What Are Guitar Positions? Everything You Need To Know

The Jazz Guitar Practice Guide

 

Throughout your guitar journey you may have seen the term ‘guitar positions’ crop up here and there. Confused about it’s meaning? You aren’t alone – it’s one of those guitar terms that causes a lot of misunderstanding for guitar students. And it’s often not explained correctly either.

In this lesson you’ll learn exactly what the term ‘guitar position’ means.

By the end of the article you’ll have a clear system so that you can confidently play major scales over the entire fretboard, laying the foundation for being able to improvise anywhere on the guitar neck.

Let’s get started!

Table of Contents

Click on any link in the table of contents to jump directly to that topic in this article.

Defining the Meaning of ‘Guitar Positions’

The confusion about the term ‘guitar positions’ arises because it can actually refer to two entirely different guitar fretboard concepts.

For the sake of this article I’ve created my own terms for these two meanings, which are:

 

  • Meaning #1: Fret Position – where the left hand is located on the guitar fretboard
  • Meaning #2: Scale Pattern – the notes of a scale on the fretboard if you stay in the same fret position.

 

Meaning #1: Fret Position

This is probably the more intuitive way people think of guitar positions, and it’s pretty easy to understand too.

In this case, you’re referring to where the hand is located on the guitar neck in relation to the frets.

A fret position is designated with a number, e.g. 5th position, 7th position, etc, and the number is based on what fret the first finger would naturally lie on depending on where you are on the neck.

On sheet music, fret positions are often notated with Roman numerals.

To illustrate a fre position, here’s an example of a piece that moves through several different fret positions.

 

Fig.1.1

 

 

Barre chords are another good example of fret positions, for example:

 

guitar positions 2

 

 

guitar positions 3

 

Practicing a scale up one string is a good way to gain proficiency in mastering fret position shifts – see the video below.

 

Watch & Play

 

 

guitar positions 4

 

Ok – that’s cleared up one meaning of ‘guitar positions’.

Now let’s look at the other meaning of the term…

 

Meaning #2: Scale Patterns

The term ‘guitar position’ can also refer to the shapes that a scale makes on different areas of the guitar fretboard.

The best way to illustrate this is with some neck diagrams. Let’s take C Major as an example.

If you start with the root note on the 8th fret of the 6th string, and then play across the strings all the way to the first string, as opposed to playing up one string like in shifting exercise above, you end up with this pattern on the fretboard (root notes in red):

 

guitar positions 5

 

Likewise, if you play C major but play all of the notes of the scale around fret position 5, you’ll get this pattern instead:

 

guitar positions 6

 

So in this instance, the term ‘guitar position’ refers to the patterns the notes of a scale makes on the fretboard if you stay in the same fret position.

You might have seen this 2nd meaning of ‘guitar positions’ defined in various ways, such as ‘scale positions’, ‘scale shapes’, ‘fretboard areas’, and ‘patterns’.

For this article, you’ll refer to this meaning as scale patterns.

Phew! Glad we got that cleared up.

This article is now going to focus on using these two concepts of fret positions and scale patterns to learn the notes of the major scale over the entire fretboard, so that you can improvise with this scale anywhere on the guitar neck.

Let’s take a look.

Major Scale Patterns

There are various different ‘scale pattern systems’ you can learn, however the best one to learn initially is known as the Five Pattern System.

To put it in context, here is a neck diagram of a G Major scale over the first 12 frets on the guitar.

 

guitar positions 7

 

The 5 pattern system splits this up into 5 discrete scale patterns on the guitar:

 

guitar positions 8

 

 

guitar positions 9

 

Yes, I know what you’re thinking – how do you remember which pattern is which?

How do we remember what each shape looks like?

And how do you remember the order of the shapes as you go up the guitar neck?

For the solution to these problems, you need an effective naming convention for these 5 patterns.

