CAGED Considered Harmful?

Back when I was first learning guitar, it seemed like everyone who wanted to sell you a snake-oil method did it by using the mysterious "CAGED System". Today, it's the other way around: all the slick salesmen have a new "system", and CAGED is "harmful", "inefficient" and "incomplete". As someone who learned with CAGED and teaches it, am I doing something wrong?

What CAGED is and isn't

The "CAGED system" is a set of five root-note positions that, joined together, cover the whole guitar fingerboard. From these positions it's easy to build up chords that "look like" the familiar open chords of C, A, G, E and D major, which is where the name comes from. From there we quickly progress to the minor and diminished triads (by flattening the 3 and then the 5), the sevenths and then whatever scales we want to learn, all in the same positions and thus closely related to each other.

The CAGED system is good for:

  • Quickly learning a set of scale fingerings that covers the fretboard.
  • Learning to think of notes as chord tones (like b9) as opposed to letters (like F#).
  • Learning to relate chord-playing to single-note playing.
  • Learning to invent chord forms on the fly.
  • Developing sight-reading skills.
  • Encouraging the discipline of strict positional playing, which can be beneficial in some specific circumstances.

Notice that all these are about learning, not mastery. The CAGED system is not a complete set of all the fingerings you'll ever need for guitar. It's a step on the ladder, and a potential reference-point you can return to later. There are many other ways to find your way around the neck; CAGED is one, and I still think it's a good one to start out with.

Witness for the Prosecution: Tom Hess

In this very widely-linked post, educator Tom Hess presents a 7-point case against CAGED; this section is an attempt to answer it. Unfortunately I haven't been able to find any positive statement from Hess about what method he thinks is superior, at least not on his website.

Hess links to Tommaso Zillio's post on the same topic; Zillio makes most of the same points, and has the same basic misunderstandings, and so my counterpoints below deal with most of his post too. I haven't been able to find Zillio's favoured method either, although like Hess he makes frequent reference to 3-note-per-string fingerings.

One would almost think these two -- strict positional playing vs 3NPS -- were the only two options (which they aren't); one might also get the impression they're mutually exclusive, although it's obvious that every guitarist should learn both.

Finally, I hope it goes without saying that this isn't a personal attack on anyone. I think Hess's site, in particular, has some excellent advice on technique building, and he's clearly successful at what he does. My beef is with a particular take on CAGED, not any individual.

Problem #1: Speed

Hess's argument here is that the CAGED patterns, which use a combination of 2- and 3-note groupings on each string, require awkward picking patterns. This is true. If you're playing scales straight-up-and-down against a metronome, using consistent 3-note-per-string groupings and economy picking is the best way to set a personal best. If you ask me "How fast can you play sixteenth-notes?" without specifying what I should play, I wouldn't use the CAGED patterns.

However, in real-life music-making most of us don't run scales up and down. We jump around and play lines with melodic interest. They aren't laid out for maximal efficiency; the pick needs to be agile, jumping around between strings freely. Hess's criticism is irrelevant in that setting; that is, it's irrelevant to real-life music-making.

Incidentally, Hess is a confirmed economy picker; I used to be too, though these days I'm somewhere in between that and alternate picking. Hess's argument here is entirely predicated on the assumption that you use economy picking. It's worth noting that many highly technical metal players are pretty strict alternate pickers. Which is "better" is one of those things that reasonable people can disagree on, not a matter of established fact; it's not clear to me that Paul Gilbert can "forget about playing guitar fast" when he's alternate-picking.

Problem #2: Fluency

This section of the article is pretty hard to read sympathetically, and to be honest I think there are just some simple mistakes here. I'll address the suggestion that CAGED is "incomplete" a bit later.

One thing that comes up here is that Hess seems to believe that CAGED can only be applied to the Major scale and doesn't work for others. It's true that CAGED is a bit less useful for extremely exotic scales that don't harmonize out into standard triads, but that's not what he's talking about: he genuinely thinks you can't define CAGED shapes for Natural Minor, Harmonic Minor and so on.

This seems bizarre, and perhaps points to a basic misunderstanding about what "CAGED" means. If the target here is some (imaginary?) major-triads-only version of CAGED rather than the one everyone actually uses, that would seem to be a straw man.

