate the twin fallacy that a. standard pentatonic shapes are CAGED (not true, standard pentatonic shapes are consistent 2nps) and b. it takes "super big fingers" to play 3nps (anybody with the correct technique can perform the minimal stretch required).
    BryceGorman
    Great video, this point is the most obvious and disastrous one for CAGED supporters. Can't wait for the next one!
    jerrykramskoy
    CAGED, as a term, has managed to pollute what is a natural break down of a block of any 12 frets into 5 regions, those being established by where the pitch classes for the key occur. How those regions are filled in depends on the scale / chord ... (in standard tuning) I also think its less than optimal making the association with a particular chord shape as the landmark to derive stuff from (as CAGED that I've encountered suggests) If you glue any 2 regions together, you get the normal 3 nps shapes (in standard tuning). I don't see a problem with mixing and matching both ... but a possible drawback with 3nps is that the lines built from it will tend to be more scalar, and prove harder to play mechanically, if you want to add in chromaticism. All depends on the player. But I firmly believe it is much less confusing visualising intervals using the 5 regions approach (for newbies).
    tommaso.zillio
    - The "natural" break is there only for pentatonics (see video) - Agreed that CAGED tries to build everything from a chord shape... but do not agree that chords organize in 5 shapes naturally - "if you glue 2 regions together you get the normal 3nps: not true for 2 reasons: A. if you put two "regions" together you will get a hybrid shape, not 3nps. There is substantial rearrangement required, and it's definitely more cumbersome than simply learning 3nps. B. 5 regions can pair up only in 5 ways on the fretboard, but there are 7 3nps shapes. Again, 3 is not 5 is not 7! - in 3nps lines are as scalar as in any other scale system. In all of them you need to learn to break it up - since 3nps is more regular and consistent, they are technically easier once the player learns the correct technique (next video...) - chromaticism is easier in 3nps - It does not depend on the player... some things depend on anatomy and geometry. Unless CAGED players have a different number of fingers, that is... - For beginners: teach them pentatonics, no problem. But don't cram the diatonic scales and the arpeggios in there. (I think I got everything?...)
    drewlee
    Thank you Tommaso. Once again, you make a clear and compelling argument. CAGED scale shapes have always been a huge detractor for me as they force 7 patterns into 5. 7 notes require 7 patterns, it's as straight forward as that.
    CostasNoir
    Another great post Tommaso having been on both sides of the fence myself, I can sincerely say that there's no reason to learn the CAGED system. Especially when soloing, I believe it imprisons you to a scale position, and you have to put in conscious effort to move around. With 3NPS, you can, and will move around so much it's not even funny. Would you say the technical shortcomings of CAGED is the reason why a lot of guitarists find it difficult to develop advanced technique, particularly picking technique?
    tommaso.zillio
    Yes, good point. The fact that the patterns in CAGED are inconsistent is the reason why many players have problems developing their technique. I have been on both sides of the fence too, and that's why I am doing these videos: I don't want people to waste time like I did.
    jerrykramskoy
    I know several one fingered CAGED players. One particular pathway through 2 regions glued together, does give 3nps. But you don't easily lose track of the intervals involved against the key centre. Whereas with 3nps, it does appear to be harder from that view point, according to several folk I know / have questioned. That said, loads of folk purely play from patterns with no concern / understanding for the intervals, so both using regions and 3 nps are as susceptible to that. Right ... back to the school of South East London Twiddler's CAGED system, based on 9 shapes. : Keep up the good work, Tommaso. Look forward to next video.
    ha_asgag
    Oops, I think there is a logic error somewhere... 12 boxed shapes occur if you were to draw and summarize all the major keys IN OPEN POSITION alone (standard tuning EADGBE). How can anyone simplify everything to just 5, 6, or 7 shapes?
