9 Reasons Why The "CAGED System" Of Learning Guitar Scales Sucks

Tommaso Zillio

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Have you tried to learn the CAGED system of learning guitar scales, and found it difficult, and that it does not really help you the way you thought? Well, if you feel frustrated you are not the only one. I have spent an inordinate amount of time trying to understand it, and make it work. And I succeeded... only to discover that there are other methods to visualize the fretboard that allow you more freedom of expression and at the same time are easier to learn. I felt cheated. I have since abandoned completely the CAGED system in my playing.

The hype surrounding the CAGED system is such that it seems the only "real" or "correct" method to learning the scales. In fact many musicians ignore even the existence of other methods to visualize the fretboard. As an example of that, I personally know at least two local guitar teachers in the city I live who use the CAGED system with their students, but do not use it themselves. Both of them, when asked why answered along the lines of: "well, I invented a system for myself, but the CAGED is the correct way so that's what I teach". I find this quite a curious stance: why would you need to invent a new system for yourself if CAGED is the "correct" way?

You may have read a book on CAGED, or you might have had a teacher showing you the system. If you were frustrated by it, I will now show you why and what to do. If you, on the other hand, liked the CAGED system, let me show you its problems so you can avoid them. Here are, in detail the reasons why the CAGED system of teaching scales is a terrible choice for learning how to navigate the fretboard, despite all the hype about it. I am not going to explain the CAGED system here: if you know it you know what I am talking about; if you do not know it, just don't learn it and you are going to be better off in the long term :-)

1. Does not integrate well with arpeggios...

"WHAT?" you will say " the CAGED system is designed precisely to associate each scale pattern with a chord shape!" Well, that's what it says on the can, but not what's inside. Let me explain. I do acknowledge that the CAGED scale patterns are always depicted superimposed to a major chord shape. What I notice is that the chord/arpeggio shapes used by the CAGED system are not useful in practical situations, with the sole exception of playing open string "cowboy chords".

To see that, try to play the 5 chord shapes as arpeggios (i.e one note at a time, in order, on ALL the strings): compared to other ways of playing arpeggios these shapes are technically difficult to finger and play cleanly. This is because some shapes are good only for few strings: the "D shape" for instance covers only the first 4 strings. The "G shape" by itself does not cover string 2,3 and 4: these notes are "borrowed" from the A shape, and the resulting pattern is not easy to play cleanly as an arpeggio.

If this does not convince you yet, try to play any of these shapes as an ascending arpeggio, and then descend using the scale, up and down without stopping. You will immediately see that this is quite difficult to do. So while VISUALLY the arpeggio/scale integration seems good, it is not good MECHANICALLY. To see this problem in action, and the solution to it, watch this video on mechanical integration of scales and arpeggios

2. ... and in any case, it works only with MAJOR arpeggios

All the CAGED scale patters are shown, as I said above, together with a major chord shape. You may notice that it is quite less common to show them with a minor chord shape, and there are practically no diagrams out there with a diminished, augmented, or altered chord. Even the seventh chord patterns are rare.

This is no chance: with minor chords the CAGED scale patters look already less attractive, as the shapes for the minor arpeggios present more technical difficulties (compare them with the standard "sweep arpeggio" shapes to see what I mean). It's even worse for diminished, augmented, or altered chords.

Of course, many CAGED apologists will say that this is not true and that you can use CAGED on minor chords, or on any other chords for that matter. I'm sure this is the case if you are willing to twist your mind enough and put enough hours of work into it - after all a week of hard work can sometimes save you an hour of thought. In some case, though, the proposed solutions border on the absurd: for instance I have seen some horrible ways to patch this problem such as using the relative major chord instead (on the Am chord we use the shapes for the C chord). Such patches make the CAGED system much less direct and intuitive as it seemed at first sight, and still do not address the fact that there are tons of other chords types you need to learn to solo on.

