Playing Guitar Chord Shapes, Inversions, and Voicings with the CAGED System

Guitar CAGED chord C formThere are literally thousands of different kinds of chords and chord shapes that can be played on the guitar, but did you know that most can be traced back to just five core forms? In the open position the five forms are C, A, G, E, and D. What’s that spell? CAGED. With the guitar CAGED chord system, you barre each of the five open forms and move around the neck playing different chords in other positions, but that’s only the beginning!

You see, the CAGED system doesn’t end with making barre chords. Each chord form has a related arpeggio pattern. The related notes to each form are used to make all sorts of chord shapes. And these chords aren’t just used for strumming. Lead guitarists use the CAGED system to map out chord tones within scale patterns, and then they target these notes while they solo so that their lead lines are guided by notes relating closely to the chords and progression. In all, the CAGED system is used for:

 

  • Fragmented chord shapes
  • Chord inversions
  • Different chord fingerings
  • Different sounding chord voicings
  • Arpeggio patterns
  • Guide tones
  • Chord tone soloing

 

Chord Arpeggio Patterns
The key to getting full use out of the CAGED system is to learn each form’s related arpeggio pattern through the use of guitar tablature and neck diagrams. An arpeggio pattern is simply the notes of a chord fretted and played one at a time in ascending and descending scale-like fashion. In the same way that you play scale patterns by covering whole positions with all occurrences of related scale tones, you play arpeggio patterns by covering whole positions with all occurrences of related chord tones. Arpeggio patterns look a bit different than their related chord shapes because each position has extra chord tones that go unused. When you see all related chord tones laid out in front of you, that’s when the fun begins. Instead of confining yourself to using standard chord shapes and fingerings, you can grab groups of chord tones in any manner you see fit. You can opt to play only a certain grouping of strings, you can space the chord tones out by skipping over some strings, and you can put a note other than the root in the bass position. In fact, when you master the CAGED system, you can literally play any of its chords in any form anywhere on the neck. Instead of needing to always refer to a chord chart, you can create chord shapes yourself.

 

F major chord notes and barre chords 300x210

The first neck diagram above illustrates the locations of F major chord notes. The second diagram highlights a few common barre chord shapes in black, but you can actually grab the F major notes in other ways to form different shapes and chord voicings.

Chord Inversions and Voicings
As you grab groups of chord tones to form various chord shapes, each shape you put together is not only a different fingering, but a different inversion and chord voicing as well. A chord inversion is simply a re-arrangement of a chord’s tones with a tone other than the root placed in the bass position. In addition to inverting a chord, you can also double up on any of its tones in a higher or lower register, when they’re available. As you change the way a chord’s tones are stacked, you change the sound of the chord slightly. These different chord sounds are called chord voicings. Great rhythm guitar players don’t necessarily use chords that are out of the ordinary, they just know how to freshen up common chord changes with different shapes and voicings. Take the song “Jack and Diane” by John Mellencamp for example. Each section of it sounds unique but the whole song is actually just variations on the same three chords, A, D, and E. When you fully grasp the CAGED concept, then you can get lots of different sounds from your chords too.

Listen to examples of CAGED chord songs here: CAGED chord songs

 

Even though the different sections of “Jack and Diane” by John Mellencamp all use the same chords, each part sounds unique because it uses different chord voicings.

 

Chord Tone Soloing
Mapping out the notes of chords position to position on the fretboard is not just of use to rhythm guitarists, but lead guitars as well. When you play guitar solos, you can use CAGED arpeggio patterns to target chord tones while using scale patterns. This technique is called chord tone soloing. When you use chord tones as your guide while you work through a progression, you connect your lead lines more closely to the music. This approach is sometimes better than just randomly playing scales through a set of changes. You can apply this technique to improvising, as well as to composing guitar riffs, melodies, and bass lines.

 

Minor Chords
You initially work through the CAGED system using major chord shapes. After you explore all the major chord options, you can move onto minor chords. Playing minor chords is accomplished by simply making small adjustments to each form, changing the notes that make the chord major to notes that make the chord minor.

 

Added Chord Tones and Extensions
Once you get a handle on forming major and minor chords, you can add additional chord tones and extensions to each shape. As you introduce new notes to chords you create new types of chords with richer harmony. These chords include major 7, minor 7, and add 9, just to name a few.

 

Beginner Guitar Chords
I do not recommend that beginner guitarists start with the CAGED system. If you’re just getting started with playing guitar and need to learn the basics, then focus on open position chords and simple moveable chord shapes like power chords. For more information, please visit my beginner guitar page which features free guitar lessons for newbies.

 

Start Using the CAGED Chord System Now
You work your way through the CAGED system and get to know which songs make best use of it in Fretboard Theory, Chapter 3 and my DVD, The CAGED Template Chord System. Chapters 4, 6, and 10 offer additional instruction on building chords, playing minor forms, and using added chord tones and extensions. E-book and video downloads are available online from my webstore, with special money-saving prices available on bundled packages. Regular books and DVDs can be purchased at Amazon.com. Some products are also available for Kindle, Nook, iBooks, and Google Play. Go to my store page for all the details.

 

Advanced Guitar Chords
After you get to know all the CAGED system uses outlined in the first course, you can move on to the second book and DVD program, Fretboard Theory Volume II, for more advanced instruction. This second-level course outlines all the details of using chord tone soloing, dominant function, and voice leading, as well as playing passing, diminished, and augmented chords. There’s even a chapter on using pedal tones, which relates to chord voicings and harmony.

 

Free Guitar Chords
If you haven’t done so already, use the form on this website to sign up for a free preview of Fretboard Theory. You can read a portion of both books, one and two, plus view video segments from the related DVDs. These sample lessons feature instruction on building chords and using the CAGED system.

 

Is CAGED harmful?
There is a growing number of websites espousing the dangers of using the CAGED system. They argue that it’s too confining, will hurt your playing, and will cramp your style. You need to know that the guitarists behind these websites are referring to the CAGED system as a means to learn and play scales, not chords. They don’t like to confine their scale patterns to only those patterns that fit neatly within the CAGED chord forms. Instead, they prefer to use three-notes-per-string patterns, stretch across multiple positions, and arrange notes in manners that maximize the speed and efficiency of their picking hands, which is, in their mind, more conducive to their preferred fast styles of playing. I would point out that a lot of guitar players, including ones known for exceptional speed and technique, use scale patterns that fall both in and out of the CAGED forms and see no reason not to. That said, I don’t teach the CAGED system as a method for learning scales.

 

Read More About Caged Chords and Related Guitar Theory:

What Is Guitar Theory?

What Scales To Learn

How to Play Guitar Chord Progressions

What Are Scale Modes?

Learning the Guitar Fretboard

What Is Fretboard Theory?

Guitar Rhythm and Technique