    ha_asgag
    C Major: [C-D-E-F-G-A-B] 0 |-1-|---|-3-|---| 0 |-1-|---|-3-|---| 0 |---|-2-|---|---| 0 |---|-2-|-3-|---| 0 |---|-2-|-3-|---| 0 |-1-|---|-3-|---| Db Major (bbbbb): [Db-Eb-F-Gb-Ab-Bb-C] |-1-|-2-|---|-4-| |-1-|-2-|---|-4-| |-1-|---|-3-|---| |-1-|---|-3-|-4-| |-1-|---|-3-|-4-| |-1-|-2-|---|-4-| D Major (##): [D-E-F#-G-A-B-C#] 0 |---|-2-|-3-|---| 0 |---|-2-|-3-|---| 0 |---|-2-|---|---| 0 |---|-2-|---|-4-| 0 |---|-2-|---|-4-| 0 |---|-2-|-3-|---| Eb Major (bbb): [Eb-F-G-Ab-Bb-C-D] |-1-|---|-3-|-4-| |-1-|---|-3-|-4-| 0 |-1-|---|-3-|---| 0 |-1-|---|-3-|---| |-1-|---|-3-|---| |-1-|---|-3-|-4-| E Major (####): [E-F#-G#-A-B-C#-D#] 0 |---|-2-|---|-4-| 0 |---|-2-|---|-4-| |-1-|-2-|---|---| |-1-|-2-|---|-4-| 0 |---|-2-|---|-4-| 0 |---|-2-|---|-4-| F Major (b): [F-G-A-Bb-C-D-E] 0 |-1-|---|-3-|---| |-1-|---|-3-|---| 0 |---|-2-|-3-|---| 0 |---|-2-|-3-|---| 0 |-1-|---|-3-|---| 0 |-1-|---|-3-|---| F# or Gb Major (#####/bbbbb): [F#-G#-A#-B-C#-D#-E#] |-1-|-2-|---|-4-| 0 |---|-2-|---|-4-| |-1-|---|-3-|---| |-1-|---|-3-|-4-| |-1-|-2-|---|-4-| |-1-|-2-|---|-4-| G Major (#): [G-A-B-C-D-E-F#] 0 |---|-2-|-3-|---| 0 |-1-|---|-3-|---| 0 |---|-2-|---|---| 0 |---|-2-|---|-4-| 0 |---|-2-|-3-|---| 0 |---|-2-|-3-|---| Ab Major (bbbb): [Ab-Bb-C-Db-Eb-F-G] |-1-|---|-3-|-4-| |-1-|-2-|---|-4-| 0 |-1-|---|-3-|---| |-1-|---|-3-|---| |-1-|---|-3-|-4-| |-1-|---|-3-|-4-| A Major (###): [A-B-C#-D-E-F#-G#] 0 |---|-2-|---|-4-| 0 |---|-2-|-3-|---| |-1-|-2-|---|---| 0 |---|-2-|---|-4-| 0 |---|-2-|---|-4-| 0 |---|-2-|---|-4-| Bb Major (bb): [Bb-C-D-Eb-F-G-A] |-1-|---|-3-|---| |-1-|---|-3-|-4-| 0 |---|-2-|-3-|---| 0 |-1-|---|-3-|---| 0 |-1-|---|-3-|---| |-1-|---|-3-|---| B Major: (#####): [B-C#-D#-E-F#-G#-A#] 0 |---|-2-|---|-4-| 0 |---|-2-|---|-4-| |-1-|---|-3-|---| |-1-|-2-|---|-4-| |-1-|-2-|---|-4-| 0 |---|-2-|---|-4-|
    tommaso.zillio
    Ha_asgag: 5 shapes for a SINGLE key over ALL the fretboard. You are showing 12 shapes for 12 major keys in a single position of the fretboard.
    ha_asgag
    Even if we were to illustrate moveable shapes on the fretboard for a single key, 12 unique shapes and fingerings are still bound to recur if we were to place some sort of imaginary nut/capo over every position. The point here is that there still are hidden combinations that are left out and not represented by traditional CAGED shapes and the 7 3NPS patterns. I've encountered "other weird fingerings" occasionally, when attempting to sight read guitar, violin, trumpet or vocal sheet music that is why I would recommend mastering the remaining shapes.
    tommaso.zillio
    ...but why you have to put an imaginary capo at all? And of course if you cut, paste, rearrange, you are going to find more and more shapes... but this is not the point here. The point is how to organize all that in something that can be taught and understood. (BTW, personally, when I read music I find 3nps + sweep arpeggios more than adequate)
    ha_asgag
    The reality is, sightreading on the guitar in a single position can be likened to the "ASDF" & "JKL;" home keys on a typewriter. It takes practice but you won't be able to attain speed, progress and fast reflexes if you keep changing the hand position too much and varying the corresponding fingering. The skill needed to type 60 words per minute w/o making errors can be an accomplishment for a beginning typist and can be compared to the skill required to read straight 16th single notes at 100 BPM for an unfamiliar piece/exercise for a practicing musician (not taking into account the expression and proper feel). The "imaginary capo" is used to approximate the range of the music (i.e., What's the lowest and highest note in the entire piece?)
    tommaso.zillio
    Ok. I don't see why CAGED should be superior to 3nps on that once we use a single position,
    ha_asgag
    I find 3 NPS patterns acceptable for improvisation but not for impromptu sight reading purposes because like I mentioned earlier, the finger alignment is not systematic and once there are plenty of accidentals in the music, things can get confusing.
    liam.kirk.129
    "It takes practice but you won't be able to attain speed, progress and fast reflexes if you keep changing the hand position too much and varying the corresponding fingering." That's just fucking hilarious.
    ha_asgag
    I know the "Flight of the Bumblebee" is easy to memorize in TAB notation but not that easy to read fast in standard guitar notation.
    tommaso.zillio
    Sorry ha_asgag... are we still talking about CAGED and 3nps? What has the flight of the bumblebee to do with anything said so far?
    ha_asgag
    Of course it would be quite impractical to assimilate thousands of 2 - 3 octave diagonal scale patterns but the idea behind this is to gradually slide up the fret hand over each fret or position so we can systematically extract all representative patterns that can be played by the fret hand in one normal fret span (4-5 frets). We can end up with 12 recurring movable shapes if we transpose or transfer the open position forms to the middle of the fret board.
    ha_asgag
    It simply has something to do with staying in a fixed position and jumping from one position to another. How do you think this correlates to CAGED, 3 npS and sight reading?