Just curious if there's alternatives to the CAGED system? I've googled but most alternatives aren't nearly as popular, 3NPS is one of them. So is CAGED the main way to go about learning fretboard patterns? Or do you do a combination of them?

caged diagram

Figure 1: C Major Pentatonic scale using CAGED.

caged diagram 2

Figure 2: G Major scale using CAGED.

  • 3
    A google search of "Alternatives to the caged system" brought up some results that may answer your question.
    – b3ko
    Commented Apr 10, 2019 at 19:34
  • I know the fretboard pretty well and I have not idea what the CAGED system is. I never heard of the CAGED system in real life nor read about it in books, I only first heard about it maybe in the last 10 years, so I don't think it's that old. And obviously guitarists knew the fingerboard a hundred years ago. Ah, I just found a site that claims it was invented in the 1970's, so everyone who played guitar before the 1970s obviously used some other system. You know, Jimmy Page, Jimi Hendrix, George Harrison, Dick Dale. Somehow they worked without it. Commented Apr 10, 2019 at 21:06
  • The way that chord shapes connect together will have been known to any player beyond beginner level who thinks in terms of chord shapes. Of course not all of those players might have called it the "CAGED system" but the CAGED pattern exists whether you give it that name or not. Commented Apr 11, 2019 at 4:42
  • @ToddWilcox - 'invented' as much as Australia was 'invented'. Discovered may be a more apposite word. Ever since the guitar was invented (!) players have used various strategies to find their way round, so probably the term was coined (as it makes a convenient word) in the '70s. I remember the term from about then.
    – Tim
    Commented Apr 11, 2019 at 7:40
  • Btw i don't think linking to "CAGED scale forms" is a very good illustration of the CAGED system. I think the picture you had before showed it better. Commented Apr 12, 2019 at 0:33

7 Answers 7


There isn't a "main way" or a "standard way." CAGED is really just one way of looking at the fretboard, and there are advantages and disadvantages for any system. CAGED is great for helping players see one way that chord shapes map to the fretboard, and how scales relate to those chord shapes. But a popular alternative system is 3 Notes Per String, which brings a consistency to scale fingerings. You can still (and should do so) learn where the chord tones are in 3NPS.

It seems to me that CAGED might be less useful for someone who uses a lot of exotic scales, and it is my understanding that a lot of metal-influenced players use 3 Notes Per String; in particular I seem to remember hearing Steve Vai advocating for 3NPS. A lot of jazz players gravitate to CAGED, I suspect because of the emphasis on harmony in a lot of jazz; but I would hesitate to say that most jazz players use CAGED. Some jazz players certainly use 3NPS, but many don't think in terms of explicit systems at all.

If you have a teacher, you should adopt whatever system the teacher wants to work with; the point of having a teacher is that the teacher knows more than the student. If you don't have a teacher, it is better to start with anything than to waste time fussing about what system is best.

Playing music is a long game. You do your best with what you have now, and you refine and change how you think and play forever. If you feel like you need a system, pick one and start, and most importantly, give it a chance. After you spend real time with a system, if you don't like it, try something else; it takes work (as everything does), but it isn't as hard to change your playing habits as people often think.

Or don't pick a system. Think for yourself: what do you want to be able to do? How can you conceive of the fretboard to help that project along?

  • who needs a teacher when you have youtube university
    – user34288
    Commented Apr 12, 2019 at 15:32
  • 3
    @foreyez -- there is a lot of really bad information on YouTube, and on the internet in general; some just poorly thought out or incomplete, some completely wrong. It is hard to know how to interpret all of that without a strong foundation. It can absolutely be done, but takes a lot of work and probably more mis-steps and more time. A good teacher brings a consistent point of view and experience to bear on an individual learning experience; yet not all teachers are good teachers.... I do think that there can be some value in going it on your own, if you have the fortitude.
    – user39614
    Commented Apr 12, 2019 at 15:44
  • well yeah I mean I’ve been watching youtube vids about music for 10 years straight. I try teachers from time to time off craigslist but I dont like getting homework I like choosing my own things to do. sometimes I’ll get a teacher just to jam with or get a few tips from but thats it. cant see them more than once or twice. youtube+music.stackexchange is all I really need.
    – user34288
    Commented Apr 12, 2019 at 15:48

