Why CAGED for Guitar Doesn't Work Part 1: Inconsistent Picking

Is CAGED the best system to learn guitar scales and chords, or there are better alternatives? Let's examine together the problems of CAGED starting from it effect on your picking hand.

Ultimate Guitar
"The key of performance is elegance, not battalions of special cases" (Jon Bentley and Doug McIlroy)

Have you ever had somebody teach you the CAGED method of learning chords and scales on the neck of a guitar? Or do have you taken a look and thought, "that method just isn't for me?" Or do you give every method you see a chance?

Whether or not you've used the CAGED system of learning to use the fretboard, there has been a significant amount of debate on different forums over whether or not this system actually works for beginner guitar players. The topic has been divisive at best - destroying friendships have been destroyed, relationships forged in the heat of battle, comrades have backstabbed each other, and I've witnessed major plot twists not even Steven Spielberg could dream of - the kind of thing would makes for a fantastic story on the silver screen, but maybe a bit over the top for people trying to learn guitar:-)

"Does this really matter that much?" many people are asking. And the answer is yes, it really is a big deal: guitar instructors like myself see a major change when students really understand how a fretboard works. Quite honestly, this is one of the most important aspects of learning to play, considering the amount of time people work on it, just to be able to navigate the fretboard at will.

If you're aware of this debate, you've likely noticed how hard it is to follow based on a number of factors, such as:
  1. Some of the debaters use ad hominem (or, personal) attacks instead of getting to the point, which don't really make for a good argument.

  2. The debate happens over different media and in different places (Facebook, YouTube, etc..), and many different issues are discussed at the same time.

  3. The most pertinent issue, however, is that the majority of people in the debate just state their positions, without having any argument to back up their points (or even without making their point clear!)
Disclosure: I truly believe that believes the CAGED method simply does not work - which, based on the title, or my past articles, might be the reason why you're here - and so I thought about developing something to show why that is. This is the first video of a series about the issues the CAGED system presents. Each video will dispute ONLY one, simple issue instead of working on a long, incomprehensible litany of grievances.

In this first video, I will show how the CAGED system is often inconsistent. Take a look at the video below to get an idea of what I mean.

The video clearly shows how the CAGED method lacks consistency, and how much harder players, when using that system, are going to have to work to learn to play a guitar efficiently and at the level they dream of.

Part 2: Scales/Arpeggios Mechanical Integration
Part 3: Why 5 Shapes and What Has the Tuning to Do With It?
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.

