The CAGED system is a concept every guitarist should take some time to understand.
Not only does it provide a framework from which you can instantly create barre chords, it also teaches you what the most commonly used guitar keys are, and why they are so popular.
The CAGED system is also a stepping stone to new chordal ideas that you just can’t achieve with open chords alone.
So let’s take a look at how you can turn open chords into barre chords with the CAGED system.
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What Is The CAGED System?
Each letter in CAGED actually represents a chord. Specifically, C, A, G, E and D. If you’ve studied your open chords, this should be pretty straightforward.
But these aren’t just chords. They are also some of the most used key signatures for guitar. This is because other key signatures require you to use a lot of barre chords. There still tend to be some barre chords in the keys of C, A, G, E and D, but it’s minimal compared to other keys like Eb or Bb.
But there is one more piece to the puzzle, which is that open chords are movable. The most commonly used shapes for creating barre chords are E and A (both major and minor), but you can also use C, G and D to create barre chord shapes, thus the CAGED system.
Let’s take a look at how this works in practice.
Creating A Barre Chord
If you’ve never tried playing a barre chord before, know that it can be quite tricky. It involves placing your index finger flat across the fretboard (oftentimes across all six strings), while you curl and arch your other fingers (like you normally would) to create a chord shape.
Like I said before, E and A tend to be good starting points. First, try playing an open E chord. Notice how three out of six strings remain open (the first, second, and sixth). By “moving the nut”, we can turn this E chord into any major chord.
I’ll show you what I mean. Try moving your entire E chord up one fret (i.e. your fingers would be on the second and third frets instead of the first and second). If you play this chord as is, you would get a nice-sounding Spanish chord. But that’s not our goal for the time being.
What you want to do now is take your index finger and place it flat across the first fret, leaving your other fingers in place. Note: if you were playing the E chord with your index, middle and ring fingers, you’d actually want hold the same notes with your middle, ring and pinky fingers instead.
Here’s what this looks like:
You might recognize this as an F chord. If you move it up another fret, you get an F# chord. At the third fret, you get a G chord. Then, at the fourth fret, a G# chord, and so on and so forth.
Remove your middle finger, and you get a minor chord, but the naming convention stays the same. In other words, if you were to barre the first fret and create an Em (minor) shape with your remaining fingers, you would get an Fm chord. On the second fret it would be F#m, and so on.
Here's what this looks like:
You should have a pretty good idea of how this works now, so let’s take a quick look at the A major and Am shapes as well.
Barre up on the first fret, and the chord becomes either a A# or a A#m. From there, it goes B, C, C#, D, etc. This is just a matter of learning the fretboard, and in reality, you only need to memorize the notes on one string to figure out the pattern.
Okay, So What About C, G & D?
This is where things get kind of interesting.
Teachers aren’t lying when they say you can barre up any of these shapes. The one thing they tend to leave out is the fact that barring up a C, G or D isn’t very practical.
Sure, if you have years of experience playing complicated jazz chords, you probably won’t have any issues with this. But if not, this isn’t going to be easy. I’ll admit – even I struggle with this a bit, and I have 15 years of experience behind me.
But just in case, I’ll show you what I mean. Here’s what a barred C, G and D look like:
Ouch. It’s typically the two-fret distance between the index finger and middle finger that kills. Again, this is not impossible, and with enough practice, you can do it. But entry-level students or intermediate players will want to take a slightly different approach.
In case there's any confusion, these shapes still require you to barre the first fret with your index finger.
We can simplify quite a bit by turning these shapes into power chords or triads, which is a lot more practical.
Let’s take a look:
Okay, even these shapes might feel a little unusual or strange at first, but they can make chord transitions quite a bit easier, depending on what you’re trying to achieve. Plus, they are completely movable.
Have you ever had to jump from a chord on the sixth fret (we’ll say Bbm), all the way down to an open chord in the first three frets (we’ll say C)? When you are aware of the various shapes available to you, you can actually cut down on such drastic movement, and make a more seamless transition from one chord to the next.
In closing, I’ll share with you how to apply and adapt what we’ve learned. There’s a 90s song by Eagle-Eye Cherry I like to play called “Save Tonight.” The chord progression is basically just a repeating pattern of Am, F(maj7), C and G over and over.
So instead of merely repeating these chords in the open position, I came up with an alternate way to process them, all basically at the fifth fret area. Here’s what that looks like:
Typically I'll alternate playing these chords with the standard open chords.
There’s more going on here than I can realistically cover in this guide. But the general idea here is to add a bit of color to your playing. You might not be able to do this until you feel more comfortable playing barre chords, but if a song bores you (i.e. it’s just the same chords over and over), it’s nice to be able to add this kind of variation to it so you’re keeping yourself entertained while the audience is singing along.
Now you should have a better understanding of how the CAGED system works.
As I already pointed out, its “intended” use is not entirely practical out of the box. It’s better to think of it in terms of common guitar key signatures, rather than just as chords that have a movable component to them.
A particularly skilled guitarist can move any chord shape around without trouble, and that is the ultimate goal, but don’t expect to get there overnight. Start simple, and build up your chops from there.