Is the CAGED system crap? (Part 1)

CAGED system

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that the CAGED system is crap. Feel free to disagree but hear me out.

My first experience with it was in Music College and the teacher none other than the otherworldly Guthrie Govan, or was it Dave Kilminster? Anyway, I remember having the sneaking suspicion that the CAGED system was lame but if Guthrie or Dave is going through the patterns with you then it must be the best thing since sliced bread. So off I went to the woodshed with my five patterns and played them till my arms fell off; somewhat misguided by the blind faith that they were the holy grail of improvisation. However, the patterns felt clunky and unnatural, some had three notes on one string then two on another, and that crappy C shape chord that no one really uses unless they’re playing an actual C chord… but everyone else was doing it so I went with the flow.

It wasn’t until after Music College, when the haze had lifted, that I began to doubt whether it was really taking me anywhere closer to obtaining god-like improvisation prowess.  Here’s where you stop listening to the, ‘if it ain’t hurting, you’re not doing it right’, crowd by the way.

It’s a CAGE

The CAGED system is exactly that: a cage. You’re going to end up trapped whether by muscle memory or by trying to squeeze some actual music out of those clunky patterns.

My main beef

I guess my main gripe with the CAGED system is the following:


Now, I’m not into quick-fixes or those promising them. Anyone who’s played guitar for a while will know that there’s no such thing but the amount of memorization involved in the CAGED system is ridiculous. It takes the focus away from music and places it on technique to the point where you end up stifled by it.

The major scale takes on that kind of wishy-washy sound and what you end up doing is akin to skim-reading in the sense that you’re not getting the whole picture or the full flavor and range of sounds each scale has to offer.

But it’s great for playing over changes, they say

You know what’s great for playing over changes? Chord tones; I was lucky enough to have a front row seat at a Mike Stern clinic a few years back. If you’ve ever seen Mike Stern try to play scale patterns you’ll know that it’s not one of his strong points. He obviously didn’t pay attention to the CAGED system. What Mike Stern does do well though is play chord tones, captivate you then take you so far out you come back round the other side to the chord tones again. My point is if you want to play over changes you have to start with chord tones. CAGED patterns and chord tones will confuse the hell out of your ears for the best part of a year or so.

What about the modes?

Okay so I want to use G Lydian, couldn’t I just go straight to the scale and play it? Nooooo… that would be too logical let’s use the CAGED system.

So, first work out what the parent scale of G Lydian is, when you’ve done that figure out the new position of the root note then choose which CAGED shape fits your purpose and… oh, song’s over and the drummer is shaking his head…

The very notion of thinking G Lydian—D Major parent scale—C shape scale—Go just confuses the hell out of your ears and most likely your band mates.

In Part 2 we’ll look at:

Who actually uses the CAGED system?
What are the alternatives?

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