 

Common Naming Conventions for the 5 Patterns

 

 

Shape:

guitar positions 10guitar positions 11guitar positions 12guitar positions 13guitar positions 14
Pattern Number12345
Modal NameIonianDorianPhrygianMixolydianAeolian
CAGED LetterEDCAG

 

Unfortunately there’s no standardized naming convention for these patterns – which adds another layer of confusion when trying to understand guitar positions.

Later on in this article I’ll explain in details my preferred method for naming and understanding them, but feel free to use one of the other methods if you find it makes more sense to you.

Here are the options:

 

‘Position Number/Pattern Number’

This is the simplest way to label the five patterns.

Each shape is given an ascending number based on the order of the shapes listed above.

A disadvantage of this method is that the pattern number could easily be confused with fret number (and you have enough number systems on guitar as it is).

It also won’t help very much for you to remember the patterns, as it doesn’t describe what the pattern looks like or how it functions.

 

Modal Names

This system derives it’s labels from the lowest note of each pattern.

Taking Pattern 2 as an example, the lowest note is an ‘A’ on the 5th fret, so the scale starting from the first note will be ABCDEF#GA, which is the A Dorian mode – hence the name ‘Dorian’ for the pattern.

(For those of you familiar with modes, you may notice that Lydian and Locrian modes are missing. The Lydian pattern is on the same fret position as Phrygian, and the Locrian pattern is at the same fret position as Ionian, which is why they’re omitted in this system.)

You may think that this would be a good way to learn the patterns, especially as a jazz guitarist with the emphasis on modes in jazz theory – but I disagree.

Each scale pattern essentially has all the modes in each pattern depending on what note you start on, so it’s misleading to label a shape as just a single mode like ‘Dorian’ or ‘Aeolian’’.

A confession – this is how I actually learnt the scale patterns back in the day during my university studies in jazz guitar, but it did cause a bit of confusion when it came to soloing – the only time it has helped much is when I’m playing modal jazz tunes.

The best way to learn these shapes is by using the CAGED system, a very clever acronym that can unlock the entire fretboard. Let’s take a look.

The CAGED system

The CAGED system is a great way to label and remember the five patterns. The 5 letters – C, A, G, E, D – refer to open major chords that you learnt on the guitar as a beginner:

 

guitar positions 15

 

Because these chords are familiar to nearly every guitarist on the planet, they’re a great tool to help remember the scale patterns and to also remember the order of the scale patterns as you go up the neck.

Let me show you how to use them.

 

How To Play the Major Scale in Any Key Over The Entire Fretboard with CAGED

 

Let’s take a look at Pattern 3 from the grid above:

 

Scale Pattern 3 = CAGED Pattern ‘C Shape’

 

guitar positions 12

 

Out of this pattern, you can plot out a shape that matches the same shape as the open C chord above – as if it is ‘hiding’ in the scale pattern.

Note that I’m also including the open strings from the C chord as part of the shape:

 

guitar positions 16

 

So rather than calling this ‘Pattern 3’, you now refer to this pattern as the ‘C Pattern’.

Let’s now get familiar with this pattern.

First, place the pattern up on the 7th fret.

Then, start from the lowest root note (in red) and play the scale all the way up to the highest note of the pattern, then all the way down to the lowest note in the pattern, then finally finish on the note you started, like this:

 

Watch & Play

 

guitar positions 17

 

If you look at each of the patterns in turn, likewise you can see that there’s the relevant open chord shape that ‘lives’ in each one:

 

guitar positions 18

 

 

How the CAGED Patterns are Ordered on the Guitar Neck

 

The ordering of the CAGED patterns is really nifty.

To illustrate this let’s now play each position in the key of D Major (the notes in grey are where the patterns overlap):

 

D Major:

 

guitar positions 19

 

As we move up the neck from pattern to pattern, the names of the patterns spell – you guessed it – CAGED!

 

guitar positions 20

 

As you play the sequence of patterns up the guitar neck in other keys, a good rule of thumb is to drop the first pattern that is beyond the 14th fret down the octave, in order that the patterns all fit on the most useful area of the guitar neck.

