Tab vs CAGED Visualization

For the purpose of this question I would like to define two ways of thinking about playing something on guitar. To make things more concrete, let’s use the intro of Stairway to Heaven by Led Zeppelin as an example

Tab Visualization

In this method, when playing the song, I visualize the tab with a focus on fret numbers.

CAGED Visualization

In this method, I would visualize the intro as an Am arpeggio using the E CAGED shape.


There is obviously much more power in the CAGED visualization method. I primarily use this method while composing or analyzing a song. However, when it comes time to memorize a song, I revert to the tab visualization method because of its comfort and speed of memorization.

When I learn a new song, its much easier to write/use a tab, but I wonder if it would be better to memorize new songs by their movements through the CAGED system.

My questions is, which method do you use when memorizing or learning new songs for a performance?

I suspect most guitar players at least start out using a tab visualization method since it makes it easier to learn songs well above your music theory / interval awareness skill level. I wonder if the tab method starts to limit your guitar playing at a certain point.

Hey James! I like to think of my approach as a mix of both. The first thing I saw when I opened this post was the attached tab sample, and I immediately recognised it as an Am position triad.

When tabs (or sheet music) contain very clear arpeggios or chords, it’s very easy to visualise the relevant CAGED positions in addition to the numbers. However for single note melodies, it’s a little harder. Over time you’ll be able to quickly identify scale shapes, and so to an extent you would still use both methods.

Would love to hear other students thoughts!

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For decades i learned everything by TAB simply memorising the numbers and whilst i still do so, since joining Fretwise and through one to one lessons with Darryl, I’m trying to relearn things using CAGED as my primary reference so I understand what and why I’m playing notes, but it is a really hard habit to break and is taking me quite some time.

TAB is a wonderful thing, but with the power of hindsight, it enabled me to be very lazy. Yes it meant i was able to play things, but any deviation from the numbers (and they really were just numbers - I could rarely tell you what the notes were) would result in horrible sounding notes - kind of like memorising a piece of text in a foreign languague, but then throwing in random words that make no sense whatsoever.

When learning new songs, TAB is still my first port of call, but I now look at the chords and marry those up with my CAGED shapes and slowly but surely it’s enabling me to confidently add my own “words” in the knowledge that they’re going to fit in with the composition and what the other guys in the band are playing.

It’s definitely working though as when I first saw the TAB you included I instantly recognised it as “the Stairway To Heaven” TAB… but almost as quickly I recognised it as an Am triad. I first learned that intro over 30 years ago, and until reading your post today, it had never occurred to me that the opening chord of Stairway was Am. Progress indeed!


Well said David, I like your reference to memorising the text of a foreign language. Memorising an array of numbers is difficult and takes a lot of time, but grouping those numbers into positions makes it much easier!