166 comments sorted by best / new / date

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    Jace Bastian
    Awesome video!! The points that really hit home for me was the fact that CAGED takes 5x longer to learn(!) and you need to learn 35 different scale positions(!)...Crazy! Thanks for the video, and I can't wait to see the rest in the series!
    This comparison was extremely valuable and eye-opening. I've always felt that something was "off" about the CAGED system, but I couldnt put the finger on it. When you compared the time spent between the systems I realised how much sense it made about why people seem to struggle with the CAGED system. Great video! Thanks!
    I agree. It's better to spend less time learning scales and more time learning how to make music. That's why it's important to have a consistent set of scale patterns.
    I am quite an analytical person by nature but I've never thought about this scale shape issue in such a systematic and scientific way before. As someone who learned most scale patterns the caged way, I can see (with some frustration I might add) how much longer it took me to get anywhere with fast playing because of the issue explained in this video. Speed isn't everything, but it is clearly important if you want to play difficult music. The difference in picking efficiency there looks huge (5x more I think you said?!). Man. This is another one of those 'wish I knew years ago' things. Anyway, thank you for the video!
    Exactly. Speed isn't everything (though it may be important to some), but the point I am making goes beyond speed. It's much easier to be versatile and "break up" the scale when the scale pattern is consistent.
    M Scholtemeijer
    As someone who used to teach CAGED to students many years ago I can say from experience that Tommaso is correct in that progress is much slower compared to 3nps with regard to right hand consistency. Looking forward to the next videos in the series!
    That's a great point with CAGED, and after watching you explain it, it seems super obvious! Thank you.
    I take no issue with the 3NPS system but your video fails to address one of the key components of any discussion around teaching. Not all students approach learning the fret-board as beginning players and not all players have the same goals for the end result. This is key, because while the CAGED system may or may not be harder for a beginner student to learn. A student who already knows 3NPS will gain new ideas from reviewing the CAGED system as it forces the player to look at the fret-board in a different way. I personally prefer the Segovian method of looking linearly down each string. But I incorporate some 3NPS ideas stolen from guys like Gilbert, etc. I recently spent time reviewing the CAGED system and expanded my ability to find Open Chord voices instantly. Literally within 5 minutes I knew 20 or 30 more voicings for triads I could move around the fret-board to any progression. Now when I look at the fret-board I see a combination of all 3 methodologies. That is the point, every student is different. the thing that makes the guitar such a unique instrument is the room for each individual to view the neck in a unique way and phrase differently. I find it shocking that so many people reject a methodology for viewing the fret-board because they think it is less efficient or more work. So while there is nothing wrong with advocating a preference for a system. A teacher advocating one system over another is really saying, "I care more about my ego than my students". A good teacher understands the goals and playing level of the student first and sets the methodology based around what the student wants to achieve and already knows.
    I actually do agree with the majority of what you say. This video (and all the series that follow) was motivated exactly by me seeing a number of "teachers" recommending the CAGED system as the cure for every illness. I used the 3nps system here to show the inferiority of CAGED in the specific respect of efficiency. Again, this is one point among many, and there is more than one good system (3nps is only one, the one I personally prefer, but not the one I use exclusively, nor the only one I teach) As you will see in the next video of the series, there is a better way to visualize chords than the CAGED system... and this other way also happen to integrate perfectly with 3nps and be efficient on its own for both chord and arpeggio playing. My contention here is not that the things that CAGED does are wrong, but that most of the things that CAGED does can be done better by other approaches (that incidentally integrate really well!). It's not that I recommend one system, it's more that I DON'T recommend the CAGED system. Finally, regarding teaching a student in respect to his level, goals, etc... of course. You will understand that I can't do this in a single video. I'm taking this point by point. When I teach in person I give a thorough interview to all new students to know how and what to teach them, and even when people take my online courses I do recommend only the ones that will be useful for their situation/goals. Just today I referred someone who asked for my courses to another teacher I know because in that specific case my courses were not the best option for that student. So I know EXACTLY what you mean, and I agree 100%
    The problem then lies with teachers who are short sighted not the system. Let's take an example. I have a student who knows basic chord shapes and comes to me for lessons. He doesn't want to learn to play scales but he does want to enhance his chord knowledge. It would be crazy to have him learn 3NPS so you could then teach him chords built out of that system when by already learning the basic chords he knows the building blocks to CAGED. Likewise, it would be less efficient if someone came asking to work on alternate picking patterns ala Paul Gilbert and you made him cycle through the CAGED system first. I think it is great that certain teachers advocate certain systems. However you don't have to criticize one to hold up the virtue of another.
