The study of prewar blues includes a heavy amount of time playing in first position—between the nut and the first four frets of your guitar. However, as you learn more and more songs, you might be asking yourself, “What comes next?”
Those of you familiar with the first position chords C, A, G, E, and D may not know it, but you already have at your disposal a powerful tool for navigating the entire fretboard—the CAGED system, which takes its name from those five open chords. These simple shapes can be repeated up and down the neck to make a great variety of chord voicings in any key. Once you’ve gotten a few of the shapes under your fingers, you’ll have the tools for producing harmonic variations that sound fun and inspired.
In my Basics lesson in the December 2012 issue of Acoustic Guitar, I showed how to create variations on the Mississippi John Hurt tune “Stagolee” using CAGED chord grips. This time I’ll use a 12-bar blues in the key of E major as my template and will provide you with ways to navigate the chord changes over the entire neck while maintaining an alternating-bass pattern. You’ll learn a bunch of different grips for the I (E7), IV (A7), and V (B7) chords and then combine these shapes in a complete 12-bar blues etude.
As the dominant seventh chord—a major triad (1 3 5) with a flatted seventh—is one of the defining sounds of the blues, you’ll use only seventh chords in this lesson. Begin your workout with a series of exercises based on the E7 chord. In Example 1, E7 is played with different grips based on CAGED variations. If you can’t recognize the seventh-chord shapes outlined here, try to move them to the first position, without any barring, and see if they become familiar. (Note: the G7 shape is an abbreviation of the full six-string G shape; the barred strings would be open in a G7 chord.)
Let’s work with these chord shapes in the context of a two-measure fingerpicking pattern. Example 2 uses the D7-shaped E7 chord in a model that will serve the entire lesson. Pick the bass notes with your thumb, alternating between strings 6 and 4, and your other fingers on the higher strings. Pinches (bass notes played simultaneously with treble notes) will fall on beat 2 of the first measure and beat 1 of the second bar. In Example 3, try a common variation on the C7-type grip. If you know Doc Watson’s “Deep River Blues,” you’ll probably find this chord shape familiar. Play all of these examples with a metronome set at a slow speed (around 80 bpm to start with) to make sure you are keeping steady rhythm.
Example 4 applies the same fingerpicking pattern to a G7-shaped E7 chord. With this shape you can also try grabbing the 12th-fret E on string 1 with your fourth finger, creating an E major chord. To extend your workout, try using the fingerpicking pattern with
Ex. 1’s A7 shape.
Beginners’ Tip #1
Many blues and roots guitarists used only their thumb and index fingers for fingerpicking, but I recommend a thumb and three fingers—thumb on the bottom three strings, and index, middle, and ring fingers on strings 3, 2, and 1, respectively—giving you the flexibility to play in many different styles.
This week you’ll focus on the IV chord, A7. First play the five CAGED shapes shown in Example 5, all of which leave the fifth string open in order to facilitate a smooth alternating bass pattern. Once the chords are under your fingers, try Example 6, which is based on the E7 shape. Make sure to apply enough pressure to your grip that the barred strings sound distinct.
Roots and blues guitarists often play ornamental notes with fingers that are not tied up by chord grips. In Example 7, which is based on the E7 shape, you’ll stray a bit from the established fingerpicking pattern to play pinches on the first three beats of the first measure. Keep your first and second fretting fingers anchored throughout, and use your third and fourth fingers to play the notes at frets 7 and 8, respectively.
Example 8 shows that you don’t necessarily have to rely on open strings for your chord grips. In this variation on the E7 shape, wrap your thumb around the neck to stop string 6 at fret 5. This makes the chord shape moveable while keeping a couple of fingers free for adding ornaments. Also note the incorporation of double-stops on the higher strings, which makes for a bigger sound.
So far you’ve explored CAGED shapes one at a time, but in Example 9, you’ll move between two A7 grips, one based on the E7 shape and the other on the D7 shape. Start out with the same grip you used in Exs. 7 and 8. At the end of bar 1, stop the seventh-fret B with your fourth finger and slide up to the ninth fret; this will allow your other fingers to fall in place for the D7-shaped A7 chord in bar 2.
Beginners’ Tip #2
Try this simple process to get a new chord into your muscle memory: 1) fret the chord and strum it, making sure that all of its notes sound clear; 2) remove your fingers from the strings but keep the shape of the chord intact; 3) place your fingers back down and play the chord again; and 4) repeat several times, increasing the distance between your fingers and the fretboard.
This week you’ll tackle the V chord, B7. Since there are no available open bass strings, more work will be required of your fretting hand. Start by forming the five CAGED shapes for B7, as shown in Example 10, then apply the C7 shape—which you might recognize as a common first-position B7 chord—to the fingerpicking pattern (Example 11). Use your fourth finger for the pull-offs on strings 1 and 2. To get a clear pull-off with this weakest finger, focus on pulling slightly down, towards the ground.
Next try Example 12, based on the G7 shape, fingered with the first, second, and third fingers, keeping the fourth finger free to stop the notes at the seventh fret. With the first finger barring the top four strings, it can be difficult to reach the sixth-fret D# with your third finger. I recommend making sure that your fretting hand’s thumb is low on the back of the neck, which should make forming this particular grip a little easier.
Beginners’ Tip #3
Experiment with adding hammer-ons and pull-offs to chord shapes. See which notes you can comfortably
reach (and which sound good) within a particular grip while maintaining an alternating or monotonic bass pattern.
Close out your workout with CAGED chords in a full 12-bar blues (Example 13). The trick here is to focus on transitioning between the chords. Move from a D7 shape in the first measure to a C7 shape in the second measure, using your fourth finger to slide between the two grips. That’s easy enough, but the move in the third measure up the neck to a G7-shape E7 is a little trickier. On beat 1, use the open sixth string to buy you some time to maneuver into the new position. Then, in bars 3–4, play the descending melody on strings 1 and 2 with your fourth, second, and first fingers on frets 12, 10, and 9, respectively.
Measures 5 and 6 contain D7- and E7-shape A7 chords, with another descending phrase traveling through a sixth-fret Bb on string 1, which resolves to the root, A at the fifth fret. In measures 7–8, you’re back at a C7-shape E7 chord—I try to avoid large jumps around the neck when moving from chord to chord. This sequence requires a bit of a stretch from your first finger in order to grab the fourth-fret G#, but the subsequent open chord should give you some relief.
In bars 9 and 10, you’ll cruise through G7- and C7-shaped B7 chords before finishing off with a series of E7 chords (and one E chord) in the last two measures. You might want to isolate bars 11–12 as an independent exercise—moving as quickly as you can between each chord shape.
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I invite you to take any of your favorite fingerpicked songs, blues or otherwise, and come up with verse variations based on the CAGED system. At first, you might want to stick with keys that use open strings—like A, D, and E—but once you gain some experience, the entire fretboard should open up for you.
Beginners’ Tip #4
Listen to some of your favorite guitarists and try to identify when they are playing chord shapes up the neck. Hint: listen for the highest note, probably played on the first string. Then, see if you can find a CAGED shape that would fit that phrase or sequence.
This article originally appeared in the September/October 2019 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.