Learning the fretboard using fret dots, side dots, and the CAGED system
| July 5, 2024 |

Video: How to Find the Right Frets Faster as a Beginner Guitarist

Using the fretboard position markers, basic note memorization, and the CAGED system together to help you master the fretboard

In this video from the Gibson App, you’ll encounter tips on how to memorize the fretboard more quickly. It’s an essential part of your development as a guitarist and a key skill for beginners to master in order to improve.

First-position notes seem easier to memorize, but as the instructor in the video points out, you’ll quickly need to associate the fret dots or position markers with fret numbers three, five, seven, nine, 12, and so forth. From there, memorizing note names becomes important.

This video is part of the Basic Skills course in the Gibson App

What is the CAGED system for guitar?

The CAGED system for guitar is a powerful method for visualizing and navigating the fretboard. It uses five basic cowboy chord shapes—C, A, G, E, and D—to unlock the entire neck. You can easily find chords and scales in any key by understanding how these shapes connect and overlap. Most people go for standard tuning, but if you decide to tune in all fourths like the virtuosic Tom Quayle, the shapes will be different.

I think it’s super important, right off the bat, to realize that you’re going to be using your index finger as a barre, essentially making it the “nut” of the guitar when the shape is moved out of the first position. Barre chords are often challenging for a beginner, but they are very useful. It’s important to grasp this immediately to help make sense of the system. Said another way: it’s the chord’s shape in the first position you’ll use most often, not necessarily the same fingers you would use in the first position. And you need to know which note is the root to help name the chord properly.

There’s a lot more to learn beyond the fret markers mentioned in the video. A few systems help visualize interval relationships and apply muscle memory across the fretboard. The CAGED system remains one of the best, and I highly recommend spending some time researching it online to uncover different points of view on how to make the most of what it offers you as a budding guitarist. You’ll find some teachers who insist on using it and others who are not fans of it at all. I think it’s worth exploring as many systems as possible, even as a beginner, because the main thing that’s happening is you’re spending time playing. It all adds up in a good way.

The CAGED system is especially useful for soloing and improvisation, providing a clear framework for finding notes and creating musical phrases. Many guitarists find that it simplifies complex concepts, making it easier to play with confidence and creativity across the fretboard.

The beauty of the system lies in its simplicity and versatility. Once you grasp the basic shapes, you can move them up and down the neck to play chords in different keys. This not only helps in chord playing but also in understanding scales and arpeggios rooted in these chord shapes. For instance, if you know the C shape in the open position, you can slide it around to form other chords.

This pattern repeats with all the shapes, making it a universal language for guitarists. The CAGED system also aids in visualizing chord inversions and transitions, enhancing your ability to create smooth and melodic progressions. It’s a foundational tool for both beginners and advanced players, offering a structured approach to mastering the guitar.

What are some of the other advantages of the CAGED system?

As you dive deeper into the CAGED system, you’ll discover its potential for unlocking more advanced techniques. Practicing each shape and its variations helps develop a comprehensive understanding of the fretboard, which is crucial for improvisation and songwriting. Soloing becomes more intuitive as you recognize how scales fit within these shapes, allowing you to connect different scale patterns and create fluid solos.

The CAGED system isn’t limited to major chords; it extends to minor chords, seventh chords, and even more complex jazz chords. This adaptability makes it an invaluable tool for exploring various genres and styles. Consistent practice with the CAGED system improves muscle memory and finger dexterity, allowing smooth transitions between chords and scales. Mastering the system empowers you to play with greater freedom and expressiveness, turning the guitar into an extension of your musical ideas.

In addition to aiding in chord and scale visualization, the CAGED system enhances your ability to play rhythm guitar and lead guitar parts more effectively. By understanding how the CAGED shapes interlock, you can create more interesting and varied rhythm parts, incorporating embellishments and inversions that add depth to your playing. There’s a world of musicality in merely briefly lifting a finger for a fragment of a measure and letting the altered chord shine through on syncopated beats. It’s like a spice.

For lead guitar, the system allows you to confidently navigate the fretboard, knowing exactly where your target notes are within each shape.

Will the CAGED system help my songwriting improve?

The CAGED system can be a powerful tool for songwriting. It may inspire some songs because it’s expanding your chord vocabulary. Using the different shapes and their positions on the neck, you can find new voicings and chord progressions that might not be immediately obvious, leading to more creative and original compositions. Sometimes, I like to just move a shape around blindly, leaving the index/nut concept out of the picture, just to see if I stumble across something cool, especially with unusual open note and fretted note combinations. Lots of drone guitar parts are written in this manner. Bands like the Smashing Pumpkins do it all the time. 

Another benefit of the CAGED system is its applicability to other stringed instruments. Once you understand the concept on the guitar, you can transfer this knowledge to instruments like the mandolin, banjo, or ukulele, making it a versatile tool in your musical toolkit. Epiphone recently introduced a new set of Inspired By Gibson bluegrass instruments that could become companions to your favorite guitar. It’s certain that some concepts will apply across any stringed instrument, even if the shapes change a bit.

While the CAGED system provides a strong foundation, it’s important to integrate it with other learning methods and theories. Combining the CAGED approach with ear training, music theory, and regular practice routines ensures a well-rounded and deep understanding of the guitar, helping you become a more proficient and versatile musician.

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