Why Guitarists Argue About 3NPS and CAGED Systems: Bite-Size Guitar Podcast Episode 28

Episode 28 of the Bite-Size Guitar Podcast looks at why so many guitarists argue about 3NPS and CAGED systems.

CAGED and 3NPS are two popular systems for learning to play scales on the fretboard. If you’re wondering which one you should learn, you’ve probably seen a lot of arguments online on which one is better.

Understanding why guitarists argue about these systems will help you avoid similar arguments and it will help you avoid listening to bad advice.

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Useful Resources

The episode covers the principles behind learning and practicing scales. For some step-by-step details on how to practice scales, check out the below resources.

The above resources will give you plenty to work on if you want to get better at scales.

Podcast Episode 28 Transcript

Hi, I’m Aaron from guitargearfinder.com and this is episode 28 of the Bite-Size Guitar podcast.

In the last episode, we looked at how you can get better at scales. Scales are a core part of music, so it’s something every guitarist should work on in one way or another.

In this episode, I’ll talk about a related topic that is the source of endless debates in person and online. Do a quick search in any guitar forum or group on CAGED or 3NPS and you’ll see endless threads of people yelling at each other on why one is superior than the other.

In this episode, I’ll try to talk about this topic in a level-headed way and look at why so many guitarists passionately argue about it.

By the end of this episode, you’ll hopefully have a better understanding on this argument and you’ll be able to choose a method that works best for you.

What are 3NPS and CAGED systems?

First, let’s quickly look at what 3NPS and CAGED are for any listeners who haven’t read up on them yet.

Both 3NPS and CAGED are systems you can use to help you memorize the fretboard and freely play scales. They’re two ways of splitting the fretboard up into patterns and sections to make it easier to memorize.

The basic idea behind the CAGED system is that if we look at how the Major scale fits along the fretboard, you may notice that we can take the five open chord shapes C A G E and D and nicely connect them together. I’ve included a diagram on the page for this episode on the website to show this if you haven’t seen it before.

CAGED guitar diagram

The CAGED system uses this pattern to form a simple way to find your way around the fretboard. In other words, you learn the fretboard based around five chord shapes that happen to line up neatly.

3 notes per string, which is abbreviated online as 3NPS, takes a different approach to memorizing scales on the fretboard. As you might expect, it’s based on 3 note patterns per string. Instead of learning the fretboard based on chord shapes like CAGED does, you learn it using three note patterns one string at a time.

If you want detailed information on either system, you can find countless videos on YouTube explaining them. So I won’t go into more detail on the systems, but I’ll talk about why there’s so many arguments about them and why these arguments make it hard to decide what you should learn.

The reason I wanted to do this episode is because you’ll see similar debates in every other aspect of guitar online. If you can understand why there’s so much debate when comparing CAGED vs 3NPS, you’ll understand why similar arguments pop up all the time with any other topic such as type of guitar amps, pedal or no pedals, fast vs slow playing, and so on.
So it’s worth looking at why these arguments happen so you don’t get sucked into similar arguments.

Why All the Arguments?

So back to CAGED vs 3NPS. The basic idea is that there are two popular systems out there to help you feel comfortable with the fretboard.

Now, why are there always so many debates and arguments about these two systems? Why do some people say CAGED is essential and 3NPS is rubbish and other guitarists say the exact opposite?
There are a few reasons and it’s really important to understand these reasons before you decide on learning any system.

The first reason is that the two systems feel completely different from each other. If somebody learns the fretboard using CAGED then they hear about 3NPS, 3NPS will probably feel awkward to that guitarist.

That guitarist has already invested time into learning CAGED and it makes sense to them, so to them, 3NPS feels stupid. They already see the fretboard based on these chord shapes, so trying to relearn the fretboard based on three-note patterns is a big job and makes no sense to them.

Even if somebody clearly explains the benefits of 3NPS, it just feels wrong to the guitarist who learned CAGED.

It’s the same if somebody first learns 3NPS. After that guitarist learns the system and feels comfortable with it, if they tried to learn CAGED, it’ll feel weird. They’ve already learned to visualize the fretboard in three-note patterns, so it would take a lot of effort to learn how to visualize the fretboard based on chord shapes. So they’ll see CAGED as a big step backward.

The main point to keep in mind is that once you get used to one system, the other system will make no sense to you at first. Once you learn to visualize the fretboard in one way, any other method or system will seem awkward.