A good example of this is when we play the CAGED patterns in G Major:

 

G Major:

 

guitar positions 21

 

In the CAGED system, the next pattern following the ‘C’ pattern will always be the ‘A’ pattern, following this will be ‘G’ and so on.

Notice the ‘E’ pattern is dropped down to the 2nd fret.

Once you get to the ‘D’ pattern the sequence then goes back to the start – to the ‘C’ pattern.

 

guitar positions 22

 

As you can see, the CAGED system is an excellent method for quickly learning what the shapes look like, and also remembering the order of the patterns as you move up the guitar neck.

Result?

As long as you know the note names of the lowest 3 strings, you can now find any major scale key in any position!

Exercises To Learn And Memorize the 5 CAGED Patterns

The following exercises will help you to easily remember the 5 CAGED patterns:

  • Play each pattern starting from the lowest root note and ascend through the scale. Visualize not only the relevant chord shape in your mind as you play but also all of the root notes – which can be thought of as ‘anchor points’ for the pattern.
  • Play from the highest root note and play descending through the scale – visualizing the relevant open chord shape and roots.
  • Play the scales using melodic sequences to build familiarity with the pattern, e.g. by using the ‘C’ pattern on the 7th fret (giving a G Major scale):

 

Listen & Play

 

guitar positions 23

 

Learn these simple major scale licks in each of the 5 CAGED patterns (you may need to move them up or down an octave depending on what pattern you are playing):

 

Listen & Play

 

guitar positions 24

 

Listen & Play

 

guitar positions 25

 

Listen & Play

 

guitar positions 26

 

Improvise using each of the 5 patterns one at a time in G Major using this backing track.

Start by doing a few rounds on the C shape and then try on each of the rest of the CAGED patterns:
Backing Track

Listen & Play

 

guitar positions 27

 

Don’t worry if your solo doesn’t sound particularly interesting – that’s not the point of this exercise.

This is simply a method to gain familiarity with each of the 5 patterns.

 

‘Threading’ The Patterns Together

 

Imagine as if you’re stitching together a quilt. The 5 patterns are like 5 separate pieces of cloth.

Now that you’ve gained familiarity with the 5 patterns, it’s now time to learn how to ‘thread’ the patterns together so you can switch between them during your solos, enabling you improvise anywhere on the fretboard at your will.

Cool huh?

The process involves using fret position shifts to move to and from each scale pattern as you move up up and down the neck.

Let’s start by using D Major again.

 

Pattern Threading Exercises

 

You’ll start by simply playing the D Major scale across CAGED patterns C, A, and G (see video):

 

Watch & Play

 

guitar positions 28

 

Now use this simple melodic sequence to highlight each CAGED pattern as you move through it (note – some of the fingering is different on the way down to make it more playable) :

 

Watch & Play

 

guitar positions 29

 

Now see if you can do it on your own.

Try to shift from one pattern to the other, starting from a root note in one pattern to end up in the root note of another.

Just experiment – there are millions of possible fingering combinations, so it’s good to be able to shift spontaneously between patterns using different fingerings.

It helps to keep firmly in mind the root notes of each pattern as a reference point to go by as you move up and down the neck.

If it helps, visualize the relevant open chord shape as you play each pattern.

Finally, try to improvise over this backing track in D Major whilst moving from pattern to pattern.

Improvising is not only a great way to create music but also an excellent tool to learn scale patterns.

 

Backing Track

 

guitar positions 30

Using CAGED Patterns with Key Changes

Now you’re ready to practice changing keys.

This is especially relevant for jazz, as the key changes in jazz are thick and fast – in pop or rock there are usually very few key changes to deal with.

For this exercise, start with one of the CAGED patterns in G Major and then move to each new key using the relevant pattern on or near the fret position you are currently at.

As an example, take this key progression that moves from G Major, to Eb Major, then finally to C Major.

