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Tom Hess hates the CAGED system

I just got a newsletter from Tom Hess with the title:
"How To Solve Your Guitar Playing Problems Easily And With Minimum Frustration"
He then goes on to list a few examples of bad habits (and the guitar playing problems that result from them) that he has helped many of his students solve. One of his bad habits is CAGED:
  1. Using terribly crippling approaches to visualizing the guitar fretboard, such as the CAGED method - the worst possible system for learning scales and chords on guitar. All the problems caused by CAGED are too numerous to list here, but in virtually all cases this system puts severe limitations on your ability to improvise and be creative when soloing. It’s extremely frustrating for students (and for me as their teacher) to have to spend so much time undoing these very preventable foundational problems, but once it is done, my students always THANK me for helping them become vastly better musicians.
How is knowing different voicings "a crippling approach"? And what are the numerous problems that he is talking about?


If someone thinks that CAGED is either: 1. A horrible thing, or 2. The solution to all of their problems, they are attaching too much importance to it. It's a shortcut to finding your way around on the neck of the guitar. That's all.


I think you'd need to ask him.

It reminds me of rants against other "methods" or "systems". The problem with CAGED - as with any method - is going to be down to treating it as a shortcut or magic bullet; not going further than the patterns into the notes and sounds.

The fact is, CAGED is simply a way of describing how the guitar fretboard is organised, in EADGBE tuning, based on the open major chord shapes. If one learns those 5 shapes to begin with (and we all do ;)), and then we venture up the neck, mapping out other chords, we soon start recognising those same 5 shapes everywhere.

IOW, they're there anyway. The fretboard IS a visual grid, there ARE 5 distinctive shapes for major chords. The question is, what do we do with that observation?
What we shouldn't do (of course) is attach any meaning to it. It's an accident of the guitar tuning; it has no musical meaning. But we can certainly build on it, and use it to quickly find chord shapes and scales.

Nobody should be using it as a way of avoiding further knowledge (avoiding learning the notes, etc). I can only think that's what he's talking about.

I taught myself the fretboard (over many years), and obviously saw the "CAGED" shapes, without ever treating it as some magic revelation, or "method". (If only I had, I could have written a book and made some money :rolleyes:)
I knew (eg) that an F chord happened to look like a "C" shape at 5th fret. I still thought of it (musically) as F, not C. But the shape was useful because I knew my C major scale in open position, how it fitted round that shape; so I could transfer that pattern up to 5th fret and get an F major scale.
I knew the notes I was playing - I knew F major had a Bb in it (and not an A#;)) - but the pattern, combined with the chord shape, is an irresistible memory aid.
If I want something more exotic - say a Gb major scale - I can use the same shape on 6th fret and get the scale immediately without having to work the notes out.
The fact is, the shape is more important than the notes, because it shows you the interval relationships. Eg, if I want to add a 4th to my Gb chord, I know immediately where it is (in relation to the "C" shape, or any of the others); I don't need to think "4 notes up from Gb", and then worry about whether it's a Cb or a B ;); I can see where it needs to go, 1 fret above the 3rd.

But of course, I know the contexts in which I would use that information. I wouldn't use that scale every time I saw a Gb major chord. I'd know what the context, the key was - eg if Gb was IV or V rather than I - and I know which notes in the scale to change to take account of that. (I wouldn't add that 4th if the key was Db.)

The great advantage I see in CAGED is that chord-scale link - which scale patterns don't give you. (I'm hoping that Tom Hess doesn't think scale pattern memorisation is a better method -following what I take as his angle, it's even worse than CAGED.)
Every major chord shape has 3 possible modes (and a couple of other scales) that could fit it, so it's not a question of "one chord one scale". It ought to go without saying that of course one should know the context one is soloing in, that individual chords don't exist in isolation (or hardly ever).

But when playing guitar, one is "using" the CAGED method all the time anyway - same as one is "using" scale patterns - because your fingers are making those shapes even if you're not thinking about them. But it's only like using the alphabet when we write. No one says the alphabet is a "method" for learning English! And yet it's highly useful if we want to consult a dictionary ;).

IOW, there's nothing wrong with CAGED (as I intepret it) - only in how it might be applied, or oversold. Anyone who promotes it as a "method" or "system" should be treated very suspiciously.
Eg, I find it hard to imagine how it "puts severe limitations on your ability to improvise and be creative when soloing" - I'd like to see a treatment of CAGED which did that.
Unfortunately, some people just crave rules and formulas to rely on, because they prefer being safe to being creative. It's not CAGED's fault if some people use it that way.


He’s in the business of selling you a better system than the last system, and naturally the previous one has a bunch of things wrong with it.

