Are you struggling to learn the CAGED system for guitar scales? Or you have learned it already, but still not feel like you master the fretboard? You have the feeling that these scales patterns are getting in your way? Well, you are not alone. I have learned the CAGED system too, and struggled for a long time to make it work for me. I was really frustrated, and wondered if there was something wrong with me. It took the help of a good teacher to let go of the CAGED system and discover that there are other systems out there, more functional and less difficult. The CAGED system was holding me back. 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.
There is no integration with arpeggios...
Every time I talk with a CAGED apologist, the very first thing they tell me is that their system integrates scales and arpeggios. This is not true. What it's true is that the scale patterns are superimposed over a major chord shape, but these shapes are not always usable as arpeggio patterns (see below). The only advantage seems to be that they are similar to the open strings chords most beginners know, but that's about it.
So, what I mean with "not usable?" I mean that the shapes shown for the chords are difficult to play cleanly and fluidly compared to other shapes such as the standard "sweep arpeggio" shapes. This is partially because some of the shapes are good only for few strings: for instance 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, and so on. In all these cases the arpeggio/scale integration seems good visually, but it not as convenient mechanically. Try just to play the scale pattern ascending and then descend using the arpeggio without stopping to see what I mean.
... 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.
It is technically inconsistent
Have you noticed that few "high speed" players recommend the CAGED system? This is for a very simple reason: because it is difficult to play these scale patterns at a high speed.
Now, you may or may not be interested in shredding, but it is a fact that a scale pattern that is difficult to play at high speed WILL put a higher technical burden on your playing at any speed - simply because it's more difficult to play. Everything else being the same, you should always use the simplest way to play something because this way you will have more attention left to the real important expressive elements of music i.e. phrasing (vibrato, slides, etc).
Why are the CAGED patterns difficult to play? Because they have 3 notes on some strings and 2 on other strings. This makes them less "consistent" for your right hand technique. The CAGED patters are derived from the principle of "one finger per fret," which is an interesting principle but it's not doing anything to make your playing easier in practice. It is much easier to user more regular patterns such as diatonic scales with 3 notes per strings. This will make easier to pay not only "straight" scales but also melodic patterns ("sequences").
Another problem of CAGED is that most players who use it tend to stay in "position playing": they start and end their solo in a single position of the neck.
To see 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.
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 is too scale-centric
Every CAGED method I have seen shows the scale patterns superimposed with the chord patterns, often with the comment that "this is how you integrate them." Literally all the method I have seen, though, have you play these scales... But virtually none have you play the arpeggios. As a result most players that use the CAGED patterns have a scale-centric view of the fretboard: everything comes from, or is reduced to, a scale, and since this is the center of their approach this is also the thing they play most in real playing situations.
You may have heard or read online the advice that you should "not learn scales as they are bad for you." I have also heard this phrased as "scales are stupid." Of course I don't agree with that: you should learn your scales. But there is a grain of truth in these comments: you should not learn ONLY scales. You should learn ways to break free of the scales whenever you need. But especially you should not rely on systems that make it difficult to play anything but scales.
It locks you in the major scale
The CAGED patterns are always shown for the major scale and its modes, and if you are learning it you will be told that you just need to learn these 5 patterns and then you will just need to play a "variation" on these scales to play every other possible scale. Well, this is true only in a narrow sense: indeed if I change enough notes I can play any other scale, but is this a convenient way to think? How much do I need to change the major scale to arrive to the scale I want? Is it going to be easy? Sometimes the change may be so big that it does not make sense to see it as a simple "variation" from the original pattern. This happens for instance for harmonic and melodic minor scales (and all their modes) of the augmented and diminished scales.
What is going to happen in this case is that you will need to learn another set of 5 shapes for every new scale you want to use. You want to play jazz and need the melodic minor scale and modes? This is a new set. You want to play some exotic metal with the Hungarian minor scale? Another set! The CAGED system does not look anymore like an elegant and economic system, right?
Isn't it the system used by Hendrix?
Well, a scale system should not be measured only by its users, rather you should judge based on if it helps you learning the scales and not limiting your choices. But since this is one of the most common claim that CAGED apologists use, let's put it to rest. The CAGED system was invented in the late '70s. Hendrix died in 1970. It's not likely that he figured out the exact system before it was invented since his solos are not played using the CAGED patterns. Simple as that.
Other famous players are said to be using CAGED, the most famous probably being Joe Pass - he said so himself. On the other hand, if you read Pass' book on scales, you will discover that he uses 6 different patterns, and not 5 like in CAGED. He also uses them mostly to create chord shapes rather than to visualize scales. From these considerations, it seems clear that Joe Pass was using a different system than what is called CAGED today, even if he called it the same way.
But isn't the CAGED system in the curriculum of famous schools like Berklee? Well, yes, but the real question is if their most accomplished students are using it. Let's take for instance one of the most famous Berklee alumni: John Petrucci. Every time a non-pentatonic scale appears in one of his solos it's fingered as a 3-notes-per-strings pattern, not with a CAGED pattern. Interesting.
It's taught the wrong way
Of course, the CAGED system DOES have one advantage. If you already know how to play pentatonic scales, then you can start playing modal scales by adding modal notes to them. For instance, if you are playing the Am pentatonic, and add the notes B and F# then you are effectively playing the Dorian scale. In this case, starting form the 5 standard pentatonic patterns and adding the modal notes you will 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.
Everybody has a different idea of what CAGED is!
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.
If you are willing to throw enough energy, time, and resources at it, eventually you WILL find a system you like (for a while at least) that is taught under the name of CAGED. This is simply because every way to see the fretboard has been taught before or later under the CAGED name. I have a DVD where the author explains the octave pattern on the fretboard and calls it "the CAGED system." I have a book that states that the standard tuning of the guitar (established in the 16th century) is a consequence of the CAGED system (invented in the '70s). And let's not talk about that YouTube video that explains the 3-notes-per-strings patterns and calls them "a variation of the CAGED system!"
If you realize the absurdity of this situation, you will also see why so few people dare to criticize the CAGED system: no matter what to say, you are bound to find someone that will comment "but this is not the CAGED system" followed by endless and fruitless discussions on matters of definitions. But let me tell you something. I own (and have studied) enough instructionals and DVD's on the CAGED system alone to fill a 4-feet shelf in my studio. I believe I have more than half an idea of what I am talking about:-)
But why the CAGED system is so famous?
If you are wondering why the CAGED system is so widespread despite all these obvious problems, I have 3 reasons for you:
1) 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
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) 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. So if you are wondering if it's you being not good enough to understand, rest assured: you are fine. Just throw away these books on CAGED.
About the Author:Tommaso Zillio is a prog rock guitarist and teacher with a passion for Music Theory applied to Guitar.