 

Backing Track

 

guitar positions 31

 

Here’s an example of one combination of the patterns you could use to navigate these chord changes:

 

Fig.3233.1guitar positions 34
‘C’ Pattern on 7th fret for G Major‘G’ Pattern on 6th fret for Eb Major‘E’ Pattern on 7th fret for C Major

 

 

Once you’ve mastered the above starting with one of the CAGED patterns, repeat the exercise with a different one until you can easily change keys with all of the five CAGED patterns.

Here’s another chord progression you can practice in a similar manner, starting in the key of Bb Major, then moving to Ab Major before finishing in C Major.

Choose a spot on the guitar neck and see if you can figure out which patterns to play over this progression.

 

Backing Track

 

guitar positions 35

 

Conclusion

Well done – you have successfully learned how to play a scale in any key, over the whole fretboard.

Give yourself a pat on the back!

Starting out initially with the 5 CAGED scale patterns as outlined in this article is a very good initial step to mastering the fingerboard.

However

This article only dealt with the major scale.

Each of the other scale types, such as harmonic minor, melodic minor and pentatonic minor, also have 5 patterns you need to learn (that are really just alterations of the CAGED patterns).

It’s been great to have had this opportunity to delve deep into this often misunderstood topic of guitar positions.

Understanding the two different meanings of the term is very important, and by using the 5 pattern CAGED system you now have a secure and elegant method to understand how guitar positions work, so you can navigate the guitar fretboard with confidence.

About the Author

Greg O’Rourke is an Australian jazz guitarist and holds a Bachelor of Music (Hons) with the Australian National University. He’s also the owner of www.fretdojo.com, which offers detailed lessons and eBooks on how to master jazz guitar, in particular chord melody and solo jazz guitar.

As an exclusive bonus to Jazz Guitar Online readers, he’s offering the eBook, ‘Essential Scale Patterns for Guitar’, that includes Major, Harmonic Minor, Melodic Minor, and Pentatonic Minor/Major patterns, as well as suggested fingerings for all the patterns for free.

 

The Jazz Guitar Practice Guide

 




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  1. ChrisNov 17, 2015 at 1:03 am

    This is brilliant. Thank you for putting this lesson together in such an easy to understand manner. Amazingly, after having played the guitar for 40+ years (about five of those spent on lessons) I’d never really dealt with the CAGED system (and in fact, had heard others very explicitly put it down as unnecessary). Well, who knew…it’s helped me make sense of a few mysteries about how to know where various patterns on the guitar are. In the words of banjo player Bela Flec, “I should be a lot better for how long I’ve been playing.” He was just being modest. For me, it’s SO true and learning the CAGED system is going to get me a little closer to being as good as I think I ought to be, given how long I’ve been at it! 🙂

    • Greg O'RourkeNov 17, 2015 at 1:11 am

      Glad you enjoyed the post Chris! Yes I have heard the CAGED system being shunned quite a bit but I’ve always found it a really useful system myself to navigate the fretboard. Regardless of the method used, it is really important for any guitarist to have an intimate understanding of how the fretboard is laid out. I find that guitarists that don’t have this can have a lot of limitations in their playing.

  2. JohannesNov 17, 2015 at 11:59 am

    Hi Greg,

    great article! it will help me a LOT in my practice. And as Chris said, i have been at it for many years (on and off) but never learned that system. now seeing it this way – hard to understand why i havent been taught before.
    One question. Can i apply the same for minor scales? but using C-min A-min G-min, E-min and G-min shapes? or would you just use the aeolian mode and start from there?