Since the guitar is tuned as standard as it is, the 'CAGED' sytem is one main idea that will work. For me, it refers mostly to chord shapes, there being 5 basic open shapes, that will, by use of barres, produce all the major chords up and down the neck. It works to a degree with minor and seventh (and other) shapes as well.

By putting the other notes that make up scales in between the shapes made by fingering chords, we have an intricately interwoven set of patterns. All of which slide into each other at their edges, so one pattern mixes with the next, either up or down. By knowing one pattern, the two neighbouring ones can be found by adding a few extra notes to one end or the other.

Most guitarists will eventually figure out these patterns, or some of them. Whether they directly relate them to chord shapes or not splits them into caged or non-caged players. But whether they are aware of which category they're in, they most liely use a similar system.

Of course, others, who maybe don't look for patterns, will just learn each note placing as they progress, which obviously works for them. But, since humans like to pigeon-hole things, the CAGED system has become the best known for guitarists. It doesn't work for othet instruments, save bass guitar. And all other fretted instuments.

In my experience, there are no other well-known 'systems' for guitar.

  • It's not just chords though, the book "Fretboard Logic" calls these 5 moveable shapes the "CAGED Scale Forms" (the chords are a subset of these scales) .. google.com/search?q=caged+scale+forms&tbm=isch
    – user34288
    Commented Apr 11, 2019 at 11:06
  • I think of CAGED as a chord shape thing too rather than scales, but online results showed me people have some kind of CAGED scale patterns. Commented Apr 11, 2019 at 13:09

Is the CAGED system the main way for learning the guitar's fretboard?

"Main way..?"

I suppose you could answer "yes" because it seems to be popular. In my lessons I certainly learned C A G E D chords first. But I hasten to say I wasn't told this was "CAGED" and I didn't learn the chords in that sequence - it doesn't make much sense - I probably learned them E A D G C in descending fifths.

I dislike mnemonics like "CAGED" and simple systems to claim to be the key to unlock everything. The first time I heard "CAGED" I thought it was silly. I mean really, if you keep to those common chord, how many songs can you get through without F? Of course F can be played as a CAGED form higher up the neck out of open position, a barre form will be typical. You can look at this as an example of how everything relates back to CAGED... or you can see is a the being of propping up the CAGED system with lots of modifications to make it practical.

Whether it is the "main" way someone first learn the fretboard it certainly isn't the only way, and that is the important thing.

Personally I learned to identify octaves, fifths, fourths, and third, sixths, and sevenths on the fretboard as a basic way to find my way around. Fifths and fourths will give you a grounding in your primary tonal degree locations and roots for progression by descending fifths which is an important harmony fundamental. Thirds, sixths, and sevenths will help you fill in the modal qualities to build and modify chords. Basically a combination of interval identification, diatonic scales, and tonal harmony patterns.

do you do a combination of them [CAGED boxes]?

For the system to be practical "yes."

But you should watch out for when CAGED goes from being an aid to an obstacle.

To learn tonal harmony (diatonic plus standard chromatic harmony like secondary dominants, borrowed chords, etc.) you will have to superimpose those pentatonic boxes in various ways to produce a diatonic set.

Is there a benefit to learning tonal harmony as a bunch of superimposed pentatonic scales? How is it better than just learning the diatonic patterns that underlie tonal harmony?

If learning tonal harmony isn't a goal, CAGED may be sufficient. If you want to go beyond a pentatonic focus, don't get CAGED in. :-)

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Dom
    Commented Apr 11, 2019 at 21:13

I don't think CAGED qualifies as "the" way to learn the fretboard, because it only directly helps with one aspect: helping you spot many other voicings of a given chord (such as F) from a single voicing you've already a) spotted, and b) identified as being based on one of the CAGED shapes (both of which require some preexisting fretboard knowledge).

