The CAGED system has many faults, most of which I won’t go into here, but what I do want you to see is the bigger picture. Its emphasis is on the rote learning of patterns based on the infamous five chord shapes (not all of which are useful); it also claims to provide some logic when navigating the neck, and it does to certain extent but its use is very restrictive. If you want to play over changes or get into modal playing then you’ll find yourself looking down in dismay as you try to frantically locate the next pattern/clunky chord. In fact, outside of the major scale patterns the CAGED system is next to useless.
Learning a ton of patterns will do wonders for your technique, which is why it feels like you’re making progress with the CAGED system. Look carefully at what it is you’re progressing with though, and you’ll realize that it’s only your technical ability that’s improving. Are your solos melodic or are you just running up and down the CAGED patterns? Can you play the modes without thinking? Can you play over changes?
How would you play over these changes?
| Bm7b5 | E7 | Am7 |
Perhaps you could find some patterns to play over the above chords but chances are your solo would sound like a bunch of scales hooked together with no real phrasing or melodic ideas. This is the product of the CAGED system.
What’s the Antidote?
I won’t lie, it’s kind of like starting over, but in a good way. Your knowledge of the CAGED patterns will come in handy I can assure you, so don’t think you’ve wasted however many years going down the wrong road. That said, you should start seeing some drastic improvements almost straight away as you begin to understand improvisation, not from the point of view of a bunch of scales, but from a musical and above all melodic stance.
A word about right notes and wrong notes
A lot of guitarists, and even guitar teachers, have this idea that a seven-note scale means that there are seven right notes, and the other five should be avoided at all costs. This is not strictly true as in actual fact you can play any note you want over any chord—what holds you back is not knowing how to make those ‘wrong’ notes work or sound good. Throughout the exercises I would encourage you to experiment with the so-called wrong notes, use them as stepping-stones to the ‘right’ notes, and learn how to use them. I’ll let you in on a little secret: if a note grooves, it can never be ‘wrong’.
A (re)introduction to triads
If you’ve been playing guitar for a while you’re probably aware of triads; you may even have been forced to learn them at some point while being rightly suspicious of what their actual uses were.
Triads provide a solid foundation for most things on guitar, especially chords and improvising. The trouble is that they are most often overlooked in favor of scales, arpeggios and the semi-useless CAGED system.
What is a triad?
Think of a triad as the three killer notes of any chord, the absolute go-to notes, and the ones that will always sound good. There are four basic types of triad: Major, Minor, Augmented and Diminished. A C major triad will contain the notes C, E and G (or the intervals 1, 3, 5) while a C minor triad will contain the notes C, Eb and G (or the intervals 1, b3, 5). We’ll come to augmented and diminished triads later.
If you’ve ever wondered what to play over a C9#11 chord, now you have three killer notes! Let’s face it, most chords you meet will either fall under the major or minor umbrella so it makes sense to start with three great notes and take it from there, rather than fumbling around for CAGED patterns.
What you see below are C major triads all over the fretboard. Pay attention to how they move horizontally and vertically in a predictable and logical way, unlike the CAGED patterns.
You don’t have to learn all the above patterns at once, in fact, I wouldn’t recommend it. We can get a lot of mileage, and cover a lot of the neck with just three patterns on one set of strings.
Take the following three triad shapes and get comfortable with their location on the fretboard.
Don’t dismiss this exercise too soon as its dynamic is interesting. There’s a huge perspective change here which takes you from focusing on patterns to focusing on the actual notes you’re playing and what you can (or can’t) do with those notes.
If you’ve got the CAGED patterns ingrained in your head they’ll start appearing around the triads. This is okay as long as you don’t fall back into mindlessly running up and down the patterns. By all means incorporate notes from the CAGED patterns but keep your attention on the triad patterns. You should sound instantly more melodic and listenable.
In Part 2 we’ll look at how to use triads as a springboard into other sounds while keeping things melodic and under control.