    And another question: any relationship to Jim O’Rourke?

    cheers
    Johannes

    • Greg O'RourkeNov 18, 2015 at 1:06 am

      Glad you got some good takeaways out of the article Johannes! Re: your question about minor chord shapes for learning the minor scale patterns, yes you could potentially visualise the open minor chord shapes to help you navigate in this context, however it is not usually taught this way as the open minor chords are not as well known to beginner guitarists (especially C minor and G minor). Rather than using minor chord shapes to help navigate minor scales, I think a faster way to learn them is to relate them to the equivalent major scale pattern. Just see the minor scales as alterations of the major scale pattern. E.g. for a harmonic minor scale, all you would do is lower the 3rd and 6th notes of the equivalent major scale. I think this is more useful as it will help your ears and fingers notice the differences between major and minor patterns. Below the article in the ‘about the author’ section there is a link to a pdf I have prepared that has diagrams of the minor scale shapes.

      Re: Jim O’Rourke, hehe no known relation, but good to know there is another guitarist from the clan 🙂

      Cheers, Greg

  3. AlilouNov 17, 2015 at 1:42 pm

    Thank you.
    Ali

  4. Bill vNov 17, 2015 at 2:39 pm

    This is by far one of the best articles I have ever seen on this system. The explanations are easy to follow and make total sense. I’m sure a lot of people out there will be happy that finally someone took the time and had the talent to explain it so it could be easily understood. Cudo’s Dirk! Job well done.

    • Dirk LaukensNov 17, 2015 at 6:08 pm

      Thanks for the feedback Bill, Greg wrote this lesson though…

  5. Donald wilsonNov 17, 2015 at 2:45 pm

    Great lesson, I have been forming these relationships on my own stitched together from independent sources and have wondered why it isn’t taught as relative and overlapping. You have answered my question and saved me some legwork…

    Thanks, dkw

  6. CorradoNov 17, 2015 at 6:35 pm

    If this is part of your JazzGuitar Practice Guide, I’m sold. Thanks.

  7. CorradoNov 17, 2015 at 7:49 pm

    Should be “I’m sold.”

  8. BenNov 17, 2015 at 11:01 pm

    Fantastic lesson! This is probably the best lesson on scales that I have ever seen. Well done!

  9. WilliamNov 18, 2015 at 7:19 pm

    There are actually only patterns for major: 2nd finger and fourth finger. Second finger pattern always leads to fourth finger pattern ad fourth finger always leads to second finger pattern. This is true across the entire fret board. Thus learning only two patterns you can not only play scales anywhere on the neck, and run horizontal and vertical movement together, but you can the also play melody lines off any major chord.

    The same holds for minor chords, there are only two patterns, and the patterns always run one to the next. Ditto for Dom7 m7b5 and so on.

    CAGED system is certainly easier than some. And your presentation of it excellent.

    • AndrewNov 19, 2015 at 8:52 pm

      Interesting idea can you elaborate, or provide some links. I’m having trouble visualizing that.

      • WilliamNov 20, 2015 at 4:16 am

        Okay:

        look at the first diagram. You start the major scale on your second finger and end it two strings over and two frets up on the fourth finer with another root. That is pattern 1. Now start there with the fourth finger and go three strings over and two strings back on the second finger. That is pattern two. Anywhere you start a major scale if you start on the second finger you will always end the run on the fourth finger. And so for fourth to second. That position fingering is consistent across the fretboard. Two patterns for major scales anywhere on the fretboard.

  10. DavidNov 19, 2015 at 3:41 am

    Very thorough, well done article. Just curious: I’ve heard people mention the Berklee scale shapes. Are these the same, or is that a different system?

  11. Dave SibleyNov 19, 2015 at 5:48 am

    I think this is the absolute best article to understand the fundamentals. I would also add Pat Martino’s compass vertical and horizontal view of the fretboard is an amazing insight. Thank to guys for putting this together

  12. Dave SibleyNov 19, 2015 at 5:54 am

    May I suggest another Lesson could alternatives names of Chords example DFAC D minor7 0r F6 without considering drop root variations G11 with no root. I think would be very helpful. Thank you

  13. Don ThompsonNov 22, 2015 at 10:12 pm

    Like others have said above, this is the best treatment of this subject I have seen anywhere – I already have a number of different perspectives chord and scale positions, but this one explaination stitches them all together. Thanks so much for the time and effort that went into this.