One way of seeing CAGED is that it helps you get away from the idea that there are lots different chord shapes, and instead helps you see the whole fretboard in terms of one big chord shape. So if you know you're playing a D shape chord somewhere on the fretboard, you can easily find all the notes in that chord in all available octaves all along the length of the fretboard by mentally "extending" the shape of the chord you are playing to the single, all-encompassing CAGED shape:

caged system

This picture is from https://www.premierguitar.com/articles/19390-7-the-guitarists-guide-to-the-caged-system, which is a reasonable introduction - including the key aspect of the system:

... how to connect all five CAGED shapes to map out the entire neck in any key, starting on any one of the five shapes.

  • 2
    @DavidBowling I don't fundamentally disagree, but i would say that the chord tones are the primary point of reference, as they are the ones that constitute the chord shapes that make the system useful as a mnemonic device. Once you have a mental map of which degree of the scale is represented by each string in any given chord shape, finding the rest of the notes is fairly trivial IMO. Commented Apr 12, 2019 at 3:14
  • @topomorto totally agree with your comment to David. but I dont think it just helps with one concept as you answered. I think it’s revolutionary:D
    – user34288
    Commented Apr 12, 2019 at 15:34
  • @foreyez from some of the discussion around this question (and answers on it) it seems that different people have different impressions on what "the CAGED system" means. What other concepts do you think it directly helps with? Commented Apr 12, 2019 at 19:21
  • @topomorto it's just a mental map of the fretboard. like you said, once you know where the C A G E D forms are, you can already infer the scale degrees. once you have the scale degrees it's just a matter of practicing chord progressions on it. so to me it's everything music. nothing I've come across guitar in the last 10 years explains it better than CAGED. not saying its the only way, but it would've saved me alot of pain had I known this earlier.
    – user34288
    Commented Apr 12, 2019 at 19:39

I would say the most universal way to learn the fretboard is to get the scale degrees in your muscle memory. If you got your middle finger at root, you know that you got your index at a third and a fifth at your pinky one string below, etc.

To express something in a musical context, outline a chord or what ever, it helps to know what you got under your fingers, just knowing the shapes without paying attention to the scale degrees is often not enough.


Good answers here, I'll share some of my own learning here. I have been fortunate to take lessons from a professional musician for several years now. I have seen the CAGE system mentioned but never used it. I know the notes on the fretboard having learned it this way:

  1. Memorization of all natural notes starting at the low E string. Once having learned these, you can find any note on the fretboard. I had the hardest time remembering the 10th fret :-) but that is because I'm just sometimes overthinking it! Know that a half step up or down is your flat/sharp notes.

  2. Scales - patterns.... So important to learn and memorize as Peter ^^^ commented. These helped me to move through all of the fretboard.

  3. Using 5* chords - (power chords) reinforced needing to apply where the notes are. My teacher had me use this knowledge by taking guitar tab music and writing the notes out that are the correct equivalent to the power chords - so I am able to play them without relying on the needing the 5* (power chords). Now I edit tab!

  4. I used an app at the beginning called Fret Tester - it was an iOS app - it is available on Android too. It was helpful to start with, but as I was more confident I just moved only to the fretboard.

I am alway looking at YouTube videos, they are many great ones, and lots of not so good ones. Whatever helps you, try it. Fender offers short lessons for a small fee too.

Maybe something here may help you too! Good luck on your fun journey!


As I understand it, Segovia taught the note locations on the fretboard one string at a time. That's how I learned the fretboard, but then later I studied the CAGED system of moving around from one position to another. For me, Segovia's system was simple and straight forward and when I began to study the Caged system, I already knew the placement of the notes on the fretboard so I was able to understand how the CAGED system works. From my perspective, learning the fretboard and learning how to move around on the fretboard are two different but closely related processes.

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