3. It is technically inferior to other systems

One of the main technical drawbacks of the CAGED system is the fact that its scale patterns have 3 notes on some strings and 2 notes on other strings. It is no wonder that they are this way: they were designed in order to respect the principle of "one finger per fret", i.e. every fret is covered by only one finger (a finger can cover more than one fret, though). While interesting, this principle is completely useless in electric guitar technique: there is no real reason why one should use only one finger over a specific fret.

It is much better to make the patterns more regular, for instance laying them down with 3 notes per string. This little tweak will not only make the scale patterns more regula, but will allow you to cut your practice time dreastically due to the increased consistency of your picking hand. To see how this happens, watch this video on The CAGED System's Right Hand Inconsistencies

Another great disadvantage of the CAGED system is that it tends to confine you in position playing, i.e. when you play a solo you tend to never move from the position you are.

If you don't believe that the CAGED system is technically inferior, I suggest the two following three exercises: 1) try and play the scales as fast as possible. 2) Try to play a scale sequence such as: C, D, E, D, E, F, E, F, G, etc... 3) Restrict your playing to only the first two string, and play the scale patters all across the fretboard. In all three cases you will see that the CAGED system produces some awkward fingering when the scale pattern passes from 3 to 2 notes per string.

4. It is difficult to memorize

I often hear that "there are only 5 patterns in the CAGED system", and so it is easy to memorize. I am going to show you in the next point that this statement is not actually true at all, but for now let's concede the point.

(A different but related point is: "why the CAGED system has 5 shapes at all?" In fact it's quite easy to see that 5 is the WRONG number of shapes... you can see why in this video on how many scales positions in the CAGED system there are?)

Well, other scale systems, as the 3-note-per-string system, have just ONE pattern if taught the correct way. If you do not know that pattern, then just comment below and I will write another article about it.

But wait, there's more. In order to successfully use a scale pattern, it is not enough that you learn the pattern. You have also to learn where are the scale degrees in it i.e. which note is the root? Which one is the third of the scale? etc...

5. It focuses ONLY on scales

Despite the insistence of showing the scale patterns superimposed to arpeggio patterns, I have seen very few CAGED methods who have you actually play the arpeggios - because, as we have seen above, the arpeggio shapes are not easy to play. They will have you play the scale on the chord, but never the actual arpeggio. For this reason, most players brought up in the CAGED system tend to play mostly scales: this is their best tool and the one they use most often.

This has gone so far that is now considered disparaging to say that a solo sounds "scalar". Now many guitar players, as a reaction to that, state that "you should not learn scales", that "scales are bad for you", or that "scales are stupid". I see their point, but I do not agree with that reaction. Scales are a wonderful tool for many things. They become a problem only when they become the ONLY tool you have. So start studying these arpeggios, and integrate them together with your scales.

6. Cannot be easily extended to other scales

The CAGED system is always explained using the major scale and its modes. If you have been taught the CAGED system, your instructor probably told you that "you just need to learn the 5 patterns for the major scale, the rest is just variations of the major scale". Sounds familiar? Well, this is only technically true. If I change enough notes I can arrive anywhere, right?

The real question is: how much should I change the major scale in order to arrive to the scale I want to play? Sometimes the change is so big that the original pattern is actually useless. This is the case, for instance with the harmonic minor scale (and modes), the melodic minor scale (and modes), the augmented and diminished scales, and for many altered and exotic scales.

What is going to happen is that you are going to have to learn another SET of patterns for every new scale. Want to play some exotic metal and crack some solo in the Hungarian minor scale? Learn another set. Want to play Jazz and need these diminished and augmented scales? Another set. CAGED does not look anymore like an economic and elegant system, right?

7. Hendrix did not use it :-)

A scale system is good if it helps you to learn the fretboard and then stays out of the way, not if a famous guitar player uses it or not. Yet, I've hear this particular claim so many times that I think it's worth answering to it.

One of the thing I hear more often about CAGED is that it must be a great system because "Hendrix used it". That is an interesting statement, because the CAGED system was invented in the late 70's, but Hendrix died in 1970. Could Hendrix have used it before it was invented? Well, sure, he was a forward thinker, but a quick analysis of his solos shows that he wasn't thinking in terms of CAGED at all.