    • Greg O'RourkeNov 22, 2015 at 11:10 pm

      Thanks very much for your feedback Don, I’m glad you found this article useful! Cheers, Greg

  14. MichaelDec 30, 2015 at 7:14 am

    Thank you for all the great information! I’m somewhat of a newbie and finding this very helpful. However, I’m confused about something in the lesson above. You wrote: “Learn these simple major scale licks in each of the 5 CAGED patterns (you may need to move them up or down an octave depending on what pattern you are playing.” And then the first lick example is in the key of D, and has the chords Em7, A7, Dmaj7. I can play the lick as written using the tab, in that neck position as notated, but how and where does this fit in the 5 CAGED patterns? How does one play this same lick in “other octaves” and “in each of the CAGED patterns?” I’m confused.
    Cheers!

    • Greg O'RourkeJan 4, 2016 at 12:25 pm

      Hi Michael,

      Glad you are finding the article helpful. Re: the major scale licks, I think you’ve raised a good point here in that in this section of the post I didn’t specify what CAGED pattern the licks were written out in in respect to the TAB. So…

      With the first lick, we are in the key of D Major, and as you can see the fretboard area is from frets 2-5. If we play all the notes in D major in this fret position we’ll get the CAGED ‘C’ shape. Btw – if you go up through the post before this you’ll find a guitar neck diagram of all the CAGED patterns marked out by brackets in the key of D Major (the D root notes in this diagram are marked in red).

      So the next step is to try to play this lick in the next CAGED Pattern up the neck, which would be the CAGED ‘A’ pattern which, in D Major, spans frets 4-8. Find the first note, which would be an E on the 7th fret of the 5th string, and then see if you can play the lick in this ‘A’ scale pattern instead. The TAB will now be different to that which is written but it should sound the same as before. In that way, go up the neck and try to play the lick in each of the CAGED Scale Patterns.

      In terms of ‘other octaves’, this refers to keeping the lick in the same key, but moving it to a higher or lower register. In the case of lick 1, you can do this by using the CAGED ‘E’ pattern in the key of D major (again, refer to the diagram I mentioned above) and instead of starting it on the E note on 12th fret 6th string (which would keep it in the same register as it’s written), try starting it on the E note on the 9th fret 3rd string. The whole lick will now be in a higher register but will sound in the same key as before.

      Depending on what CAGED pattern you are on, you may not be able to easily play the lick in the same register as written so it will be necessary to change to another register (i.e. octave).

      Thanks for the great question Michael, hope this reply helps, and keep up the scale practice! Cheers, Greg

  15. MichaelJan 4, 2016 at 3:31 pm

    Aha! Now I get it. Thanks for clearing that up, Greg! I’m looking forward to working on this now.
    Cheers!

  16. AlexJan 29, 2016 at 12:21 am

    Awesome!Thanks!

  17. Your momAug 12, 2016 at 7:38 pm

    There is a better way.
    Learn the seven natural keys in open position in this order – C G D A E B. Then string them up the neck in this order – C B A G F E D. This is by far the easiest way to see the whole fretboard and the more theory you know the more you’ll see how much freedom this gives you.

    Each shape can be played two ways. three notes on the b string or three notes on the g string.

  18. JackAug 22, 2016 at 10:24 pm

    Very nice explanation. The only thing I’m missing to make this article “complete” are the positions for minor as well.

    • Greg O'RourkeAug 23, 2016 at 12:44 pm

      Hi Jack, thanks for your kind feedback. Towards the end of this article is a link to my ‘Essential Scale Patterns’ eBook which has diagrams of the minor positions included. Cheers!

  19. JenNov 30, 2016 at 8:54 am

    This is the clearest and best explanation I have come across so far on the net regarding the scale positions. Thank you for your outstanding lesson!

    • Greg O'RourkeDec 1, 2016 at 12:22 pm

      My pleasure Jen – thanks for your kind feedback 🙂

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