Problem #3: Getting "boxed in"

This is a very common remark about CAGED. But if you still get "stuck in a box" -- i.e. you play in a single position and can't fluently move between positions at will -- you haven't learned it properly yet. The same would happen to a 3-note-per-string player who couldn't move between 3-note-per-string fingerings.

Shifting between positions is a very important step in the soloist's education, as is doing things like playing scales up and down a single string, which Hess thinks is "impossible" using CAGED (actually CAGED makes this so easy that you almost get it "for free").

Notice, too, how the goalposts keep moving: playing a scale up a single string is technically highly inefficient, but Hess thinks it's advantageous to learn (and so do I). So why is technical inefficiency so damning when it comes to strict positional playing? What could possibly make it beneficial to learn scales vertically but harmful to learn them horizontally?

Finally, the claim that CAGED offers a "crutch" to learners is true. It helps you get up on your feet. While you're using it, you may be a bit wobbly and not very elegant. But the point is to let the crutch teach you to move more freely; this is the part most critics of CAGED don't seem to understand.

Problem #4: Arpeggios

Hess makes some excellent points in the first paragraph. Arpeggios are very important, and "you need to be able to VISUALIZE how they fit into scale positions you use for soloing" -- yes indeed. This is precisely what CAGED is designed to do. Again there seems to be a sense that CAGED only applies to major triads and major scales, and maybe that's the reason for the misunderstanding.

Problem #5: Emotion

I'm not going to get into this; it's pretty clearly off-topic. Tom Hess seems to have his own system of emotional content in music worked out. I don't agree with it; I don't know how much of the research literature he's read but it's a highly-contested field and, frankly, we don't know all that much for sure. If you're depending on your scale patterns to give your music "emotion" (whatever that means) then your problems are bigger than which set of patterns you happen to be using.

Problem #6: Harmony

Hess claims the problem here is that "the 5 major chords making up the system [...] are taught as if they have some musical connection with each other or belong to the same key" -- I would love to see a few references to teachers or books that do this. I bet there are none. And this goes with...

Problem #7: Communicating with other musicians

The claim here is that guitarists who learn CAGED don't also learn any of the terminology of music theory or realise that CAGED is a guitar-specific device. Apparently they therefore try to talk to pianists in terms of "A shapes" and "G shapes" and so on. I haven't seen any evidence of this in the wild but maybe Hess has.

As well as not teaching you first-year harmony, the CAGED system also won't do your tax return, recommend a good book or spice up your marriage... sorry about that.

Is It A Genre Thing?

Hess's post implicitly seems to be aimed at all guitarists in every style, but as a teacher he explicitly says he specializes in heavy metal and maybe that's something to consider here. Jazz teachers (and players) like strict positional playing for a number of reasons, and metal players are rarely concerned about comping with extended chords, walking basslines, guide tones or taking a solo on a fast-moving harmony. Jazz players tend to focus strongly on chord tones and treat scales with less dignity; my sense is that in metal the balance is the other way around.

Jazz players also can't afford to optimize for raw speed over those other elements. Not to say we don't work on velocity or that metal players only chase the metronome, just that ripping up and down scales or arpeggios with prepared fingerings and pick directions might be stylistically more important in one than the other.

This is one reason why rock guitarists transitioning to jazz often experience frustration: the high level of technique they've built up doesn't usually transfer intact, because the demands made by jazz are different. The same goes for scale knowledge, too, which often leads such players towards naive chord-scale-matching that might, with much labour, get them through the changes but that usually makes rotten jazz.

If Hess is making a point that only applies to neoclassical metal (or whatever) he ought to say so, and so should others claiming that those of us who use CAGED as part of out pedagogy are hurting our students.

Where Does CAGED Fit?

It may be worth taking a moment to put CAGED in its place, because without context it can look like a panacea: learn this one weird system and everything else will fall into place.

I wouldn't consider showing a student CAGED from the start. Here's a standard sequence up to CAGED (the obvious stuff runs in parallel: theory, technique, ear training, reading, transcribing, repertoire etc):

  1. Open major and minor chords
  2. Movable chord shapes (and the names of the notes on the neck)
  3. The classic positional minor pentatonic shapes (relating them to the movable chords and becoming fluent with sliding and shifting between these shapes in any key)
  4. CAGED major and natural minor scales
  5. Other fingerings (especially 3-notes-per-string)

Of course it might vary a bit by student, but not much. I'd expect this to take at least a year, maybe two. Students doing a fair bit of single-note work will then want to learn the 3NPS fingerings -- but these are easy to play straight away if you know your CAGED positions, with nothing to "learn" so much as just "get used to" (particularly if you're economy picking). And incidentally, even students who aren't interested in playing "solos" ought to know the major and minor scales in CAGED positions because that's important for fingerstyle, adding chord extensions and finding simple subs. The 3NPS patterns are a lot less useful to those players.

