CAGED Guitar


Welcome to Yet Another Web Page about CAGED theory.  I used to be a working musician (now I’m protecting my amateur status), and I taught guitar for many years and hammered out a lesson in CAGED fundamentals in the late 80s to help students learn fingerboard mechanics faster and better.  I’d never heard of CAGED prior to that, so I gave the method an obvious-sounding name, which turned out to be in wide use by other teachers and players I’d never heard of at the time.  Of course, you could say I was living under a rock…well, how about living behind a guitar. So I’m not taking credit for inventing CAGED theory, just this “lesson wrapper” around it.

Everything you need to know about understanding and using CAGED is on this page. Most novice and intermediate players require 1 to 2 hours of applied study (i.e., keepin’ it real by programming the hands) to understand and retain what is presented on this page. So if you get CAGED just by reading the text, studying the examples and applying them to your guitar practice and playing, great! If not, contact me, I can help walk you through it on Skype.

“EVERYTHING CLICKED! Well, almost everything, but the lessons and the practices finally fell together in that one mystical moment of pseudo enlightenment. Now, if I just had a spare lifetime to work on it. Ah, well, therein lies the new challenge.”

– Eric Reynolds, Salt Lake City, Utah

CAGED theory is a simple and intuitive, touch-based roadmap to the guitar. I have taught this method for more than 20 years to many guitar players of all abilities. It is proven to work for any player who can understand the fundamental premise, practice it, and apply it to their technique and repertoire. For both reading and non-reading players, CAGED theory can increase your chord vocabulary five-fold in about two hours. By touch. That’s just the start. Playing melodically and improvising in any key comes if you stick with it.

CAGED theory has the following key elements and requirements:

* A 5-letter mnemonic spelled CAGED, signifying the 5 first-position major chord “shapes”: C, A, G, E, D.

* The ability to play these chords using the “back” of the hand, i.e., using the middle, ring and pinky instead of index, middle, ring.  MRP instead of IMR…

* Your ability to discern these 5 “shapes” regardless of where on the fingerboard or in which key they appear.


* The ability to play C, A, G, E, D chords in the first position…but with one IMPORTANT difference: using the “back” of your hand as in the pictures. (But unlike the picture, which shows the C cadence of CAGED, make sure you can play all 5 chord shapes in the first position with the back of your hand first.)

So let’s get started… on the right>>>>>>>>>>>>>!


D shape                E shape                     G shape                     A shape                   C shape

Playing the five major chord inversions in the key of C uses “transposed” first position chord shapes, notated as follows:

C1 shape: X32010
A2 shape: x3555X
G3 shape: 875558
E4 shape:
D5 shape: XX10.12.13.12 “.” is used for clarity.

In the key of C, the shapes begin on fret numbers as follows:

3rd (1st position of C), 3rd (2nd pos. of C or the “A” shape, 8th (3rd pos. of C, the “G” shape, 8th (4th position of C, or “E” shape, and finally frets 10th-13th for the “D” shape of C.

Once you figure out the “spans” between the shapes it is relatively simple to change from position to position and then transpose CAGED fundamentals to any key.

Grab your guitar and get started now

* Try it! Use your “back” three fingers (m,r,p) to finger the garden-variety C chord in the first position. (The option to use the normal fingering when playing in the first position is still yours.)

* If this is doable, try playing an A chord in the first position, with the “back” three fingers (m,r,p) of the hand in the first position.

* Okay, great, now try a back-of-the-hand G chord in the first position. (No whining, please.)

* Next, play a first-position E chord with the “back” of the hand. You’re getting the picture. The E chord reveals your now-extra index finger has nothing to do for now except to come to rest directly on the nut of the guitar neck. (Keep your eye on this one. Think of your index finger as a movable nut, you nut!)

* Lastly, the D chord, played in the first position and using the middle, ring, pinky fingers finishes the first part of understanding how CAGED works. This one’s the one that’ll give you fits, yet produce some of the best results. Make sure the tip of your index finger rests on the nut, and directly over the D or 4th string.

Ready for the magic dust? HERE IT IS: By playing these first-position C,A,G,E & D chord shapes in the proper sequence (and with the back of the hand), you’re getting ready to take the next step:

The 5 Basic CAGED Cadences


Cadence 1: 5 Shapes of C

How you’ll play 5 shapes (voicings) of a C chord: Begin with fingering the first-position C shape, A shape, G shape, E shape, and D shape. (That’s the meditation you’ll need in order to do this in any key.) Start CAGED Theory with the C chord. If you finger the 5 shapes correctly, the root note of the chord (underneath your straining pinky, ring or index finger) is always going to be a C note.

The sequence of 5 shapes of C chords, beginning with 1st position C chord (from right to left).

* In the key of C, the first occurence of C major is the “1” position. It is the 5th frame in the picture (last one on the right).

* The “2” position of C major is the A shape. (4th frame)

* The “3” shape is G. Notice that by addressing all instances of the shapes with the back of the hand, the root note(s) are maintained.

* Next, play a “4” shape. In CAGED Theory, that’s a, uh, E shape.

* To finish, move to the final, logical shape, D. (Use the mnemonic!) After you’ve figured out how to easily finger the D shape (5th position) of C, from frets 10-13, stop and take a couple of deep breaths.

Begin again. C (or 1) shape of C, A shape of C, G shape of C, G shape of C, E shape of C, D shape of C.

* In the key of C, the first occurence of C major is the “1” position.

