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9 Reasons to Not Learn Guitar Scales Using the CAGED System

Tommaso ZillioIf you feel frustrated trying to learn and apply the CAGED system for guitar scales, let me tell you immediately: you are not alone. I too tried to learn it, and found myself struggling with it. I have since realized that there are a number of problems with the CAGED system itself that other scale systems do not have. I wrote this article to save you years of frustration and wasted effort. Keep reading.

Since the CAGED system of learning guitar scales is the most widespread method to learn guitar scales, many guitarists think that it is also the ONLY “real” or “correct” method. For this reasons many obvious observation regarding the fretboard are credited to CAGED: for instance, I have read countless articles saying that the patterns of octaves on the guitar is “a consequence of the CAGED system”. Well, there are other methods to learn guitar scales and all of them obviously use the octave pattern.

The fact that some people think that CAGED is “the only way” reaches sometimes ridiculous proportions: I know a couple of local guitar teachers that do not use CAGED but they teach it to their students because, hey, it’s the “right way”. When they play, on the other hand, they both use “a system they invented”, but they readily concede that “of course CAGED is better”. And yet, I can’t help wondering WHY you should need to invent your own system if the “right” one already exist. Also, these teachers are both unable to tell me exactly how CAGED is superior to their own system.

In my experience as a music teacher, I have seen countless students confused and frustrated by this scale system. I also have seen a few who raved about it, only to drop it like a hot potato once I showed them how the system was limiting their playing ability. I am going to elaborate on that in detail in the points below. Keep reading.

There is no integration with arpeggios…

Every time I talk with a CAGED apologist, the very first thing they tell me is that their system integrates scales and arpeggios. This is not true. What it’s true is that the scale patterns are superimposed over a major chord shape, but these shapes are not always usable as arpeggio patterns (see below). The only advantage seems to be that they are similar to the open strings chords most beginners know, but that’s about it.

So, what I mean with “not usable”? I mean that the shapes shown for the chords are difficult to play cleanly and fluidly compared to other shapes such as the standard “sweep arpeggio” shapes. This is partially because some of the shapes are good only for few strings: for instance the “G shape” does not cover strings 2,3, and 4: these notes must be borrowed from the “A shape”, but the resulting pattern is not easy to play as an arpeggio. The “D shape” covers only the first 4 strings, and so on. In all these cases the arpeggio/scale integration seems good visually, but it not as convenient mechanically. Try just to play the scale pattern ascending and then descend using the arpeggio without stopping to see what I mean.

… and only MAJOR arpeggios at that

All the CAGED scale patters are shown, as I said above, together with a major chord shape. You may notice that it is quite less common to show them with a minor chord shape, and there are practically no diagrams out there with a diminished, augmented, or altered chord. Even the seventh chord patterns are rare.

This is no chance: with minor chords the CAGED scale patters look already less attractive, as the shapes for the minor arpeggios present more technical difficulties (compare them with the standard “sweep arpeggio” shapes to see what I mean). It’s even worse for diminished, augmented, or altered chords.

When I ays this in conversation many CAGED supporters raise their shield and “inform” me that you can of course use the CAED patterns on minor chords. Well, I didn’t say you couldn’t, I just said that it is more difficult. I am sure that if you throw enough practice hours at this problem then you can do it — the question is if there is a simpler system or not.

Just one recommendation on this point. I have seen a number of authors recommending to use the “relative major” shapes on minor chords, for instance to solo on the Am chord they use the C major scale shapes. Patches like this have the result of making the system even less intuitive, make it more difficult for you to solo “in” the chord (because a C chord and an Am chord are not the same chord…), and do not ultimately address the problem of all the other chord types anyway.

There is lots to learn by heart

I hear often that in the CAGED system “you need only to learn 5 patterns an then you are done”. Well, I could point out that this is not true at all (see next point) but for now let’s concede it: you just need to learn 5 patterns. Sounds good, no? But what if I told you that in other scale systems, such as in the 3-notes-per-string system (if taught correctly) you need to memorize ONE pattern — not 7 like most people think. I don’t have the space here to go in depth into that, but if you are interested in how is this possible let me know in the comments and I will write an article on the topic.