Maybe other famous players use it? The one I see cited most often is Joe Pass. Again, this is quite curious because I happen to own Pass' scale book, and he is explaining a different system with 6 patterns, not 5 like CAGED. After checking out what Joe Pass was actually doing, it becomes quite clear that Pass was using the "CAGED idea" to visualize mostly chords, not full scales. What is called CAGED system today is different than what Pass recommended in the 70's, and in fact I'm actually surprised we use the same name for it. The original idea had some merits, but it has now morphed too much to be useful.

But isn't the CAGED system taught by famous music schools such as Berklee? So their graduates must be using it, right? Well, anyone familiar with John Petrucci solos (arguably one of the most famous Berklee graduates) will notice immediately that any non-pentatonic scale that Petrucci plays, either straight or in sequence, is fingered following the 3-note-per-string patterns. Don't get my word for it, start transcribing them and see for yourself

8. It is not (usually) taught in the correct way

For all the faults we have found up to now, the CAGED system DOES have a good point to it. Suppose you already know your pentatonic scales, and you want to be able to add some modal notes to it. For instance, if you are playing the Am pentatonic, and add the notes B and F# then you are effectively playing the Dorian scale. In this case, starting form the 5 standard pentatonic patterns and adding the modal notes you will obtain the CAGED patterns.

So, yes, these five patterns are interesting as a "bridge" between pentatonic and diatonic/modal scales, but that's about it.

The problem is that virtually none of the educational resources available on the CAGED system seem to make this point clear. All they explain you is the "relationship" with the chords shapes that we have seen below being less useful than advertised. In other words, yes, there is ONE thing the CAGED system is good for, but it is advertised as a "general" system, rather than being used were it is actually useful.

9. It is not a single integrated system, but a patchwork of tricks

Every time I talk about, write about, or otherwise explain why the CAGED system does not live up to the hype, one or two people are bound to say: "Wait a moment this is not the CAGED system. The CAGED system is...".You see, this is another problem with CAGED. It has been "copied" over and over by so many less-than-competent authors that everyone now is teaching a different thing and calls it CAGED.

Far from discouraging musicians from learning the CAGED system, this situations virtually insures that if you search long enough you will find a system that you may like (for a while) that is taught under the name of CAGED. I have seen people teaching the octaves on the fretboard and calling it "the CAGED system". It is not. I have seen a famous teacher once talking about the tuning of the guitar and saying that "it derives from the CAGED system". Not true: the tuning of the guitar dates back to the 16th century. In a book whose author will remain anonymous I have seen the 3-notes-per-string patterns as "a variation of the CAGED system". I'm not even commenting this one. :-)

In other words, lots or people like "the CAGED system", but each of them is rooting for something different.

This situation also insures that everyone that criticize the CAGED system (as yours truly) will be met by an incredible number of rebuttals along the lines of "but this isn't what they taught ME". Well, I have a 4-foot shelf full of books, instructionals and DVD's ONLY on the CAGED system. I think I have an idea of what I am talking about. :-)

So, why the CAGED system is so widespread?

At this point you might wonder: why the CAGED system is so widespread if it creates so many problems? Well for 3 simple reasons: 1) it is easy to teach. The teacher needs to give you the 5 patterns, and then you are magically supposed to make sense of them. Many of my guitar students have been taught previously this way, so I can see the damages of this teaching "style": they know all the patterns, but they can't improvise anything to save their life. 2) there is a large "industry" behind this. Search online for guitar methods, and you will see that 90% of the results are about the CAGED system. Everybody can sell an eBook about the CAGED system: copy the 5 patterns, put some text around them and BAM! You are in business! 3) because the general public is a sucker for easy "magic bullet" solutions, and the CAGED system promises exactly that: learn the 5 easy patterns and you can play everything. Years later and you are still wondering what is wrong with you that prevents the "magic" to work. There is nothing wrong with you. Just stop reading the books on the CAGED system.

Do you want to know what system I use personally and teach all my students to understand scales and modes completely? You can find it by clicking on the button below:

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