How to Learn the Ukulele Fretboard. You Spelled CAGED Wrong.

Theory Thursday: Learn this system to master the ukulele fretboard

Image created by the Author using DALL-E 2

I recently learned that guitarists use a method called CAGED to master the guitar fretboard. I became curious: Does the CAGED system work for ukulele?

Turns out, yes, CAGED does work for ukulele, if you respell it as CAFD.

Both CAGED and CAFD are a mnemonic for how chord shapes interact on the fretboard. As I’m the kind of student that likes to understand how something works before I learn it by rote, I did a deep dive into CAFD. Here’s how the system works.

Key concepts of CAFD

CAFD is a mnemonic of 4 chord names: C chord, A chord, F chord and D chord. Here are the components that make this method work. There’s a bit of music theory, but don’t worry, it will be quick.

Concept 1: Chords are 3 notes

Chords are 3 notes: the root note, the third and the fifth. The root note gives its name to the chord. For example, the C chord has the C note as the root. It doesn’t matter what octave the tones are, if you play a C, an E, and a G anywhere on the neck, you’re playing a C major chord. That’s all we need to know about chord theory for today, y’all. You can unglaze your eyes.

Concept 2: The 4 chord shapes of CAFD

There are five places to play a C note in the first 12 frets of the uke. There are also five E’s and five G’s. You could find lots of combinations to cover the CEG notes and form a C chord. However, given the anatomy of the hand, some formations are easier to play than others.

Here’s are the shapes used in CAFD.

The C, A, F and D chords with the roots marked

The root of the chord is marked on each chord shape. Some shapes have the root in more than one place.

You can use these fingerings for these shapes.

How to form the C, A, F, and D chords used in CAFD

When you play these chord shapes in the first position, you can use open strings. When you move to second position and higher, bar with your index finger, just like using a capo. If you know your first position chords, you can see how these shapes got their names.

Chord shapes in first position using open strings

Concept 3: These chord shapes are movable

It’s a little mis-leading to name the shapes after particular chords because the same shape can make any major chord.

Put any of the CAFD chord shapes on your fretboard and it will make a major chord. Whatever note is in the root place is the name of the chord.

Take a few moments to decipher this technicolor diagram. Each color is a different chord created with the C-shape. The 1st position C chord is at the top in yellow.

All chords made with the C shape

As I move the C Shape up one fret, it raises each note in the chord by one half step. The C chord becomes a C# chord. One more fret up and it makes a D chord. If I move it up 12 frets, I’ve made a C chord again.

This is really cool!

Implications: If you know one chord, you can make it into another chord by moving the shape up or down the neck.

This works for all chord shapes that don’t have open strings, like our CAFD chords.

Concept 4: The shapes interlock

The chord shapes interlock as you move up the fretboard.

Notice how the root of the C shape can interlock with the root of the A shape.

This means that whatever chord you’re playing with the C shape, you can also play the same chord (the same three notes) by moving your hand up three frets and using the A shape.

You can connect the shapes up and down the fretboard to make the same chord in different places, like this:

CAFD chords connect to make the same chord

Does this remind anyone else of Voltron?

Concept 5: Start with any shape

Unlike the robot Voltron, it doesn’t matter which chord makes the head. You can start with any chord shape, anywhere on the neck, and interlock the shapes to get the same chord. Follow this pattern:

CAFD chord relationship cycle

The sequence and distances of how the shapes interlock is the same whether you start with C or any of the other chords. This is a cycle. The system could have been called AFDC or FDCA or DCAF, but CAFD is most pronounceable.

For the geeks

I started to wonder, is it just coincidence that the interval from A to C is 3 frets, and the interval from the C Shape to A Shape in CAFD is 3 frets?

I observed that using the same chord shape, I could use the same CAFD pattern to form new chords. However, the direction of the arrows points the other way. For example, if you keep the same chord shape, the C Chord + 2 frets is the D chord.

Here’s where I really started to geek out. I gave myself a migraine pondering how can the relationship between the CAFD shapes and the CAFD chords be the same, but in the opposite direction?

This is why.

Earlier, I showed you the technicolor diagram of how the C shape can be moved to create new chords. The A, F, and D Shapes can be moved the same way.

Look at each shape’s chart in the picture below. The sequence of chords is always the same, but each chart starts at a different place in the pattern. The offset from the A Shape chart to the F Shape chart is 4 frets. That is because the A chord is 4 steps higher than the F chord. Or, in other words, the note F plus 4 half steps is A.

You are jumping from chart to chart when you use CAFD. The offsets between the charts are the same as the intervals in CAFD.

So what?

Is CAFD just an interesting observation? You may be wondering, is this going to be on the test?

Here’s how CAFD can help you be a better ukulele player.

Benefit 1: Playing voicings

Let’s say you’re rocking out in your uke band. You and another player have the job to play the chords. You could both strum the basic chords in first position, but it would give the song interest to use different chord voicings. You could pull up a chord chart to figure out how to play chords in different positions, or you could use the CAFD system to figure it out on the fly.

Let’s say the song consists of C, G, and F chords.

It’s easy to find a new voicing for C and F using the CAFD system. For C, you could use the A shape on the 3rd fret, or the F shape on the 7th. For F, you can use the D shape on the 3rd fret, or the C shape on the 5th.

How do you handle the G since it isn’t one of the chords in CAFD? You know that G is two half steps up from F. Therefore, in the other shapes, G will also be two half steps up from F. Using the positions we just found for F, we can extrapolate that G will be found using the D shape on the 5th fret or the C shape on the 7th.

Benefit 2: Learning the fretboard

Knowing how to find chords all over the neck is also a helpful way to learn the fretboard. As you practice with CAFD, make note of the roots of each chord. This will help you learn your way around. For extra credit, learn the third too. This will help when you want to make a major chord into a minor.

Practice Tips

Just like you eventually want to be able to read music without thinking “Every Good Boy Does Fine”, you need to get fluent with finding chords without the CAFD mnemonic.

Here’s some practice tips:

  1. Practice finding the C chord up the neck. Pay special attention to the roots. Now you’ve learned how to make the C chord with four different voicings, AND you’ve learned all the locations of C!
  2. Repeat #1 for A, F, D chords
  3. Figure out how to find B, G and E chords using this method.
  4. Explore this thought exercise: If you’re want to make a chord out of a root note on the 3rd string, what shape could you use?

Give it some daily practice and you’ll be a master of the ukulele fretboard!

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