Escaping the CAGED guitar Part 3:

Author: Ed Cupler

"Logic” Behind Fretboard Division"

Have you been learning new scale positions on a fretboard? Do you need to know more, or should you know as many as you do? What does it mean, and why is it important to ask this question?

Some people learn to play scales on the guitar fretboard by breaking it into different segments ("positions"), and learn each one separately. This method is known as "position playing" and is very popular. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t without its problems: most notably how exactly do we break apart the fretboard? While it seems inconsequential, it does have some real-world effects on your playing.

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The vast majority of scale systems for guitar use "position playing" in some way or another. Among them is the system we’re talking about today: the infamous CAGED system.

In both online and offline discussions I have herd many players who use the CAGED system affirm that CAGED is the "correct" system because the fretboard divides "naturally" into five shapes (I’ll go into detail on this momentarily), that happen to be the five CAGED shapes. And this is typically followed by "the five shapes are a consequence of the structure inherent in the standard tuning of the guitar" or something along these lines.

But this idea of "natural division" is chock full of discrepancies, of which, in the interest of time, I will highlight just a couple:

  1. Not all CAGED systems divide equally. T he Berklee CAGED system touted in their numerous books has seven shapes And yet, the CAGED system described in Joe Pass’s book shows six shapes. How can more than one method of dividing the fretboard be THE natural one?

  2. The fretboard only divides into five shapes naturally when using five-note scales (like pentatonic scales), but try plugging in a seven-note scale like a natural minor, and you’ll find nothing but problems. Sure, you can divide it into five sections with seven-note scales if you twist these patterns enough, but it’s far from being a natural division.

Take a look at the video below to see why this failure to naturally divide matters:

Now that you’ve watched the video, you will agree with me that using the CAGED five-section division looks illogical and counterproductive when considering different structures like triads, diatonic, and pentatonic scales.

For more information on this topic, see two of my other videos in this series below: CAGED Sucks Part 1: Right Hand Consistency and CAGED Sucks, Part 2: Scales-Arpeggio Integration.

About the Author

Tommaso Zillio is a professional teacher, guitarist, and composer, and is your go-to guy for any and all music theory-related questions.

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