CAGED Chord Forms
There are literally thousands of different kinds of chords and chord shapes that can be played on the guitar, but did you know that most are related in some way to just five core forms? In the open position the five forms are:
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 notes from each arpeggio pattern 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 playing:
- Fragmented chord shapes
- Chord inversions
- Different chord fingerings
- Different sounding chord voicings
- Arpeggio patterns
- Guide tones
- Chord tone soloing
Listen to examples of popular guitar CAGED chord songs.
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 chord shape is usually surround by unused chord tones.
When you see all related chord tones laid out in front of you by way of arpeggio patterns, 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.
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.
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 guitarists 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.
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, sus4, and add9, just to name a few.
Guitar Chord Lessons
Would you like to learn more about music theory for guitar so that you can have a better understanding of how to play and compose songs? Studying theory will uncover the mysteries of music and help you more quickly develop your skills as a guitarist, songwriter, improviser, and composer. Sign up to receive my FREE 6-step email course, “Bedrock Guitar Theory of the Pros“, and discover the 6 simple concepts that will have you rockin’ guitar music like a pro in half the time of ordinary lessons.
Hailed as a “music-theory expert” by Rolling Stone magazine, guitarist Desi Serna is a music instructor and author who has written several books on guitar including Fretboard Theory, Guitar Picking Mechanics, Guitar Theory For Dummies, Guitar Rhythm and Technique For Dummies, and How To Teach Guitar and Start Your Own Music Instruction Business. He is known for his practical, hands-on approach to music teaching, with a focus on the guitar fretboard and emphasis on popular songs. Desi honed his craft through decades of teaching, performing, and publishing.
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 free beginner guitar lessons page.