3NPS or CAGED? Why Not Both?

3nps and caged systems for guitar

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ll know I’m not a huge fan of the CAGED System. Its distant cousin the 3NPS (three-note-per-string) System is a little more palatable, but still overwhelmingly a technical exercise more than a complete system for learning to improvise. When it comes to learning scale patterns they’re both fairly tedious and inefficient, but what if we combine them? Perhaps we can take the best of both systems, meld them together and come up with some kind of hybrid system which is slightly more useful than its components. Read on…

Patterns Galore

The CAGED system contains five patterns, one for every chord shape, and the 3NPS system boasts seven patterns—one for every starting note of a seven-note scale. These make for great, though somewhat tedious, technical exercises but aren’t very efficient for learning scales unless you’re some kind of masochist.

Why Learn Scales?

A lot of guitarists just blindly learn scales without too much of idea as to why they’re doing it, or what the goal of spending hours upon hours getting these well-worn patterns down might be. Here are a couple of good reasons:

SCALES will lead to understanding; the ability to know and recall relationships between notes; this leads towards understanding the relationship between chords and how this sets an emotional mood; this leads towards understanding good composition and song writing; this leads towards good technique and more interesting rhythm work; this leads towards a roadmap for soloing and knowing various melodies to play over the right chords at the right time; this leads to complete mastery of the guitar.

At the end of the day, scales are a good way to get to know your fretboard. What you should avoid is mindlessly running up and down scale patterns you already know, as this becomes a technical exercise rather than a musical one. There’s a great book by guitarist Carl Verheyen called, ‘Improvising without Scales: The Intervallic Guitar System of Carl Verheyen’. I must warn you though, the title is incredibly misleading; this is not some kind of system for learning to improvise without learning scales (our Soloing Without Scales eBook does do this however). This book would be better described as what to do AFTER you’ve learned a bunch of scales, the basic premise being to practice constructing lines, or things you might actually play.

Anyway, back to combining the 3NPS and CAGED patterns.

Why Combine Them?

The two systems offer a different kind of work-out for your hands and brain. The 3NPS system involves some nice stretches, and is probably a more consistent way of dividing up scales and maintaining note-finger location across the fretboard. The CAGED patterns, on the other hand, have varying amounts of notes on a string and no real consistency. This is not so bad as not everything you play is going to be consistent note-wise, so it’s better to get your fingers used to random patterns. By combining these patterns, we also reduce the amount of patterns there is to learn. Let’s see how it looks in the key of F:

We start out with a nice 3NPS position, probably one of the most memorable ones.

I like this pattern because it’s fairly symmetrical and quite usable in the sense that it doesn’t take long to learn.

The next pattern is a CAGED one. It’s actually the C shape one, and again it’s quite easy to learn and fits nicely onto the back of the 3NPS pattern above.

For the next pattern we’re going to use a 3NPS shape. Again, this is another pattern I like which is also quite memorable.
We’ve actually covered most of the fretboard with these three patterns but we’ll add one more in for good measure because a) it’ll be useful in other keys, and b) it links up to the first pattern.

This pattern is actually the E shape one from the CAGED system, check it out:

This completes the cycle of patterns, and as you can see the first half of pattern one features in this last pattern. I have to admit; this is how I learned scales when I was starting out. I found the 3NPS patterns to be too numerous and tedious to learn, while the CAGED system just seemed ridiculous. I did, however, like some of the patterns from both systems, and so started combining them as all I really wanted to do was know where all the available notes were on the fretboard. The two styles of patterns also provide a good work-out for your hands, and keep you paying attention while practicing them.

You’ll need to transpose these patterns to different keys, well, the five keys guitarists play in, and work out the open positions if you like playing down at the nut. Have fun with this and let me know what you think in the comments. Please also download the handy PDF file below with the four patterns so you can print it out and work from it.

If you like this idea, then you’re in luck as these four patterns are the basis for our latest eBook, ‘Hacking the CAGED System‘. Check it out here.

combined_3nps_and_caged_scale_patterns.pdf
File Size: 242 kb
File Type: pdf

Download File


About Graham Tippett 300 Articles
Compulsive guitar blogger and writer of many innovative guitar books.

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