This is a big reason why so many guitarists will love one system but hate the other. If the two systems were similar, then it wouldn’t be an issue as you would be able to easily switch the way you see the fretboard between the two systems. But because they feel so different from each other, it’s hard for somebody to switch to a different way of seeing the fretboard.

If you’ve already started learning or you’ve mastered one system, keep this in mind. Just because the system you learned feels right to you, it doesn’t mean it’s right for everyone. There are other guitarists who learned the other system and feel just as confident with it as you are with your system.

Now, this is hard for some guitarists to accept. It’s hard to appreciate that different guitarists can see the fretboard in different ways and everybody can be happy with the way they see the fretboard.

Some guitarists see the fretboard in shapes, some in note names, some in intervals, some in linear patterns, and various other ways.
So when you see somebody passionately defending one system and ridiculing the other system, keep this in mind.

Now there are some guitarists who learned how to use both methods, but they’re rare. It’s really hard to learn two completely different systems and have both of them sit comfortably in your mind.

I forced myself to learn both systems so I could better teach them to my students, and it was a challenge. It’s definitely possible, but it’s a lot easier to learn one system and stick with it. It’s also why it creates so much debate.

The reason I wanted to talk about this topic here is that this really will be an endless debate. There will always be arguments online between 3NPS and CAGED. But at least now you have a better idea why these arguments continue to happen.

People Selling Systems

Now there’s one more big reason people argue over different systems and it’s thanks to people selling systems. I’m sure you’ve seen YouTubers or websites plugging their guitar system courses. While it’s great that there’s so much educational content out there, the problem is with how some people try to sell their systems.

Some people try to sell their systems by putting down other systems. If a guitarist is selling a course based on 3NPS, sometimes they’ll create videos talking about how stupid CAGED is.

Or if they’re selling a course based on CAGED, they’ll talk about how stupid 3NPS is. They may honestly believe what they say, because as I mentioned earlier, it’s really hard to switch to a different way of thinking about the fretboard. So somebody selling a 3NPS course may not even fully understand how CAGED works or vice versa.

When you have YouTubers with hundreds of thousands of subscribers telling people that one system is better than the other so they can sell their course, it just fuels the fire for arguments.

So this is the main lesson I’d like you to remember from this episode. The reason there are so many arguments online about CAGED and 3NPS isn’t because one is superior than the other – both are fine – it’s because it’s really hard to compare the two methods in an unbiased way. Once you learn one system, it changes the way you see the other system.

What System to Learn

Now just to make things clear, I don’t have a system to sell and I never will. The only course I sell is on guitar effects and tone. You won’t see a CAGED or 3NPS course from me, ever.
I’m happy for you to learn using any system you want. If something makes sense to you, learn that way.

If you haven’t already memorized the fretboard, read up on the different options and learn the one that makes the most sense to you.

While CAGED and 3NPS are the two most popular options, they’re not the only options. Like I mentioned before, some guitarists learn the fretboard using shapes, others use intervals, some use note names, some learn horizontal shapes, some learn vertical shapes. There isn’t one best method and there never will be.

The best method for you depends on how you want to use scales, which we talked about in the last episode. So before you dive into any method, spend some time thinking about how you want to use scales and think about which method best aligns to that goal. Don’t choose a certain method because some YouTuber tells you that the other method is stupid.

Check out the page of this episode at guitargearfinder.com/podcast/episode-28 for links to resources on learning scales. One of the guides I’ve included explains how I memorized the fretboard that doesn’t rely on shapes. The method I used makes it easy for me to switch back and forth between any scale I want. But again, whether this method is best for you or whether CAGED or 3NPS is best for you depends on your individual goals and preferences.

Hopefully, this episode has given you some context for any time you see an argument online from now on. If you see people yelling at each other about CAGED vs 3NPS, or any other debate, at least now you know some of the reasons why these arguments happen.

Don’t get sucked into these endless arguments like so many people on social media. Pick a method that you feel comfortable with and just enjoy your guitar. Don’t ever feel that you have to justify the way you learn something to somebody else.

As I mentioned in the last episode, a lot of guitarists don’t like the idea of practicing or learning scales, but I strongly recommend it to everyone. Unless the only thing you ever play is strummed chords, then you’ll benefit from learning scales.

If there’s a topic you would like me to cover in a future episode, you can request it at guitargearfinder.com/podcast

Record a message asking your question and I’d love to feature it in a future episode. I’ve done a couple of these before and it would be great if I could feature listener questions more often, so if you have any questions in mind, jump on the website and ask me.

Spend some time working on your scales this week and I’ll talk to you next time.


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