The point of learning other single-note and chord stuff before CAGED is that (a) at that point you're ready to understand why this approach might help you, and (b) you have enough knowledge for it to be easy and quick to learn.

I want students to spend time listening and playing, not memorizing. When they have to memorize something I want it to build on stuff they're already familiar with, Vygotsky-style, not present an opportunity for proving their work ethic. This is why having the 3NPS patterns drop out of the CAGED patterns automatically is so nice -- and it helps students get "out of the box" of strict positional playing before they ever really get stuck in it.

Incidentally, those classic minor pentatonic shapes everybody knows correspond precisely to the five CAGED positions, and many of Hess's claims against CAGED apply just as well (or poorly) there too. I wonder whether he teaches pentatonics in 3NPS patterns from the start? If not, why is this approach good for pentatonics but not for heptatonics?

Is CAGED Incomplete?

One answer to that last question is: five patterns for five-note scales, seven patterns for seven-note scales. We hear this all the time from critics of CAGED. But this spectacularly misses the point.

It's true that you can come up with other chord or arpeggio shapes that sit "in between" the CAGED shapes. But CAGED isn't supposed to include all the possibilities. It's supposed to cover off the 12 frets of the fingerboard in as efficient a way as possible -- that is, using as few shapes as we can. Given the way the guitar is (usually) tuned, 5 fingerings is optimal. You can use any five you like, but no fewer will get it done and any more would be redundant, unless perhaps you have tiny hands and prefer, say, 3-fret positions.

There are dozens of possible ways to play your major scales: straight up a single string, 2NPS like Django, 4NPS like Holdsworth, with built-in position shifts and so on. You don't need a "system" that gives you all of them separately and that's why no approach used by any sane teacher tries to be "complete" in this sense.

What students need when starting out is a logical way to find the notes they want rapidly anywhere on the fretboard without gaps. CAGED, along with various other combinations you could pick, does achieve this and absolutely isn't incomplete.

"CAGED" Considered Harmful?

You see what I did there, which the quotation marks? Because maybe the issue isn't with learning scales in relation to chord tones but with the term "CAGED" and what it's come to mean. Zillio makes a good point about this, actually: everyone who "teaches CAGED" seems to have a slightly different twist on it, and so you don't know exactly what you're getting just from that one word. Though I'm not really sure why we're entitled to that, especially when neither of these authors lays out their own approach clearly and in detail (at least, not that I've been able to locate).

Still, I can see the problem. Maybe there really are people out there who teach "the CAGED system" as five cowboy chords that are all in the same key, and who refuse to do anything with m7 chords or the harmonic minor scale; I hope not, but who knows? Perhaps we need a new term: the "Triadic Positional Method™" or something.

But to me CAGED is a beautiful thing. Nobody owns it; it belongs to the guitar-playing commons. It passes from hand to hand and is transformed in the process. Some people tend it, take it seriously, develop it; some make it accessible with videos and visualisations; others oversimplify; others traduce it and turn it into a quick fix for all your guitar-playing ills. But it's a living, breathing thing, unlike so many of those other abstract systems that have come and gone over the years, hidden away in pay-per-view media. So I still think it's worth teaching with CAGED, at least for now.

[UPDATE: Here's another great example I stumbled across today. Apparently this $100 book contains a "secret" that "makes CAGED look like brain surgery". It comes with one of those fretboard-shaped sleeves you slip fingering patterns into so you can probably guess roughly how this is going to play out. Well, maybe the book is really excellent, I have no idea; the key repetition of the myth is in the gushing "review" I just linked (which isn't the author's):

One of the problems with CAGED is that people tend to stick to the pattern or two they’ve memorized and stay within those boxes.

This shows an amazing level of ignorance. The name "CAGED" literally stands for the five basic shapes (not one or two) you learn to get started with it. I wonder whether, if I only learn one or two fifths of the secret system this book presents, I'll have mastered it?]