Gear Guide: How To Use A Capo

One of the questions I get pretty often is “How do I use a capo?”  So I put together some great information that should help answer this question.  Capos are used very often on guitar, acoustic and electric, and should be in every guitarist’s arsenal.  A capo will make playing difficult chords and songs easier.  While it’s important to learn notes and chords on the fretboard as best you can, a capo can be your best friend.  Here you will find detailed explanations of standard and partial capos, how to simplify chords with a capo, and even a chord chart specifically for use with a capo.

Guitar with capo

To begin you should know what a capo is and how it is placed on the guitar.  Find a detailed explanation of just that here at http://www.fender.com/news/index.php?display_article=570.

 

One of the more common acoustic and electric guitar accessories, along with tuners, string winders, humidifiers, etc., is the capo.

Taking its name from the Italian word for head, a capo is a small device that clamps onto the neck of a guitar and shortens the length of the strings, raising their pitch. A capo is usually fastened across all the strings of a guitar or other fretted stringed instrument, although less often they are used on only some strings rather than all of them.

The main advantage of using a capo is that it lets a guitarist play a song in different keys while still using first-position open-string chord forms, which have a more droning and fully resonant tone than, for example, many bar chords.

To understand what a capo does, you must first understand what the nut does. On the headstock end of a guitar, the termination of a string’s vibrating length (or scale length) is a thin strip of plastic, metal or bone called the nut. The nut straddles the joint where the fretboard meets the headstock, and the strings pass over it (often at an angle) as they leave the fretboard and find their anchoring points on the headstock. The nut has grooves that, along with the bridge at the body end of the scale length, ensure the correct lateral placement of the strings along the length of the fretboard.

A capo functions as a sort of moveable nut, as it can be affixed to any fret below the neck joint and provide the same kind of vibration termination. Unlike the nut, however, capos don’t have string grooves, as their only purpose is to change pitch rather than maintain lateral string placement (a function still ensured by the nut and bridge even when a capo is in use). A capo thus works in addition to the nut rather than instead of it.

An important distinction worth noting about capos is that they’re used to change the pitch of open strings without adjusting the tuning keys. This means that the pitch of fretted notes does not change; only the pitch of the open, unfretted strings. Consequently, not only the pitch but also the timbre of the strings is affected, imparting the tonality of instruments with shorter scales, such as mandolins.

Different styles of capo are affixed to a guitar neck just behind the fret wire by one of several different attachment methods. Most have a rubber-covered bar that actually holds down the strings, fastened to the neck with an elastic, nylon or other fabric strap; or by a spring, screw or cam-operated clamp. A more recent innovation is the partial capo, which does not completely encircle the neck and which can be applied to only two, three, four or five strings rather than all six. This allows dozens of tonal variations without changing the tuning of the instrument.

Capo use is common in blues, folk, flamenco and traditional Irish guitar music; they’re used hardly at all in jazz and classical guitar playing. Many rock and pop players have used capos, including George Harrison, Keith Richards, Noel Gallagher, Bruce Springsteen, Steve Earle, Tom Petty, Richard Thompson, Johnny Marr, Paul Simon, Jimmy Page, John Mayer and many others.

Toggle capo on guitar

So now that you have an explanation of what a capo is, it is important to understand how to effectively use a capo and make sure it doesn’t damage the guitar.  You can find this information and a quick overview of a few different styles of capos here at http://guitar.about.com/od/guitaraccessories/ss/A-Beginners-Guide-To-The-Guitar-Capo.htm.

A capo is a small tool that clamps a barre across the strings of the guitar (the actual fret clamped is up to the guitarist) effectively raising the pitch of the instrument.

Why Use a Capo?

Capos are often used by guitarists to play songs in different keys. In situations where singers prefer to sing in G♭ or E♭, a guitarist can use a capo to allow for this, while still playing basic chords in open position.

Do I Need a Capo?

Yes. If you play guitar, you should own a capo, no matter what style of music you play. Capos aren’t just for beginner acoustic guitarists – blues legend Albert Collins routinely used a capo on his Telecaster.

How to Use a Capo

  • attach the capo as close to the metal fret as possible without causing buzzes when you hit the strings
  • make sure the capo is tight enough that all open strings ring clearly
  • the capoed fret becomes your new nut

Capo Cautions

  • make sure capo doesn’t bend your strings when you clamp it on, as this will make your guitar sound out of tune
  • capos can get in the way of your fretting hand – check to be sure whatever capo you choose doesn’t interfere with your technique
  • pay close attention to the points of contact between the capo and the guitar – you don’t want your fretboard scratched

But how does a capo actually make playing the guitar easier?  Find that answer here at http://guitar.about.com/od/guitaraccessories/ss/guitar-capo-play-hard-chords.htm.

Chord Changes Based on Capo Use

count backwards on the musical alphabet to figure out simpler ways to play difficult chord progressions

Most guitarists have, at one point or another, used a guitar capo. Although guitarists use capos for several reasons, we’re going to look at how to use a capo to come up with simpler chords for a song, without changing its key.

