CAGED System vs. Pentatonic Scales

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ID-100231223I’m hoping by now you’ve read Ivan’s great post about the history and importance of flatpicking. Though a seasoned musician, it’s a relatively new topic to me and one I’ve been looking at a lot lately. Recently, while hoping to improve my acoustic and bluegrass guitar soloing chops, I searched around for some tips on scales and chord shapes to use. In doing so, I found such a travesty of misguided music theory and wildly unmusical thinking, I just had to share.

In all of the methods of a approaching all of the instruments I’ve ever seen (and I used to work at Hal Leonard, the largest music publisher in the world), I can think of nothing worse than the CAGED system for guitar. Despite their super legit scammy looking website and dozens of straight-forward confusing and complicated YouTube tutorials, it’s an utterly ridiculous system for approaching guitar soloing. I guess it’s a good thing my former employer carries only one CAGED guitar method book.

The CAGED System – Overview

Whereas most music pedagogic practices focus on learning theory, harmony, and history behind the notes played, the CAGED system sells itself as a magic bullet that gets around needing to know much. The system works by repeating 5 open chord shapes, C, A, G, E, and D up the fretboard and moved through each scale. The idea is that you learn the pattern all the way up the neck, you create a “C” chord on your starting note, and then let the system take over.

Overly Complex

My initial complaint with the system is how complex and unnatural it feels. I’ve been drilling scales on various instruments for 15 years, and have been playing guitar competently for a decade, but this system made my muscles and brain work. Take a look at this section moving between the A and G shape that the instructor even calls a big stretch. Not only is there the stretch, but the pinky is brought into play and only the bottom two and top string of the guitar are used. You’re using your weakest finger all on its own up top while  putting as many unused strings as possible between your fingers. There’s a reason these are open-chord shapes and not soloing techniques.

Disassociating Melody from Harmony

If after watching the rest of that video and looking at the diagrams on the system’s very own homepage don’t convince you that the technique alone is too confusing, maybe some music appreciation will. Hilariously, the system calls out “Un-awareness of the importance of the underlying chords” as one of the key indicators of poor soloing, but I can’t think of any better way to disassociate underlying chords and solo pitches than by naming pitches after chords you’re not using, which is the ENTIRE PREMISE OF THE SYSTEM. I shudder to think of the musician who thinks in terms of “I”m making an E shape while soloing in B-flat.”

Lack of Scale Tones

Another terrible part of the system, as evidenced by its very own videos and diagrams, is that scale tones are omitted, leaving gaping holes in scalar patterns. Cruise around YouTube and you’ll find very few videos of people actually playing licks or solos with the system, only 15-20 minute explanations of how it works. When you do find a solo example, you’ll notice a lot in it that wasn’t covered in the preceding 20 minutes.

General Application

And finally, if you’re not yet convinced, keep in mind that this system does nothing to help your playing out on other instruments. Most lessons learned in music can be transferred across instruments and genres, but a system that relies entirely on open chord shapes of guitar only helps when playing guitar. When practicing scales, arpeggios, rhythms, or phasing on most instruments, you can transfer knowledge learned into another aspect of your musicianship. The CAGED system only works when playing guitar, and only when soloing, and only kinda.

The Alternative, the Clear Winner, the Pentatonic Scale

So, what do you do instead? Scales. Seriously, just practice your scales: major, minor, and definitely pentatonic. The pentatonic scale deserves a post of its own, but even the briefest of explanations reveals why it’s a stronger system than CAGED.

  • The pentatonic scale uses only 5 notes, which is easier to remember than 5 chord shapes.
  • The scale uses only whole steps and minor thirds and never skips a string (in fact there are always 2 notes per string), which is easier for both your brain and fingers to keep straight.
  • The same pentatonic scale can be used for major or minor keys (It’s a scale, dummy, so relative major and minor apply to it).
  • Blues, bluegrass, jazz, rock, gospel, metal and nearly all modern pop music are deeply rooted in the scale.
  • Learning the pentatonic scale on guitar transfers directly to playing it on bass, ukulele, or any instrument tuned in 4ths.
  • The pentatonic scale (though admittedly not the exact hand shapes) can be used on any instrument.

