Music Composition for Beginners 5: Breaking out of CAGED (Part 2)

How to deploy CAGED and our PIRII technique to add variation to the I-IV-V and I-vi chord progressions.

CAGED system guitar chords

In Part 1 of this lesson, we introduced the PIRII framework as a method to make the most out of the CAGED system.

Here, we’ll demonstrate how to use PIRII in two popular chord progressions: the I-IV-V and the I-vi.

Using alternate CAGED chord shapes adds range and variation to your technique. It lets you move away from playing the same repetitive open chords, which keeps your music fresh. The system works just as well to unlock arpeggios, harmonies and fill lines while your bassist or a second guitarist holds down the rhythm. PIRII makes all of this that much easier.

Before we get started on the progressions, here’s the PIRII chart for reference:

CAGED PIRII system chart diagramPIRII in the I-IV-V

The I-IV-V is one of the most iconic chord progressions in all of music history. Here’s how it looks like in its most basic form, in the key of G:

Those are the G, C and D major chords, played with open shapes in the lowest range possible on a guitar in standard tuning. There’s nothing wrong with playing the I-IV-V this way, but it can get a little humdrum over the course of a song’s few minutes.

In the same register

Enter CAGED. With PIRII, you can change up the chord shapes easily to yield different voicings. Here’s one way to do it:

The objective here is to play chords of a similar range. We begin with a G major in the E major shape, followed by a C major in the A major shape and a D major in the C shape.

The first two are straightforward, so let’s focus on the C-shaped D major. Finding the fingering is a matter of looking at the “C” column in the chart above. Under that column, you’ll see that you need to use your pinky to hit the root note, in this case a D, on the fifth string, then shift your fingers into the Open C shape. (And remember to use your free index finger as a ‘capo.’)

So your chords are:

I-IV-V G C D major CAGED chord progression

In a different register

You can also use PIRII to ‘reverse engineer’ your chord shapes. Let’s say you want to take this progression an octave higher, and you’d like the root note of the first G major to be on the tenth fret of the fifth string.

Glancing at the chart, you’ll find that you can only play this with the Open C and A shapes. If you go with the former, you need to use your pinky to hold down the root note, while positioning your other fingers in the familiar Open C shape.

To keep the other chords within the same range, their root notes should be located in the vicinity of that first G. If you recall your scales, one option is to use the C on the eighth fret of the sixth string and the D on the tenth fret of that string. So, referencing PIRII, either the Open G or E shape is what you’re looking for.

We went with the E shape for the C major chord and the D shape for the G major chord, and moved our fingers to their appropriate frets and strings as denoted in the chart. Here’s an example of how it all looks played together:


That leaves you with these chords:

I-IV-V G C D major CAGED chord progression

Swapping the E and D shapes works just as well, of course.

Sliding chords

Another benefit of CAGED is forming different chords with the same shape, which allows you to slide from one chord to another, creating a smoother transition. Here’s an example with the G shape:

The clip begins with a typical Open G major before using the PIRII/CAGED fingering, which frees up your index finger. You need to use that finger as a ‘capo.’ To find the G-shaped C and D major chords, the PIRII chart tells you to hit their root notes on the sixth string (that’s on the eighth and tenth fret, respectively) with your ring finger.

I-IV-V G C D major

Essentially, you’re sliding the Open G shape from the third to the eighth to the tenth fret.

PIRII in the I-vi

The system applies to minor chords, too. The only difference is, instead of five chord shapes, you only have the A, E and D shapes to work with.

We’ll demonstrate this using the I-vi progression in the key of C: C major and A minor. Here’s how the regular ‘open chord’ version looks like:

In the same register

If you want to modify the voices of the open chords without pitching up, barre chords are the easiest way to go. In this case, we’re using an A-shaped C major and an E minor-shaped A minor, both of which are recognizable barre chords:

And here are the chord diagrams:

I-vi C major A minor

In a different register

Now, we’re moving the progression up an octave.

Similar to the I-IV-V example, we first identify the location of the root note. In this case, we want the root note of the C major to fall on the eighth fret of the sixth string. That leaves us with two shape choices, according to PIRII: either the G or the E shape. The E shape, in a barre chord, is easier to form.

For the A minor, the closest A note is on the seventh fret of the fourth string. Using the PIRII chart—and remembering to discount C and G shapes—leaves us with the D minor shape.

So the I-vi progression could look like this:


And the diagrams are as follows:

I-iv C major A minor CAGED chord progression

Sliding chords

As there’s a minor chord in this progression, you won’t be able to slide as cleanly as you did with the I-IV-V. And that’s because minor chords use flatted thirds instead of major thirds. But an approximation, with only a slight shift in fingering, is certainly possible.

Deploying the A major and E minor shapes is simple enough—we’ll leave you to figure those out. However, the D shape presents more of a challenge.

The PIRII chart indicates that your index finger needs to land the C and A root notes on the fourth string, which are on the tenth and seventh frets, respectively. So while sliding down the neck from the C major to the A minor, you’ll also need to re-adjust your ring, index and pinky fingers from the D major to the D minor shape, as follows:

I-vi C major A minor CAGED chord progression

Practice those and experiment with PIRII: Use the system to change the shapes of the songs you enjoy playing, and see what other voices you can come up with. Better yet, practice with a buddy or try it out with your band.