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

Using Shell Chords

The CAGED system makes it far easier to understand the fretboard. When playing solo guitar, this means fewer jumps in the harmony, easier chord fingerings and a more cohesive sound. Let’s take a look at a few jazz standards to see how this approach could help us harmonise the melody in each example.

#1 Blue in green

This Bill Evans/Miles Davis number is a classic modal ballad from Miles’s 1959 album Kind Of Blue. The piece is based around D minor; you can read a more in-depth analysis by Paul Aitken here. The melody starts at 0.19 and is very rubato.

Melody

Harmonised

The chords used here are BbΔ(#11), A7(#9), D- and F13.The Bb chord is based around the E-shape using the root, major 7th, major 3rd and raised 4th (#11) degrees; the raised 4th is E which is our melody note. This leads down to C in bar two where we have A7, which functions as V chord in D minor. In bar 3, the D minor chord is a C-shape, and in the last bar, the F13 chord is an E-shape again.

You could take the harmonisation a step further, adding a C#7(#11) chord (C#7 with a G) after the D-, and a C-11 chord (C-7 with an F) before the F13, but for simplicity I’ve left these out.

#2 There will never be another you

This is a ballad written by Harry Warren and Mack Gordon in 1942. The version below is my favourite performance by Chet Baker from the album, Chet Baker sings. His version is actually in Bb but I’ve transcribed it in the original key of Eb. The melody starts at 0.06.


Melody

Harmonised

N.B. the Bb before the first chord is called a ‘pick-up’, or anacrusis. This isn’t counted when we’re discussing bar numbers.

This progression is a simple I in Eb then VI, ii, V (A7 Dø G7) in C minor, which is the key bar 5 starts in. The Eb chord is built from a C-shape, the A and G from E-shapes and the D is from an A-shape.

#3 Here comes that rainy day

Another ballad, this written by Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Burke. It has a sudden key change early on – it starts in G and quickly modulates into Eb – which is why it’s interesting to analyse.

Melody

Harmonised

Familiar shapes here: the G chord in bar 1 is from the E-shape and the Bb7 chord in bar 2 is a simple A-shape chord. Bar 3 has an Eb right up the fretboard that could be viewed as an E-shape and the final chord, Ab, is another A-shape.

#4 Goodbye Porkpie Hat

Finally, this is by Charles Mingus and is taken from his seminal album, Mingus Ah Um. It’s a 12-bar blues in F that’s been heavily re-harmonised.

Melody

Again, this track has a pick-up/anacrusis, so be careful not to count the C when thinking about bar numbers.

Harmonised

The first thing to note is that I have changed the fingering of the melody in the harmonised version just to make things easier. The chords are as follows: F7, Db13, GbΔ, B7(b5), Eb9, Db7, Eb9, F7.

These shapes should be familiar to you now: the F7, GbΔ and Eb9 chords are all based on C-shapes while the two variations of Db and the B7(b5) chords are both E-shapes.

Conclusion

Whether playing solo guitar or accompanying, the CAGED system is a hugely efficient way of harmonising. It’s good for changing shapes to fit fingering patterns, there’s less movement between chords, it can open up new inversions and it’s easier to play certain extensions. If you’re unclear of anything please leave me a comment or get in contact.