The real proof though, this is music after all, is how it sounds. Check out this guy soloing in one easy pentatonic position at the end of a relatively short and simple instructional video.

As the man in the video said, I do hope you learned something… you take care now and I’ll see you later.

Kent Heberling

Kent is a player and appreciator of all kinds of music. He values originality and musical craftsmanship, and prefers small local shows to bigger acts. You can find him playing with Whiskey Doubles, and {ELSE} in Milwaukee, WI.
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  • Robbie De Niro

    Yeah man, CAGED system is rubbish. I’ve tried using it for years on students with minimal success and maximum confusion with the desired result being a shortcut through the musical journey of playing the guitar. I understand it, though after going back over the berklee modern method series, I have found that leavitt’s method is much more thorough and worthy of me passing on to my pupils.

  • Steven

    You have so thoroughly misunderstood the CAGED system that your argument is perfect example of a straw man. You say the premise of the system is naming pitches after chords you’re not playing? False! You say there is a lack of scale tone in the system? False again! The 5 shapes come from 5 movable octave templates. As you move these octave templates, the scale tones move with them. The uniqueness of the guitar — you can play the same notes in different places — means there needs to be a way to distinguish between these place. Yes, there is an E-shaped Bb scale, chord and arpeggio, but stop shuddering, because there are 4 other ways to play the same set of pitches – C, A, G and D!

    The most confused part of your critique is that the pentatonic scales fall perfectly on the CAGED system. Look at the 5 pentatonic scales you know and play the octaves — they are identical to the CAGED octave templates in any scale — major, minor, diminished, whole tone, ANY scale, chord or arpeggio!! You, like all critics of the CAGED system, are using what you disavow without understanding it. You critique the teachers you’ve found on the web without understanding the idea, like a student who fails a physics course, and concludes that science is bogus.

    The CAGED system is as fundamental to the fretboard as the pattern of black and white keys is to the piano. Neither helps with other instruments, and neither tells you how to solo. But both map out the patterns of intervals in any harmonic context. If a map you buy in a store doesn’t tell you where your friend lives, you wouldn’t blame the map!

    The CAGED system is not an approach to soling; it is a mapping system for the objective, inescapable patterns within patterns on the fretboard. The number 5 comes from the 5 differently named strings (we call B a C shape, because it’s tuned in a 3rd, rather than a 4th). All guitarists must come to see the five-ness of these multi-layered patterns. The CAGED system is by far the most elegant way to name those objective patterns.

    • Ivan

      As a banjo player I don’t have a strong opinion on this but I love the discussion. Thanks for reading man. If you feel like writing a counter-point guest post email us the text and we’ll look it over.

    • Ivan

      Although this is a pretty ridiculous comparison. :)

      “like a student who fails a physics course, and concludes that science is bogus.”

  • Herman

    I have played for 30+ years and this was just what I needed. The CAGED system has allowed me to see my fret-board so much clearer already and I just started learning it 2 days ago! “does nothing to help your playing out on other instruments” is so true but my main instrument is guitar and seeing my whole neck as one giant chord shape accelerated my learning of the major scale (I had always eeked around in the minor penta for the most part). I can’t wait to dig into the other scales/modes. It seems like people who dog on this system (I used to be one of them) aren’t viewing it from the correct angle yet. You still play the same scales, only now you can easily remember their every single position on the neck, starting from any fret on any string. Don’t chuck this system out just yet Kent – come back someday and take another peek. :)

  • Bill Rogers

    I cant see where the CAGED system does anyone any real good except for getting you started. When you start mixing some of the other scales and arpeggio’s together then you’ll leave the CAGED system in the dust. It seems as though everyone is looking for short cuts around learning music theory. I suppose the CAGED will get you soloing sooner, if you will take the time to learn the guitar and how music theory applies to it, you will quickly exceed the CAGED system. All the famous guitarist had to sit down and learn this, even Steve Vai took lessons in music theory.

    I also have been playing a long time, played in many a band and numerous stages. But as you get older you also get wiser. It has been a long time since the 3 chord songs that were # 1 can get you by. Now is all about your knowledge and how you apply that knowledge to your talent.