Using a Capo to Make Difficult Chords Simpler

Because of the way a guitar is tuned, there are a number of keys that are easy for guitarists to play in. Many pop, rock and country songs are written in the key of E, A, C, or G – probably because they were written on guitar.

These same keys are not necessarily easy for other instruments – horn players have a very tough time playing in the key of E, for example. For this reason, songs prominently featuring horns are often written in keys like F, B♭ or E♭. In other situations, a singer’s vocal range will dictate the key of a song – if their voice sounds best in G♭, then everyone will be playing in G♭. In these cases, a capo can be a good friend to a guitarist.

Using a Capo to Make Difficult Chords Simpler

All you need to figure this out is a working knowledge of the 12 tones in the musical alphabet (A B♭ B C…) appearing in the image above. The concept is simple:

As you move your capo up a fret on the guitar, the root of each chord you play should drop by one-half step (one fret).

Let’s illustrate this in the following example. Here is a sample chord progression:
B♭min  -  A♭  -  G♭  -  F

This is a simple chord progression that nevertheless isn’t so simple for the beginner guitarist, as it requires a lot of barre chords. We can use a capo, however, to make this task easier.

Step 1 – Place your capo on the 1st fret of the guitar

Step 2 – For each chord, count backwards on the musical alphabet by one half step

Step 3 – Determine your new chord progression

Step 4 – If new progression isn’t easier, slide capo up another fret and repeat process

Using the steps above, when we place the capo on the first fret of the instrument, our progression becomes:

Amin  -  G  -  F  -  E

This is a much simpler chord progression to play, and allows for a fuller sound, as you can take advantage of the guitar’s open strings. It is important to stress that your Amin chord will sound like a B♭min chord to everyone else, because of your use of the capo.

Using this knowledge, you’ll find you can use a capo to play many songs you previously thought were too hard. At first, you may have to take some time to jot down the new chords on a piece of paper before you play them. But, over time, you should be able to do these calculations in real time.

An alternative to the standard capo is a partial capo.  I was able to find a video lesson that explains the partial capo very well here at http://www.learn-acoustic-guitar.com/how-to-use-a-partial-capo-video-lesson.

Here is a great lesson from Lisa McCormick with GuitarTricks.Com on how to use a partial capo. If you aren’t familiar with guitar capos yet, they are simple little tools that you clamp onto your guitar, across the strings, that change the key. With a normal 6 string capo, you are limited, because you have to place the capo across all six strings.  With the partial capo featured in the video below, things get a lot more interesting. You have the ability to clamp the capo down on only three strings at a time, leaving the rest of the string open.  The result is a very interesting and unique sound without having to manually change the tuning of your strings.

Lastly, a great visual tool to better understand playing with a capo is a guitar capo chart.  This capo chart will help you understand where to place the capo to play certain notes and chords on the fretboard.  You can find this great tool here at http://guitar.about.com/od/commonbeginnerquestions/a/Guitar-Capo-Chart.htm.

Capos allow guitarists to play in tricky keys using basic open chords, however figuring out which fret to place the capo at can be confusing. The following guitar capo chart can help make this task simpler.

How to Use This Guitar Capo Chart

To play a song in the original key using simpler chords:

  • Find the root of the chords you’re trying to play in the left-most column (don’t worry about the type of chord – if you’re trying to play a B♭ minor chord, just look for B♭)
  • Check the columns to the right, and look for a capo fret # that allows you to play all the chords in the original key using open chords
  • Place the capo at the specified fret, and play the chords in the column underneath that fret. They will sound like the chords in the left-most column

To know which chords you’re playing when using a capo:

If you put a capo somewhere on the neck of the guitar, and play the same chords as you would have without a capo, you’re ultimately playing different chords despite not changing the chord shapes. To find out which chords you are playing…

  • Find the fret the capo is at in the top row of the chart
  • Look down the column to find the chord you’re playing (don’t worry about the type of chord – if you’re playing a D minor chord, just look for D)
  • Look over to the first column to see what the chord you’re actually playing is.

Guitar Capo Chart

Chord Capo Fret #
open 1st 2nd 3rd 4th 5th 6th 7th 8th
A G F E D
A♯ (B♭) A G F E D
B A G F E
C B A G F E
C♯ (D♭) C B A G F
D C B A G
D♯ (E♭) D C B A G
E D C B A
F E D C B A
F♯ (G♭) F E D C B
G F E D C B
G♯ (A♭) G F E D C

Capo on flamenco guitar

Hopefully the information here will help you understand what a capo is and how it is used effectively on the guitar.  Capos are pretty inexpensive, especially in regards to how much you are going to get out of it.  It’s one of the best tools to have when playing with a vocalist or other instrumentalists so you can cover a variety of keys comfortably.

Have fun and stay tuned!

Mike

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