This article is about how to effectively use a capo for the guitar. For those interested in learning the guitar, see our course section here.
If you have never used a capo, it may seem like a strange and mysterious thing. You may even think it is some type of device sold on a shopping network for people who want to play guitar, but are looking for a short cut. Well, no, a capo is totally legit, and in fact, a tool, that can really add to your guitar playing. Let’s break it down and discuss all things capo.
What is a capo? A capo is a device used on guitars to transpose chord shapes into different keys and to allow for open string chord shapes to be played in multiple keys.
What Is A Capo And How Does It Work?
A capo is a device that is placed on the neck of the guitar between two frets in order to shorten the length of the strings. A shorter string length has a higher pitch than a longer string length. A capo will enable the guitar to play higher keys while using open strings.
In addition, the capo will allow the guitarist to use common open position chords to transpose a song into a different key without the need for barre chords, which can be difficult to play for long periods of time. Note: the word capo is an Italian word that means “head”; when a capo is used, the guitar is given a new head or beginning point, in terms of string length.
Is It Cheating To Use A Capo?
This is a common misconception. No, it is not cheating to use a capo. Whether to use a capo, or not to use a capo, is based on what is most appropriate for a particular song. It is a tool used to serve a musical end. Perhaps, if it were to be used to avoid learning barre chords, a case could be made that it is cheating. However, playing and creating music is not ultimately judged on skill level, but rather, on the aesthetics of the music. In other words, there are many roads that one can take to see a beautiful sun rise in the ocean.
Do Professional Guitarists Use Capos?
Many professional guitar players use a capo. In fact, many songs, especially acoustic guitar songs, are played using a capo, e.g. Fire and Rain, by James Tayor, Hotel California, by The Eagles, Here Comes The Sun, by The Beatles, etc.
Two Types of Capos
There are two basic types of capos with regard to their mechanical use: adjustable and not-adjustable. Adjustable capos allow for differing amounts of tension on the strings, depending where on the neck the capo is placed, which will in turn enable better intonation. Because the neck thickness and width can vary at different points along the neck, an adjustable capo will accommodate these changes. Why is this important? If the tension against the strings from the capo is too much, the intonation of the (see our article here about how to keep your guitar in tune with a capo)..
However, an adjustable capo cannot be moved very easily during a song; therefore, if a song requires a key change, i.e. moving the capo to a different fret, a non-adjustable or “quick-change” capo is necessary. An adjustable capo uses a thumbscrew to add or reduce tension to deaden the strings; whereas, a non-adjustable capo uses a spring mechanism set to a predetermined tension.
Instruments with low string tension, i.e. electric guitars and nylon string guitars are more susceptible to intonation issues with a non-adjustable capo; and conversely, acoustic guitars, with higher string tensions, are less affected by non-adjustable capos. Note: It is a good idea to have both types, as they are both useful for different situations.
Where To Place The Capo
The function of the capo is to create a new string length by shortening the string. The capo will press the strings against the fret of choice, effectively stopping any string resonation by the strings before the capo. To check if the capo placement is correct: put the capo between two frets, play each open string and listen to the clarity of the string. If there is string buzz, move the capo towards the higher fret.
Because the lower strings are thicker and require more pressure to press down, they will generally buzz if the capo placement is incorrect. However, when the capo is placed directly next to the fret, it can hinder the left hand by being in the way. Therefore, moving the capo to the left as much as possible, before string buzzing occurs, will give your hand more room to maneuver. This requires some experimentation.
How To Set An Adjustable Capo
Generally, using an adjustable capo will result in better intonation, especially on electric and nylon string guitars. The goal is to use the right amount of tension to cancel any buzzing, but not too much tension, which can cause the string to play sharp. In order to find this “sweet spot”, begin with a setting that will hold onto the guitar, but that produces a muted string sound. Then, slowly increase the tension so that the buzzing disappears. This is the optimal amount of tension for eliminating buzzing and reducing intonation issues. Note: this setting will be slightly different as you move up or down the neck due to the changes in neck width and thickness.
The capo allows the guitar to play in different keys without using barre chords; and therefore, open string chords can be used, which produce a full and resonate sound on the guitar. Furthermore, using a capo is helpful for singing. If a song is too high or too low to sing in the original key, a capo can be used to play in the key that matches the natural range of your voice. See below for The Capo Transposition Cheat Sheet.
Alternate Chord Voicings
Playing a chord with a capo changes the voicing of the chord, which adds variety to your chord playing. For instance, a D chord can be played in an open position (frets one, two, and three), or by using a C shape with the capo on the second fret. This will change the position of the notes of the chord relative to the strings; it will also change which notes are doubled in the chord.
For example, in an open position D chord, the note D is doubled, which is the root of the chord. When a C shape is used to play a D chord, with a capo on fret two, the F#, or third of the chord, is doubled. This will create two distinct sounding D chords. Not only is this useful for creating variety in solo playing, it can also create unique harmonic textures when two guitars are playing the same chord progression, e.g. guitar one plays the chord progression in first position; whereas, guitar two plays the same chord progression using a capo and different chord shapes.
Open String Sound in Different Keys
Using a capo to maintain the open string sound of the guitar, especially when improvising, is very useful. The Em pentatonic scale in first position is an iconic sound, e.g. Wish You Were Here intro solo. This sound is a result of fretted and open strings played together. In order to create this same effect in other keys, a capo is very useful. Similarly, the capo is useful for playing slide guitar in different keys, where open strings and notes played with the slide are combined.
Some songs will involve a change of key within the form of the song, e.g. Layla, He Stopped Loving Her Today, etc. If you are using a capo, you have two choices: use a non-adjustable, quick change capo, and practice making the switch; or, play barre chords during the key change. Since most contemporary pop songs do not involve a key change, this situation is not all that common; but, it is something to consider when a song of this type is played. As mentioned above, there can also be intonation issues involved with using a capo; but, with the right capo, and some fine tuning with the capo on, these issues can be mitigated.
Special Types of Capos:
A drop D capo will allow you to play in a drop tuning, i.e. D-A=D=G=B=E, without detuning the sixth string of the guitar. Actually, a “drop D” capo allows the guitar to play in drop E.
A cut capo will press down the A, D and G strings of the guitar creating an E sus chord. In effect, the guitar will play a major chord with all strings open instead of a minor chord. On an acoustic guitar, this allows for much open string playing and the ability to play melodies over the open string chords.
Using a capo, like effects pedals, tremolo bars, and different amplifier sounds or simulations, is a tool guitarists can use to express musical ideas. Each tool has a unique function in the spectrum of making music on the guitar, and the capo is no different. Furthermore, capo’s are especially effective in expanding the harmonic and textural possibilities of acoustic guitar styles.