Lesson 27 of 28
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CAGED Over Chord Changes (PART 1: Chord Tones)

5th June 2019

Just before we begin applying CAGED over chord changes, it’s important that you understand some prerequisite knowledge on chord tones, so that you’ll know how to apply these CAGED positions properly.

The Common Issue

When most guitar players think about playing music, the first thing that comes to mind is usually a key centre or a scale. For example, if you were to hear a I V VI IV progression in the key of D Major, your initial thoughts might be that:

  • The key is D major
  • That you can play the D major scale, or D major pentatonic scale over those chords.

This isn’t necessarily an “issue”, but more-so a flaw. Whilst this is absolutely correct, it doesn’t mean that all of these notes  from that key or scale should be treated equal. Some notes will sound stronger or better than others, and this will constantly change as the chords change in the progression. This is what we call functional harmony, which refers to how note functions change depending on the chord in the progression.

Functional Harmony

It’s important to recognise that although the absolute notes within a key will not change, the function of the notes do change depending on the chords. Here’s an example for you to try:

  1. Find the 6th degree of D major (4th fret, G string): it’s a B note.
  2. Now play an A chord (V chord), and try to work out the new function of the B note. Over an A chord, the B serves the function of a 2nd.
  3. Try a different chord in the key of D major, and experiment with finding the function of the B over different chords.

You may notice that the B note sounds better over some chords than others. This is what I mean when I said that these notes should not be treated equally. More than often you will notice that the B sounds best when it serves the function of a Root, 3rd, or 5th degree. This is because when it serves these functions, it’s a chord tone. A chord tone is simply a note that exists within the chord.

Chord tones are absolutely wonderful and essential for you to be aware of if you anticipate on outlining harmony, rather than just play scales over it. Chord tones are not necessarily always the “best” notes to play, but they are most certainly the strongest sounding notes.

Outlining Harmony Using Chord Tones

Chord tones are more than often, in their basic form, the 1st, 3rd, 5th, and 7th degrees. These are simply notes that exist within the chord that is being played over. To successfully outline harmony, it’s important that you target these notes in your melodies, otherwise it may just sound like you’re just playing a scale.

Let’s try to outline the harmony of a II V I progression in E major (F#m7, B7, Emaj7). A bad example of outlining the harmony would be to blindly play notes from the parent key (E major scale), without an understanding or an anticipation of where your melody will travel. Whilst sometimes it may sound good, it’s certainly not a reliable and consistent approach to music. A better example of outlining harmony would be this:

When you play this melody, you should clearly be able to hear the harmony, without actually even playing the chords! All of the notes shown are chord tones, so theoretically the melody is absolutely perfect and strong sounding. Below, in red, are the functions of each note:

To do this yourself, I recommend choosing one area of the neck for the harmony. This is so that you don’t become dependant one 1 common CAGED shape or position. In this instance I chose to use a C-position F#m7 arpeggio, an E-position B7 arpeggio, and an A-position Emaj7 arpeggio, as my framework. Take a moment to play through these CAGED positions, familiarising yourself with the note placement of each arpeggio.

Once you are confident with each arpeggio, go ahead and use them to build your own melody. Once you have created something similar to what I have demonstrated, give this a try in another area of the neck. You can also begin to try outlining a different cadence/chord progression once you’re ready to move on from a II V I. Providing that you’re only hitting chord tones, you should notice that your melody sounds strong and that your note choices are perfect.

Tension Tones

Perfection is not the goal of music. If all music were theoretically perfect, everything would sound very similar, restrictive, and predictable. What you have done so far is a fantastic start, so do not disregard that. Consider chord tones to be a template of what to work around. To make your melody slightly more interesting and moving, it’s important to introduce tension tones. These are simply notes that are not chord tones.

It’s best that you stick with notes that are in key for now. Start by introducing just 1 or 2 tension notes. We’re not trying to be flashy or overly-impressive, it’s just important that you to choose the notes wisely. You can introduce tension tones anywhere within a melody. However, in order to continue outlining the harmony, it’s important to often play chord tones on strong rhythmic beats; for instance, you could resolve to the root note on the 1st beat of a bar. If you don’t hit chord tones often enough on the strong rhythmic beats, it will probably sound like your melody is constantly seeking a resolution.

Below is an example of how I might elaborate on the previous example with some tension tones. Once again, the red characters annotate the note functions:

Take a moment to learn this melody, and listen to how the tension notes always want to eventually resolve to chord tones.

Let me give you one more example. This time I will not yet reveal the harmony that I am outlining. Learn the melody below, and then try to figure out what chords would sound best behind it:

Are you ready for the answer? The harmony that is outlined is a VI VII I progression in F#m (D, E, F#m).

To create this melody, I based my note choices on 3 different CAGED positions:

  • A-position, D major
  • C-position, E major
  • D-position, F# minor

Each of these CAGED positions exist in the same area of the neck. With that in mind, I’ll leave this one in your hands to figure out the function and purpose of each note.


This lesson should have given you a clear insight into how to find chord tones easily using the CAGED positions. Experiment with this yourself. Begin by creating a melody that strictly involves chord tones. Once you have created a few ideas, elaborate on them by introducing tension tones.

Once you’ve got the hang of this, you are ready to move on to part 2 of this lesson, where you will learn how to unlock the full potential of CAGED over chord changes!

I will now finish this lesson with one last piece of music, which is demonstrated at the end of the video. Below you will find the tab for it. Learn it to the best of your ability, and then try to break it down and figure out what’s going on. What function and purpose does each note serve? We’ll take a deeper look into this one in the next video: