Using a capo can make your guitar sound horribly out of tune. But, sometimes it is necessary to use a capo in order to play a song. Let’s take a look at the cause of the problem and some practical solutions in order to play in tune while using a capo.
Why is a guitar out of tune with a capo? Adding a capo to a guitar causes downward pressure and added tension on the strings. This added tension can cause the strings to play sharp, even if the guitar is otherwise in tune.
Let’s look at staying in tune while playing with a capo a little more, or you can check out our article on using the capo for beginners.
Cause Of The Capo Tuning Problem
There are two main issues with regard to intonation when using a capo: the general intonation of the guitar and the effect of applying extra pressure to the strings when using a capo. You can check the general intonation of your guitar by using a tuner and playing single notes at different fret positions. Ideally, the notes should be in tune at any position on the guitar. However, with less expensive guitars, or guitars that need adjustment this may not be the case. If the intonation of individual notes, at different positions on the guitar neck, are not in tune, you will not be able to play in tune while using a capo. If this is the case, it is a good idea to have the intonation corrected either by doing it yourself, or having an experienced luthier do it for you. However, if the general intonation of the guitar is good, there will still be an issue with intonation when you use the capo. Next, let’s take a look at why this is the case.
Excess Pressure On Strings Will Cause Notes To Play Sharp
If there is too much pressure on the strings from the capo, the strings will have a tendency to play sharp. (Experiment with a capo and check the tuning of the open strings at different frets to see the effect of the capo on intonation.) Furthermore, the strings do not change intonation at the same rate. The thicker strings react more to the capo and will play sharper than the thinner strings. In most cases, by adding the capo to the guitar, it will be placed out of tune, even when it is correctly tuned using open strings. So, we have the causes of the problem; next, let’s discuss some solutions.
Solution #1: Adjustable Capo
The simplest solution is to use an adjustable capo rather than a non-adjustable capo. An adjustable capo will have a small screw that will allow the capo to be clamped at different tensions. (A non-adjustable capo uses a spring that is under a constant tension.) By using an adjustable capo, the least amount of tension required to keep the strings from buzzing can be applied. By using the least amount of tension, the amount of intonation issues can be limited. The low sixth string will be the string that determines the minimum amount of pressure necessary from the capo. When it stops buzzing, you are at the minimum tension. In most cases, using an adjustable capo will eliminate the need to retune the guitar while using the capo. However, if further adjustment is needed, the guitar can be fine-tuned with the capo on.
Solution # 2: Tune Guitar With Capo
To fine tune the intonation of the guitar while using a capo, tune the guitar with the capo on. If you are using a non-adjustable capo this is the only way to correct the intonation. If you are using an adjustable capo, the guitar can be fine-tuned when you are at the minimum tension and still have intonation issues. This solution works well when there is time to do it, e.g. recording session, during practice, or an informal jam session. However, it is not practical in a live performance situation when there is little time between songs for tuning and adjusting intonation. Next, let’s take a look at some practical solutions for using a capo and getting the best intonation possible.
Practical Applications – Which Capo To Use
The most practical capo to use in a band situation is the non-adjustable or “Quick-Change” capo. This capo can be placed on the guitar with one hand and can be “stored” on the head stock for quick access. In a band situation with multiple instruments, intonation issues are less noticeable to the ear and are covered by the overall sound of the band.
Acoustic or Small Group Situation
In a playing situation where the guitar is more exposed, e.g. solo guitar or duo, intonation issues will be more noticeable. In this situation, an adjustable capo should be used. Usually, the performance setting is more relaxed and short gaps between songs, where the adjustable capo can be placed on the guitar, are not a hindrance to the overall performance presentation. In this case, where the intonation issues would affect the quality of performance, getting the best intonation possible while using the capo is most important.
Effects Of Capo On Acoustic And Electric Guitars
Because there is less tension on electric guitar strings as compared to acoustic strings, a capo will affect the intonation more on an electric than an acoustic guitar. It is best, when possible, to use an adjustable capo on an electric guitar, especially when the guitar part is exposed and can be heard clearly in the mix. If the electric guitar part is buried in the mix with overdrive, then a non-adjustable capo will be sufficient, because the intonation issues will be covered by the distorted tone of the guitar.
It is a good idea to have both types of capos. That way you can experiment and see which capo works best for the particular guitar and performance situation you have.