There’s more. In order to use a scale pattern to its full power, you need to know more than just the pattern: you need also to know what scale degree is represented by each note in the pattern: which one is the root? which is the fifth? and so on. Since the CAGED scale patterns lack intervallic regularity then you need to learn the scale degrees separately for each of the 5 shapes. You will agree with me that this is not as attractive as it seemed at first sight…

It is too scale-centric

Every CAGED method I have seen shows the scale patterns superimposed with the chord patterns, often with the comment that “this is how you integrate them”. Literally all the method I have seen, though, have you play these scales… but virtually none have you play the arpeggios. As a result most players that use the CAGED patterns have a scale-centric view of the fretboard: everything comes from, or is reduced to, a scale, and since this is the center of their approach this is also the thing they play most in real playing situations.

You may have heard or read online the advice that you should “not learn scales as they are bad for you”. I have also heard this phrased as “scales are stupid”. Of course I don’t agree with that: you should learn your scales. But there is a grain of truth in these comments: you should not learn ONLY scales. You should learn ways to break free of the scales whenever you need. But especially you should not rely on systems that make it difficult to play anything but scales.

It makes difficult to use different scales

“So you learn these 5 patterns and you are set for the major scales and its modes”. “Ok, but what if I want to use something different, like the melodic minor scale, or an exotic scale?” “You can see it as a variation of the major scale”. Ok, well, this is technically true. Any scale can be seen as a “variation” on the major scale, simply because if you change enough notes you can obtain any other scale. But is this a goos way to think?

I think the real problem is if we it is convenient for us to think of the new scale in term of the major scale. And the answer is: often this is not the case. Some scales are simply “too far” from the major scale for the original patterns to be of any use. Even changing only one or two notes, in fact, it’s quite difficult to manage. Ultimately you will find yourself learning a new set of patterns for each new scale you want to use. Want to play the neapolitan minor scale? Learn a new set. Want to use the melodic minor for some Jazz? Learn a new set. The CAGED system does not look like an elegant and economic system in this respect.

Isn’t it the system used by Hendrix?

Well, a scale system should not be measured only by its users, rather you should judge based on if it helps you learning the scales and not limiting your choices. But since this is one of the most common claim that CAGED apologists use, let’s put it to rest. The CAGED system was invented in the late 70’s. Hendrix died in 1970. It’s not likely that he figured out the exact system before it was invented since his solos are not played using the CAGED patterns. Simple as that.

Other famous players are said to be using CAGED, the most famous probably being Joe Pass – he said so himself. On the other hand, if you read Pass’ book on scales, you will discover that he uses 6 different patterns, and not 5 like in CAGED. He also uses them mostly to create chord shapes rather than to visualize scales. From these considerations, it seems clear that Joe Pass was using a different system than what is called CAGED today, even if he called it the same way.

But isn’t the CAGED system in the curriculum of famous schools like Berklee? Well, yes, but the real question is if their most accomplished students are using it. Let’s take for instance one of the most famous Berklee alumni: John Petrucci. Every time a non-pentatonic scale appears in one of his solos it’s fingered as a 3-notes-per-strings pattern, not with a CAGED pattern. Interesting.

It is technically inconsistent

Have you noticed that few “high speed” players recommend the CAGED system? This is for a very simple reason: because it is difficult to play these scale patterns at a high speed.

Now, you may or may not be interested in shredding, but it is a fact that a scale pattern that is difficult to play at high speed WILL put a higher technical burden on your playing at any speed — simply because it’s more difficult to play. Everything else being the same, you should always use the simplest way to play something because this way you will have more attention left to the real important expressive elements of music i.e. phrasing (vibrato, slides, etc).

