The CAGED System


Hopefully by now you understand how the CAGED system helps to navigate, and link up the fretboard. Maybe you’ve even explored the chord & scale diagrams category to learn other patterns from the CAGED system.

But now its time to explore its short-comings, and wrap up this series (finally… phew!).

Identifying an Unusual 6/9 Chord

The limits of the CAGED system soon become apparent when we start learning more interesting chords – like this common 6/9 chord grip, for instance.

Fig 1

As we know, chords with their roots on the fifth string, must be derived from either the ‘A shape’ or a ‘C shape’ major scale. To determine whether this is an ‘A shape’ or ‘C shape’ chord, we need to compare the 6/9 chord with those scales and see whether they share the same notes (like we did in CAGED Part 6).

The figures below, compare the 6/9 chord with the ‘A’ shape major scale. You can see that all of the notes in the 6/9 chord also exist in the ‘A’ shape major scale – suggesting that this chord must be an ‘A shape’ 6/9 chord (the grey notes indicate the notes contained in the 6/9 chord).

Fig 2

But these figures below compare the 6/9 chord with the ‘C shape’ major scale and, as we can see, the 6/9 chord also fits into the ‘C shape’ major scale.

Fig 3

That’s strange!? The notes in the 6/9 chord seem to fit into both the ‘A’ and ‘C’ shape scale patterns.

Lets look at the ‘A’ and ‘C’ shape scales drawn together on a single fretboard diagram.

Fig 4

Here we can see that our 6/9 chord is positioned exactly where these two shapes overlap. So this chord is on the ‘seam’, for lack of a better word, of the ‘A’ and ‘C’ shapes. Its chords like these where the CAGED system begins to break down.

Identifying an Unusual min6th Chord

Here is another chord which is built right on the cusp of two different CAGED shapes. In this case it is a min6th chord, and it falls right on the ‘seam’ of the ‘G’ and ‘E’ shapes.

Fig 5

See how this min6th chord fits equally into the ‘G shape’ and equally into the ‘E shape’?

Due to their ambiguity it is difficult to classify chords which fall ‘between’ two different CAGED positions.


…What to Call Them?

Those of you who have been reading this blog regularly might have noticed that I arbitrarily assigned a CAGED shape to some of these shapes in my triads with added notes page. There is no real standard for the assigned letters that I chose, I really just went with common sense.

For instance take the min6th shape shown above (and again here for convenience).

Fig 6

I decided to call this an ‘E shape’ min6th chord. Why? Simply because there already existed plenty of other shapes which belonged exclusively to the ‘G’ shape. Also, G shapes typically require a bit of a stretch with the pinky, so even though it technically fitted into the ‘G’ shape it didn’t really look like a ‘G shape’ and I saw no need to categorise it as such.

Hopefully though, by the time that you are learning extended chords, triads with added notes, or any other more ‘advanced’ chords, you’ll have already mastered the CAGED system such that you can visualise a complete fretboard map. Remember the point of CAGED is to eventually link up all of the shapes and positions into a complete whole. When you are thinking of the fretboard in this way, then it should be no problem to recognise chords that simultaneously exists in two neighboring CAGED shapes.

The End

Anyway thats it, finally. And if you made it this far, wipe your brow and pat yourself on the back.

It was a long haul, and a lot was learned.

Happy playing,


1 reply on “The CAGED System 7: UNCAGED”

Hi Ty,

Thanks for the website. I love the CAGED system and believe that, not only is it one way among many to visualize the fretboard, but is the fundamental deep grammar of the guitar. I believe that those who find limitations of the system don’t fully see its power. I’d like to suggest one tiny thing that would perfect your explanation.

The CAGED ambiguity of certain chord voicing like the ones you mention above, far from representing a “breakdown” of the CAGED system, show the flexibility of the system to interpret the guitar’s unique polyphony. The main strength of this system is that there are only and exactly 5 possible octave shapes in one position — that’s because there are 5 open string notes (6 strings with the E repeated). As you point out, by seeing the octave template, the degree of every other note in the scale or chord becomes visible. Ambiguity comes when the voicing does not include both ends of the octave template. Root on 5th string, could be C or A. And C6/9 is a good example.

This CAGED ambiguity is a “breakdown,” only if we hope the system will clearly categorize every chord as a stand-alone structure, but music is a practical art whose beauty involves exploring, extending and dwelling in such ambiguity. For example, a diminished seventh chord can be labeled 4 ways, and to know which way is correct, you need to see how it resolves. But this is not a breakdown of tonality. It makes it more dynamic

Rather than seeing which name seems less stretchy, when I see a chord with CAGED ambiguity, I remember that CAGED chords fit over CAGED scales. Then I see where the chords is going, how it resolves, what CAGED scales the resolution fits over (itself, possibly ambiguous), and the ambiguity is often less confusing. I try to remember that the purpose and strength of the CAGED system is making scale and chord degrees visible, so that if we see a 9th, we immediately see the possibilities of its resolution down to the root, or up to the 3rd, even if there are multiple ways to finger the resolution. The fact that this system doesn’t tell us what to do with the 9th isn’t a breakdown of anything, but the very beauty and freedom of music.

Thanks for your time,

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