Ask any guitarist to explain the instrument and you’ll find out right away that there’s as many ways to approach the instrument as there are ways to butcher it. So let’s take the hike from the butcher block to the practice room and find out why the 5-position system is the simplest way to learn the fretboard.

Have you ever looked on with a mixture of awe and anguish as a skilled guitarist sails up and down the neck with no inhibitions whatsoever? How is it that they find their way through this maze of wood and metal and magically land in the right spots? You already know the answer. It’s Scale Patterns! You know, those things that you thought were too boring and pointless to practice…

Every player needs to have an arsenal of note combinations at their disposal. We categorize these in terms of chord and scale spellings and spend eons learning which scale goes with which chord. For guitar players, the visual nature of the instrument and the fact that we can learn from diagrams of the neck is both a blessing and a curse. Yes, it’s easier to memorize a pattern than a series of notes or key signatures, but you’re really shortchanging yourself if you don’t learn how to spell chords and scales on the staff. So try to think of the patterns presented here as only one side of the equation. The other side is all of the theory that allows you to truly understand what you’re doing and why.

I’ve suffered through a lot of practicing that turned out to be a waste of time. Why? Because I’ve learned the guitar in both the 7-position modal system and the 5-position CAGED system (based around the C, A, G, E, and D chord shapes) and I’ve come out enormously in favor of the CAGED system. The reason is simple: less stuff to learn, easier fingerings. And you already know half of it if you’ve spent any time with barre chords. Everything you need for all chords and scales can be derived from the five positions and it is a truly elegant and flexible way to get around the neck. We can play all the triads and 7th chords in these positions and you will immediately notice that the fingerings for all the scales line up with licks that you already know.

Everything in the CAGED system starts with the 5 barre chords. A quick glance will show you that the five chord forms originate from the open C, A, G, E, and D chords. However, all of the open strings have become fingered notes, so as to accommodate transposing them up the neck:

Each of these moveable forms can be used to sound any of the 12 major triads by moving them up or down, as long as you know where the root of each form is and have a basic understanding of the chromatic scale and it’s application to the fifth and sixth strings (and for the D form, the 4th string) of the guitar. For example, the E form triad is probably the most common chord form for guitar. Played in 3rd position, this form gives us a G major triad.

Move it to 8th position and it becomes C.

Every one of these 5 chord forms can be moved in the same way. Take some time to play them all over the neck.

The next step is to play I-IV-V progressions in position. First, pick a key. Determine the  IV and V chords for that key. For an example we’ll choose A major. The IV is D and the V is E. Then we need to decide which chord form to start with. I’ll pick the E form again and that means that I’ll be starting from the 5th fret. Now I have to hunt for the best spot for my other two chords. I don’t want to go outside a four-fret area because that would defeat the purpose of playing in position. So I’ll choose to play the roots of the D and E chords (IV and V of A) on the 5th string at the 5th and 7th frets.

In order to make the corresponding chords fit in position with the A chord, I’ll have to play the D chord with an A form, and the E chord with a C form. Then the whole progression winds up in a nice little package in 4th position.

If we change the form that we start with on the A chord, then the other two chords will also have to change forms accordingly so as to keep everything in position. Here’s the other 4 possibilities for the key of A.

Now the unfortunate part is that in the real world, people don’t actually play this way because it’s easier to just play E and A forms for everything and sometimes it even sounds better. But that’s not the point! The point is to learn the instrument, so in the next lesson we’ll move on to understanding scales within the same system. In the meantime, there are 60 combinations to play with if you do the I-IV-V progression in all twelve keys and start from each of the 5 forms. Ha! Guess I’ll see you back here in, oh, about 6 hours, right?