Kidding aside, as a self taught player I learned my neck generally through playing 3-notes-per-string diatonic scales/modes as was the craze in the 80’s (thank you Mr Gambale), thinking in terms of note names and intervals, and aiming to be able to go to any note from any other note, not thinking in terms of positions. But doing a lot of teaching has recently lead me to look at the CAGED system and appreciate its beauty and simplicity.

If you tune your guitar in 4ths you can see that the five CAGED shapes are all exactly the same, just starting on the next string from the previous shape. In standard tuning they still are the same, but in terms of intervals, not fingerings. There are 5 shapes because there only 5 different strings, maybe they should be renamed the BAGED system, after each string that the major scale or chord shape starts on? Another way of explaining it is just learn the 5 positions for 2-notes-per-string pentatonics, then add in the other notes if you want them, avoiding any consecutive whole-tones on any one string (i.e. no stretches) - this is just one approach for looking at/learning the neck, not advocating avoiding other techniques or systems.


Im still not dure what the caged sytem is. Ive heard some great players that use it. Jon is right that the patterns exist. Doesnt much matter what to call the bunch of them.


Gold Supporting Member
Yeah, really. And why would anyone care if he hates CAGED?
They bought someone else's 'be genius with CAGED' book and got impatient and frustrated after five minutes because the flashlight kept dimming?

Flyin' Brian

who is tom hess?
The first thing I thought too. And since Joe Pass was pretty happy with the CAGED concept as one means to understand the guitar I find myself thinking:

Tom Hess.................................................................................................................Joe Pass



This guy:

Without listening to those, I'm hesitant to trust a bald guy with a beard like that....

But let's be fair... [comments to follow]


... OK, I listened to the 2nd one, not the first. I thought it was all fine - except for his constant use of the word "emotion" to describe the effect of notes (in relation to a root). Replace the word "emotion" with the word "effect", and I have no serious disagreement with any of it. I mean, I know all that, and think in a very similar way. (So how come I'm not giving masterclasses in imposing black suits?)

I don't think I quite follow his Chopin example, however. Would we really all feel the exact same "emotion" from a particular prelude of his? Would we necessarily feel any emotion at all?
I can accept that we might be able to intuit what the composer was getting at - what he was intending to express - and come to much the same conclusion as each other, which is (IMO) a safer argument to make.

But there's a big difference between being deeply moved by a piece of music, and just understanding that one is supposed to feel deeply moved by it because one recognises the triggers being used.
My personal reaction to classical music is the latter, most of the time; as it is, in fact with most music, whether its C&W, jazz or death metal.... When music really does move me, it does so in a sneaky way, getting under my guard, as it were. It doesn't tend to have the usual obvious signals that I recognise as "cheesy", or "sentimental" - and yes that includes the equally obvious signals in HM, or disco, or country... And I don't expect the music that moves me to necessarily move you; just as your personal "emotional roller-coaster" might be a truck with a flat tyre for me.

Anyway... he is right on the money about the need to understand the effect of each note relative to a root (chord root or tonic). I totally agree that the factor "9th" or "4th" matters more than the factor "Bb" or "F#". (Which is why I would have thought he'd support CAGED, as a system providing visual analogues of interval types, and independent of note names.)

We can attach our own characteristics to those intervals, which might have shorthand emotional labels - such as his "desperate" for the minor 3rd: that seems somewhat OTT to me, but all that matters is it works for him; I might choose "intense" or "moody" myself, and I guess you might choose another adjective to stand for the feeling you get from it.
It doesn't mean that if I play a minor 3rd it's because I want to communicate intensity. It's just a label in my own sound picture. You can take whatever "emotion" you want from it, although I'm guessing it would be in the same ball-park - something like "sad". (Hopefully if I played one for Tom Hess, he'd get: "desperate from a female perspective" ;))

IOW, the effects he's talking about are real, but they're not directly linked to objective emotions. Music only communicates emotions accidentally, subjectively: i.e., if we happen to associate those sounds with some prior emotional experience. Otherwise the language of music is much deeper than the kinds of emotion we can attach words to, and talk about. If it wasn't, then we wouldn't need music!
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Senior Member
I get the guys who say learn the freatboard, etc, etc. I know the fretboard pretty well. However, when I am improvising or have to play quickly in a new key, I find it 1000X easier to stick to the 5 caged patterns than trying to remember what notes are sharp, flat or natural in that given key so I can play the right stuff. It's just quicker.


I get the guys who say learn the freatboard, etc, etc. I know the fretboard pretty well. However, when I am improvising or have to play quickly in a new key, I find it 1000X easier to stick to the 5 caged patterns than trying to remember what notes are sharp, flat or natural in that given key so I can play the right stuff. It's just quicker.
I don't understand how it is quicker....fretboard knowledge is fretboard knowledge whether you learned it via CAGED or any other "method". I didn't study the CAGED system but I know where the scales & triads are so what's the diff?

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