* The “2” position of C major is the A shape.

* The “3” shape is G. Notice that by addressing all instances of the shapes with the back of the hand, the root note(s) are maintained.

* Next, play a “4” shape. In CAGED Theory, that’s a, uh, E shape.

* To finish, move to the final, logical shape. (Use the mnemonic!) After you’ve figured out how to easily finger the D shape (5th position) of C, from frets 10 – 14, stop, take a couple of deep breaths and shake out that fretting hand.

Start at right : 5th position…….4th position…….3rd position……..2nd position…..1st position “C”

Begin again. C shape of C, A shape of C, G shape of C, E shape of C, D shape of C. What’s that spell?


Cadence 2: 5 Shapes of A

From here, it’s simple to go through the rest of the mnemonic, as in 5 shapes of A, G, E, D.  Start with the A shape in the 1st position and off you go. Think of it as a chording circle that begins with whatever key you’re playing in. Let’s take the key of A. Each time you choose a basic chord, in this case, A, that becomes the first letter of the mnemonic: just think “AGEDC” by forming the first position of an A chord and beginning there. That’s A (or 1) shape of A, G shape of A, E shape of A, D shape of A, and finally, C shape of A. Follow?

Cadence 3: 5 Shapes of G

“GEDCA” by forming the first position of an G chord and beginning there. That’s G (or 1) shape of G, E shape of G, D shape of G, C shape of G, and finally, A shape of G.

Cadence 4: 5 Shapes of E

“EDCAG” by forming the first position of an E chord and beginning there. That’s E (or 1) shape of E, D shape of E, C shape of E, A shape of E, and finally, G shape of E.

Cadence 5: 5 Shapes of D

“DCAGE” by forming the first position of an D chord and beginning there. That’s D (or 1) shape of D, C shape of D, A shape of D, G shape of D, and finally, E shape of D.

What about F and B Chords?
Playing in the keys of F and B is simple if you understand the first five shapes. For example, F chords use the EDCAG cadence (E shape), except transposed up 1/2 step, or 1 fret. B chords use the AGEDC cadence and begin with an A shape transposed up 1 full step, or two frets. Simply start at the right fret and go through the 5 shapes for each and you’ll quickly add them to your arsenal of great sounding chords.

What about Minor Chords?
There is no difference in how the cadences work; just substitute the minor chord forms and move through the 5 shapes of, say, Em. Em chords use the EDCAG cadence, so you’ll need to start with a first position Em, then 2nd position D minor shape (moves up 3 frets), then a C minor shape(difficult but doable), then an A minor shape, and lastly, a G minor shape (also difficult, but doable.) If you can visualize what all of these shapes look like when you try to play them in the first position, you will be able to figure out how to finger them up the fingerboard in other keys.

What about 7th Chords?
The best way to apply 7th chords in the CAGED framework is to simply use them in each of the 5 chord shapes. This is useful for blues and jazz, because the D shape is easily changed from D to Dmaj7, Dmin7, D7, etc., even a Diminished chord that is also portable up and down the fingerboard.

What about your right hand?
Glad you asked. A great way to integrate your fretting and picking hands is to practice using TITM (Thumb, Index, Thumb, Middle). And I mean practice. Each of the 5 CAGED shapes responds very well to this plucking order, once you figure out what the root note is. Simply play TITM beginning with the root. So if it is a C shape in the first position, you would pluck TITM on the 5th, 3rd, 4th, and then 2nd strings. To give things some bounce, try alternating the first thumb strke on the root with the 5th or 3rd note of the chord, either above or below the root.

The Roadblocks
CAGED theory is pretty straightforward once you figure out how it works. But you may think you’ll never get used to applying it. It is physically demanding to refocus how your fretting hand works, especially if you have always played with the front of your hand, like a rock and roller. Don’t let the clumsiness of your hands defeat you, it’s a natural part of the process of learning CAGED.

Part of the difficulty you will encounter is moving consistently, quickly and smoothly from shape to shape. The secret is to go from the first shape of whatever key you are in to the next shape by swapping your pinky or ring finger for your index finger, which covers the root note of the chord you are playing. For example, C shape uses P, M, R (with back of the hand approach). To play the 2nd shape of C, which is A, you would play the same root, but swap fingers (to your Index finger) so that you can play the A shape. Look for linkage between the shapes…it’s there, really!

Give it some time, and don’t dilute it. Play it over and over until it sticks. Play through each shape and change without looking at your hands. Use your ears and just remember what key you’re in. That’s 5 shapes of a chord in every key, using the back of your hand approach as in the picture. And when you think you’ve got the cadences pretty well licked, try using a metronome to smooth out your timing.

Then use the 5 shapes to improvise a well-known melody, such as Somewhere Over The Rainbow, Amazing Grace, the Star Spangled Banner, Jingle Bells or Silent Night, etc. If you can wrest a chord melody out of the shapes you’re playing, you can consider yourself a CAGED graduate with a bright future on the guitar. How long until you achieve CAGED nirvana? Use the method until it is second nature, and it’ll be exactly that long. You’re most welcome. Now go have some fun!

Thanks for bookmarking this page and telling your picker friends! If you find the content here valuable or worthless, please leave some feedback to make it better for the next picker who visits, thanks!

(Disclaimer: my musical ability has nothing to do with how well CAGED can work for you. Your artistic mileage may vary considerably.)

©1987-2017 Jay Toups. Please feel free to use this material yourself and share it with friends. All commercial rights reserved.

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