    I like your reasoned approach, I differ only in what I would do in practice, but the reasoning is similar. If someone wants to learn chords, of course I would not go through all 3nps, but I would teach him chords using a complete different system (you will see a little part of it in the next video). Again, my point is that everything I have seen CAGED do, can be done more efficiently by other systems, that integrate well together. And since the issue is complex, I separated the various points in more than one video. In this one I talk only about scales, in the next we will see something about chords. I'm not trying to push ONE system (3nps is an example here). Just trying to show that there are better alternatives - more than one in fact.
    Great video, and great points. Coming from the perspective of a new guitar student, learning the CAGED scale shapes is definitely not an efficient way to learn.
    wow, the comment zone here feels like a war of guitar teachers, ... I like it
    Because Tommaso can easily hold his ground. He clearly knows what he's doing and people just like to cause shit for no reason. Instead of just absorbing what he's saying and trying to use it, they are going to pick shit at him till he quits... good luck
    Tommaso, once again you've outdone yourself with this video. It's great to see you go really in-depth on a particular part of a system, going through all of the pitfalls and the pros and cons of it, instead of cram everything about the system into one video. I wish people could stay on topic because then it would make for a very interesting debate and learning experience for everyone, but as always when people can't refute a claim being made they resort to making other claims themselves forcing people like Tommaso to chase them down even though he's already going to cover these points in later videos. What does that tell you about Tommaso? Can you see how dedicated he is as a teacher, not to just his own students but to people learning guitar all over the world. he's willing to spend time trying to help you guys by commenting on all the arguments that don't even belong here (that's what the rest of the videos are going to be for... stay on topic!!) instead of just passing it all off by saying "I'm going to a idea on this"... because that's all he could say. So who's going to claim that learning 5 picking patterns is easier than 1? Anyone? EDIT: It also saddens me to see that people have to resort to personal attacks and name calling.
    Thank you for making this video Tommaso. You've presented your first point in a way that's easy to understand, shown the 3nps and caged systems side by side for a comparison that allows the viewer to see the obviously inferior system for themselves and remained calm and rational throughout. A great teacher indeed! Looking forward to future videos!
    Simon Candy
    I'm really looking forward to the other videos in this series! Can't people understand that the current video is making one single point why 3NPS is better than CAGED. Pretty hard to argue against this point too.
    Indeed it is hard to argue against it, that's why nobody's done it successfully yet xD They just make stabs at him like he said they would. Not to mention misunderstanding what he even means by inconsistent, missing that he isn't REALLY saying CAGED doesn't work (just that it takes longer to work), and, like you said, somehow missing that this is just the FIRST point of a series. I suppose that's the internet for you.
    Jace Bastian
    Exactly. Why is it so hard for some people to stay on topic and not resort to personal attacks? Answer: Their argument doesn't hold water. I'm eagerly awaiting for someone to have a legitimate, rational counterpoint to the ONE point from this video, but I'm starting to lose hope...
    I feel you should've said "Plot twists M. Night Shyamalan could dream of" but I digress. Good stuff either way.
    Great video! I never thought about this obvious advantage of 3nps patterns. Makes total sense. I'm really looking forward to the next video. Thank you!
    Simon Candy
    Great video Tommaso! Makes perfect logical sense to me. Looking forward to the other videos in this series
    Very well explained. The advantage of having a more symmetrical and consistent layout of notes over all the strings cannot be denied. Easier to learn, remember, visualize and play. Looking forward to the rest of the series.
    Hi, Mr tommaso.zillio I like your point Pentatonic Scales with CAGED is relay something difficult for hands Specialy on Blues Major Scale 2. Only point you are missing there or negelecting I think is that this kind of exercises are just here to increase Left hand Span and increase the strengh of every of your little fingers. The picking is more difficult on the Right hand thats true but especialy when begin you need to know where the string is placed because it's difficult not to pick the wrong one Yes at this point you need to work 5 times more on your right hand to get the string in line with your left hand. Your 3 notes exercises / method sounds good but I would have to practice on a Tennis ball to get some muscles over my littles fingers in addition to it if I had to leave the CAGED system my teacher is learning me with. But you opened my eyes to speed picking when I would have to get faster i would consider another system with 3 notes out there. Best Regards,
    Ptalamo: I see your point. In fact it's already planned that I'm going to answer it in one of the next videos of this series (I can't do everything in a single video!) In short: being able to stretch your left hand is a matter of technique, not muscles. Once your position is right, the stretch becomes much easier. In that video I will explain exactly what is the correct position for your left hand, so you will be able to do it too.
