Know where chords live
Consider the number of frets each chord takes up in total. The C-shape (Pattern 1), G-shape (Pattern 3) and D-shape (Pattern 5) all take up four frets on their own, but the A-shape (Pattern 2) and E-shape (Pattern 4), only occupy three each. All 5 shapes interlock and overlap, meaning that each note in the chord is actually shared with another chord. Knowledge of each chord’s real estate will help to eliminate ‘grey zones’ between chord shapes to fully demystify the fretboard. Learning guitar’s five chord patterns is a good start.
Embrace the root
Always know where your root note is within each CAGED chord pattern. You’ll definitely need to learn the name of every note on the whole fretboard as you do so. But you’ll then be able to quickly lead into a chord with the root and follow up with the remaining fingers. Mastery of this skill will allow you to escape the dreaded E and A-shapes that dominate all barre chord playing and limit you to a partial view of the instrument. You’ll be able to play any chord shape anywhere on the fretboard without thinking, banishing lifeless ‘zombie chords’ and allowing new and fresh voicings to enter your playing.
Scale it up
You’ve seen the CAGED patterns in a million online guitar courses. Great! What to do when you’ve learned them all? Well, now you start to associate scale patterns with each chord shape in order to start structuring your improvisation. The aim of the CAGED system is to familiarize yourself with different voicings for rhythm playing, but its added power is being able to guide solo activity. If you already know where the root note is in each CAGED chord, learn the positions of the all-important ‘chord tones’ (the 1,3,5,7 of every major and minor chord). The aim of improvisation is chiefly to avoid getting lost over chord changes, right? So, once you know the shape of the chords and how they interlock, you’re able to begin improvising over changes, transitioning between chords with linking melodies rather than just changing shapes.
Be a shapeshifter
Here’s a useful guitar exercise: stick on one chord tonality (for example, C) and practice shifting between all its patterns to familiarize yourself with horizontal movement – movement up and down the neck of the guitar, as opposed to the vertical movement of playing up and down the strings. If you start with a C chord in the A shape (root on the 3rd fret of the 5th string / Pattern 2), practice shifting up to the G-shape (Pattern 3) and down to the C-shape (Pattern 1) while playing to avoid being ‘boxed in’ by the patterns you’ve learned. If you’re serious about any kind of career in music, your immediate aim should be to start to breaking down the chord boxes and see the entire fretboard as one whole pattern.
It’s important to remember that the fretboard is simply a map to your musical expression. Certainly aim for the required technical ability to execute your aims spontaneously, but remember to keep it musical! Always listen to what you’re playing, even when practicing scales. It’s better to have a limited technical knowledge and be creative than to fill time with a bunch of notes that sound robotic. Keep the music in the middle of your playing.
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Written by music composer, producer & writer, John Bartmann.