Why are the CAGED patterns difficult to play? Because they have 3 notes on some strings and 2 on other strings. This makes them less “consistent” for your right hand technique. The CAGED patters are derived from the principe of “one finger per fret”, which is an interesting principle but it’s not doing anything to make your playing easier in practice. It is much easier to user more regular patterns such as diatonic scales with 3 notes per strings. This will make easier to pay not only “straight” scales but also melodic patterns (“sequences”).

Another problem of CAGED is that most players who use it tend to stay in “position playing”: they start and end their solo in a single position of the neck.

To see how the CAGED system is technically inferior, I suggest the two following three exercises: 1) try and play the scales as fast as possible. 2) Try to play a scale sequence such as: C, D, E, D, E, F, E, F, G, etc… 3) Restrict your playing to only the first two string, and play the scale patters all across the fretboard. In all three cases you will see that the CAGED system produces some awkward fingering when the scale pattern passes from 3 to 2 notes per string.

It’s taught in a confusing way

For all the faults we have found up to now, the CAGED system DOES have a good point to it. Suppose you already know your pentatonic scales, and you want to be able to add some modal notes to it. For instance, if you are playing the Am pentatonic scale and want to solo in A Phrygian, you just need to add the notes Bb and F to the pentatonic pattern. If you do this for all the 5 pentatonic shapes (for the different modes), then you will ultimately obtain the CAGED patterns.

In other words, the CAGED patterns are a nice way to go between pentatonic scales and diatonic/modal scales… and that’s about it.

The curious thing is that I have never seen the CAGED system taught this way. All the educational resources that I have about CAGED insist a lot about the fact that the scale patterns are superimposed on the major chord shapes, but do not even mention the pentatonic/modal connection. It is quite interesting that the CAGED system is branded as a “general” system that can handle any playing situation well (which is not true) and it is not explained in the area where it would shine.

Everybody has a different idea of what CAGED is!

Every time I talk about, write about, or otherwise explain why the CAGED system does not live up to the hype, one or two people are bound to say: “Wait a moment this is not the CAGED system. The CAGED system is…”.You see, this is another problem with CAGED. It has been “copied” over and over by so many less-than-competent authors that everyone now is teaching a different thing and calls it CAGED.

If you are willing to throw enough energy, time , and resources at it, eventually you WILL find a system you like (for a while at least) that is taught under the name of CAGED. This is simply because every way to see the fretboard has been taught before or later under the CAGED name. I have a DVD where the author explains the octave pattern on the fretboard and calls it “the CAGED system”. I have a book that states that the standard tuning of the guitar (established in the 16th century) is a consequence of the CAGED system (invented in the 70’s). And let’s not talk about that YouTube video that explains the 3-notes-per-strings patterns and calls them “a variation of the CAGED system”!

If you realize the absurdity of this situation, you will also see why so few people dare to criticize the CAGED system: no matter what to say, you are bound to find someone that will comment “but this is not the CAGED system” followed by endless and fruitless discussions on matters of definitions. But let me tell you something. I own (and have studied) enough instructionals and DVD’s on the CAGED system alone to fill a 4-feet shelf in my studio. I believe I have more than half an idea of what I am talking about :-)

Then why does everybody teach it?

There are 3 simple reasons why many “educators” recommend the CAGED system despite it being problematic and harmful. 1) there is a large “industry” behind this. Search online for guitar methods, and you will see that 90% of the results are about the CAGED system. Everybody can sell an eBook about the CAGED system: copy the 5 patterns, put some text around them and BAM! You are in business! 2) Because it is seductively simple for the people who want a “magic bullet” to learn scales. Again, the slogan “learn the 5 shapes and you are done” proves to be attractive. 3) It is damn easy to teach. There is nothing more to explain than the 5 patterns and some reassurance that eventually they will make sense. An yet they never do… Simply avoid the CAGED system and you are going to be fine.

About the Author

Tommaso Zillio is a professional guitarist and guitar teacher. Visit Tommaso’s site to know more about music theory for guitar

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