    Why bother saying what doesn't work instead of what does? This shit is so simple it kills me that so much time is wasted going duh Idk what to do Use the CBAGFEDC system. You just need to know how to play those seven keys in open position. Then you string the shapes together starting at C open position. Then B at 1 A at 3 G at 5 etc. There are ONLY SEVEN SHAPES and no matter what key you're in that will never change. You'll figure out chords modes scale degrees etc. You don't even need to learn the names of the notes, the scale degrees will be so clear in your mind you'll become a wizard without effort. You'll notice the same arpeggio shape will reappear but the other notes of the scale have moved slightly as each chord has different extensions. If your guitar could talk it would tell you it's not that complicated. This is the only real way. You can visualize a pentatonic shape but that shape is only super imposed on these shapes. Every shape has three notes on every string except G. If you can play C, D, E, F, G, and A in open position you already know almost everything. The B shape is the notes of the key of C between frets 1 and 5. That's the only shape you probably need to know. Whether you use caged or three notes per string or blues scales, no matter what these seven shapes are the true guide to the fretboard. You can see the shapes within the shapes. Every shape has three pentatonic shapes within it because each key has three minor pentatonic scales Plus the shapes are all very similar. G is one note different than C etc.
    You are perfectly right, and in fact you are advocating the same things I do (watch all the video)... except that there still are people who do not use 7 shapes with 3 notes per string and do not know that there are 3 pentatonics per shape, etc. The first step for these people is to know what they need to NOT do. The same way (to make an extreme example) the first thing to know when you are ill is that performing magical rituals will not cure you, and that you have to go to a doctor instead. I do agree that this is very simple and we should not need to spend much time on this. Alas, what it should be and what is is not the same.
    Great article Tommaso! I have to admit to not really knowing anything about the CAGED system and after seeing this video and other articles you have posted about the CAGED system, I'm glad I never wasted any time on it.
    Very well explained. The advantage of having a consistent layout of notes on all strings cannot be denied. Easier to learn, remember and apply. Looking forward to the rest of the series!
    Great Article and Video Tommaso!! Thanks for sharing. Can't wait for the other ones.
    A disadvantage to using three note per string scale shapes is that as you ascend through the scale you creep up the neck. This way you lose the chord yo're outlining as your reference point. For example, if I'm in G major and I'm playing around the E shape (with the root note on the third fret of the E string), using a three note per string shape means that I'm missing the fifth on the B string and the root on the high E. The whole point of the CAGED system is that you can reference scale shapes directly against chord shapes so you have a better understanding of what intervals you're using & what to aim for. Using a three note per string pattern means that you lose these reference points, completely defeating the object. Even if you try to conpensate by starting the pattern a note lower you run into the problem of approaching the chord shape you're outlining from a different angle depending on if you're on the higher or lower strings. Regardless, I don't think the CAGED system militantly promotes only one type of scalar pattern - that would kind of be missing the point. It's just a referencing tool. Using different patterns to approach it doesn't suddenly stop it from being the CAGED system unless you have an extremely rigid way of viewing it. I also find this idea that you have to spend "five times as much time" learning the boxed shapes slightly ludicrous - you have to learn the patterns with your left hand anyway, having the occasional string with only two notes shouldn't even remotely be a problem. It's not something to even think about. When I learn a shape I don't consciously think about what my right hand is doing, it's a subconscious process. Interesting ideas though, I look forward to seeing more.
    Very clear! I appreciate that you are only talking about one point in particular here and I look forward to seeing the next videos!
    Thanks for the work you do Tommaso... Its refreshing to see someone pushing boundaries and looking for the BEST way to do things as opposed to blindly following tradition
    I really appreciate this video. I am especially compelled by the evidence of how much easier it is to play scale-based patterns when you know you have 3 notes per string. I was not "raised on CAGED" but I do believe the system I originally learned is not nearly as efficient as this one.
    Great video! I never thought about this obvious advantage of 3nps patterns. I'm really looking forward to the next video. Thank you!
    Emmanuel Chan
    CAGED system isn't good. Tommaso Zillio knows what he is talking about. He has the reasons there for you. Be open to logical things!
    i don't disagree, but when i learned the scale shapes which start with the middle finger on the 6th string for the root and never have stretches or shift hand position more than one fret (picked it up from a Jimmy Bruno jazz instructional video), it helped me to improvise in a less scalar way. i think it's because the right arpeggios are more readily accessible (e.g. if you're on the root, you can easily play with the 7th arpeggio without shifting your hand). or maybe it's just because i spent more time trying to figure out that system, i dunno.
    Spot on Sir! This is pretty much how I see it myself. - There are more shapes with little or no shifting/stretching of your left hand, all of which are easily visible in CAGED ! ... that's one of the basics of the whole thing, from there you can take it anywhere you like ... as simple as getting out of bed in the morning Yet someone here tries to tell us all we're doing it all wrong ?!? Keep playing Mister
    Visiblenoise: it's probably because you spent more time in figuring out that system (of course I can't be sure from a single comment) The very same arpeggio you mention would work on the 3nps shape that starts from the 7th note of the major scale (i.e. the "locrian" shape). I will discuss arpeggios more in the next video.