The CAGED system is a method for quickly and logically learning all the potential chord inversions for the guitar’s fretboard. Ordinarily the basic shapes are taught to you and for playing in bands or basic accompaniment, this is fine. However when you want to push your playing and delve deeper into harmony, the CAGED system is a perfect way to do so.

Any chord can be played in any of the 5 shapes that we learn in open position: C, A, G, E and D. This is particular helpful if you’re playing solo guitar, outlining a melody or using extensions to colour the harmony. If you have dabbled in blues or jazz you may have come across a ‘9th’ chord (i.e in D, x 5 4 5 5 x) which is, in fact, built on a ‘C-shape’ shifted up to the D note on the 5th fret.

The Shape of Jazz To Come

Looking at C, here are its 5 inversions according to the CAGED framework.

C shape A shape G shape E shape D shape
Cshape Ashape Gshape Eshape Dshape

Minor chords are similar to major chords in that they share 2 of the 3 notes used to generate them, the root and 5th (if you are unfamiliar with building chords, I’ve covered it here). The note that differentiates them is the ‘3rd’: in the case of C major this is E, and C minor it is Eb.

Before we move on, here’s a table of the chord symbols I am going to be using:

Chord name Symbol Alternate names Common usage
Major 7 Δ maj7, M7 I, IV
Minor 7 m7, minor 7 ii, iii, vi
Dominant 7 dom, x V, VI, III
Augmented + aug V
Diminished ° dim V, vii
Half Diminished ø m7b5, half dim vii

Shell Chords

These are a more musically ‘efficient’ way of playing chords. They tend to omit the 5th and sometimes even the root. The 3rd and 7th contribute most to the understanding of the chord’s function and, in a jazz ensemble situation, the root and 5th would be covered by a walking bass line.

Here are some examples of shell chords in C, starting with major, then dominant, minor and some 6add9 variations. All of these use the C-shape:

CΔ9 C7 C9
C-7 C-9 C6-9 C-6-9

Some more advanced voicings are diminished, half-diminished (also known as minor 7 flat 5) and altered:

C° Cø C7♯9 C7♭9

Here are some more examples of voicings still in C but this time built around the E- shape:

CΔ7 (1) C7 (1) C-7 (1)
C13 (1) C+7 (1) C-6(Δ7)

Finally, let’s look at some of the A-shape shell voicings:

CΔ7 (2) C7 (2) C-7 (2)
C-Δ7 C7sus4 C-13

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