Beginner guitar: learn CAGED chords and unlock the fretboard

Close-up of hand playing chord on electric guitar neck
(Image credit: Future)

It may sound like one of those dubious internet guitar tuition scams promising instant god-like shredding abilities, but the CAGED system is actually essential learning for every player. 

The name refers to five vital open chords: C, A, G, E and D obviously! Let’s face it, most guitarists know these chords – so that’s a great starting point. The question is, ‘what comes next?’

Well, try playing an open C chord, followed by an ‘A shape’ C barre chord, then a ‘G shape’ C barre chord, and, well, you get it, C barre chords using all five shapes. We’ll explain more below – suffice to say the benefit to you as a guitarist is that you can build sophisticated chord runs covering the entire fretboard.

1. CAGED chord shapes

(Image credit: Future)

These are all C chords. The first one is an open C chord; then the others are barre chords based on one of the five easy CAGED shapes that everyone knows. 

Try playing these chords one after another and see if you can spot where they overlap – where the shapes share notes, we mean. Try to see this as a joined-up sequence, rather than as five unrelated shapes.

2. Making it easier

(Image credit: Future)

Yes, we know, some of those barre chords are almost impossible to play. Experienced players leave out one or two strings from tricky shapes – it’s easier to remember the full shapes but to play partial shapes. For example, C/E is based on a ‘G shape’ barre chord; C5 is essentially a ‘D shape’.

Try playing through the run of simplified partial chords in the tab. As you do so, try to spot which CAGED shape each chord is based on.3

3. Soul/funk rhythm line

(Image credit: Future)

Here we’re taking a big leap forward to show you how transformational the CAGED system can be to your rhythm playing. Our riff covers a few of the five shapes and it’s way more creative than chopping away on one shape. 

Of course, it does take time to see how the shapes link together but that’s all good. Your journey starts here!

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Total Guitar editors

Total Guitar is one of Europe's biggest guitar magazines. With lessons to suit players of all levels, TG's world-class tuition is friendly, accessible and jargon-free, whether you want to brush up on your technique or improve your music theory knowledge. We also talk to the biggest names in the world of guitar – from interviews with all-time greats like Brian May and Eddie Van Halen to our behind the scenes Rig Tour features, we get you up close with the guitarists that matter to you.