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A comprehensive guide to using a capo

Introduction

This post is a comprehensive guide to capos, it is written to be useful to all readers.  It is not essential to understand music theory to use a capo although a basic knowledge of theory is required for the advanced part of the lesson.  I have a number of posts on my blog which may be useful if you want to learn more about music theory.

What is a capo?

A capo is a mechanical device that attaches to the neck of a guitar and acts as a “moveable nut” – the same effect as playing a barre with one finger up and down the neck.  It is derived from the Italian “capo tasto” or “capodastro” which literally means “head of fingerboard”.  Capos have been in use since the earliest fretted instruments – carvings show that Egyptians used capos probably made of twine or sinew tied around the necks of their instruments.

Why use a capo?

  • Have you ever noticed that some songs are a little too high or a little too low for you to sing? 
  • Do you struggle to play F# and B minor chords ? 
  • Are you tired of playing the same licks and chords all the time and want a “fresh” new sound but still play exactly those same chords and licks?
  • Do you struggle to play with a keyboard player? 

Whilst a capo will not solve all of your problems, it certainly can help you with the issues outlined above.  

Even if you answered no to these questions, a capo is still worth experimenting with – you never know, it may provide some inspiration you’ve been looking for. 

Attaching a capo

If we think of a capo as a “moveable nut”, its job is to press the strings down at different positions of the fretboard. This means that a capo will essentially comprise of a flat part to press the strings down and a means of fitting onto the back of the neck to give even pressure across all of the strings.

The simplest way to achieve this is a strap capo (a la the Egyptians). 

There are also trigger or spring-loaded capos like this one by Silence Ban. You squeeze the handle against the neck grip to open and place on your neck. 

There are also screw on capos like this one by Shubb. It isn’t spring loaded but instead has a screw to tighten the capo to the neck.

You can also get partial capos which could be the subject of an entire post by themselves. They only press down selected strings so can be custom made for open tunings, chords with difficult fingerings or extended chords for example. 

There are two things to bear in mind when attaching and removing a capo:

  • Try to attach and remove the capo smoothly and with an even fit. 
  • You may need to retune when you remove the capo. 

Capo placement

We place the capo on the fret, just behind the fret bar.  If it’s too far away it may make your guitar sharp or if it’s too close buzz. If either of these happen you’ll need to reposition the capo.  Here’s a photo to show the placement on the third fret.

Zoomed in photo of guitar neck showing capo placement behind the fret

A quick word about chords

In the following part of the post when I talk about playing chords I’m referring to those familiar first position open chords, some of which are shown below.  Most of these are triad chords but if you play an extended chord such as G6 or Fmaj7, using a capo will still retain the 6 or maj7 nature of the chord.  

How does a capo work?

Considering the capo as a “movable nut”, whichever fret we place it behind, all the strings have been raised by the same number of semi-tones. If we place behind the first fret and play a G chord shape, you are really playing one semi-tone above which is a G#/Ab chord.  

If we place the capo behind the second fret, all the strings have been raised by 2 semi-tones (a tone).  So if we play a G chord shape, we are really playing a tone higher which is an A chord.  

If we place the capo behind the third fret, all the strings have been raised by three semi-tones.   If we play a G chord shape, we are really playing a A#/Bb chord and so on.

It is important to remember that any chords and tablature are played relative to the position of the capo. Thinking of the capo as a “moveable nut” helps with this so whichever fret the capo is placed behind can be thought of as fret zero, as if it were the actual nut. So for instance, if the capo is placed behind the fifth fret, a G chord is still written as 320003 but you play the shape relative to the capo i.e. 3 frets higher so the actual frets are 875558.

There is a simple pattern. When we place a capo at fret “x”, whatever chord shape we play will be “x” semi-tones higher.  This principle also applies in reverse, so if a song has a chord that you’re struggling to play, you can place the capo at fret “y” and play a chord “y” semi-tones lower than the one written. So for example if you struggle to play F# and B minor chords you can place the capo behind fret 2 and play chord shapes 2 semi-tones lower, namely E and A minor which are much easier to play, especially for a beginner. 

The table below sets this out for all chords and fret positions and you can use the table in both of the ways outlined above.

Place the capo on a given fret, then when you play a chord in the first column, read across to the column which shows where the capo is placed for the actual chord being played.  So for example, place the capo on the 5th fret, play an E chord and then read across to see that you are actually playing an A chord.

If you struggle with a B chord for example, look for a B chord in main body of the table and look what fret to place the capo behind.  Read across to the first column to find the chord to play.  So we can find a B with the capo on the second fret and we read across to see that we can play an A chord.  Find B with the capo on the 7th fret and we read across to see that we play an E chord.

Place capo on fret

Play this chord shape
123456789101112
CC#/DbDD#/EbEFF#/GbGG#/AbAA#/BbBC
C#/DbDD#/EbEFF#/GbGG#/AbAA#/BbBCC#/Db
DD#/EbEFF#/GbGG#/AbAA#/BbBCC#/DbD
D#/EbEFF#/GbGG#/AbAA#/BbBCC#/DdDD#/Eb
EFF#/GbGG#/AbAA#/BbBCC#/DbDD#/EbE
FF#/GbGG#/AbAA#/BbBCC#/DbDD#/EbEF
F#/GbGG#/AbAA#/BbBCC#/DbDD#/EbEFF#/Gb
GG#/AbAA#/BbBCC#/DbDD#/EbEFF#/GbG
G#/AbAA#/BbBCC#/DbDD#/EbEFF#/GbGG#/Ab
AA#/BbBCC#/DbDD#/EbEFF#/GbGG#/AbA
A#/BbBCC#/DbDD#/EbEFF#/GbGG#/AbAA#/Bb
BCC#/DbDD#/EbEFF#/GbGG#/AbAA#/BbB

Advanced use of a capo - transposing to other keys

Although this is the advanced part of the lesson, it is actually an easier and quicker way to use a capo.  The only reason this is advanced is because it considers the use of keys rather than individual chords. A previous blog post “introduction to music theory” linked above provides further information on this aspect of music theory. 

We can see a capo allows the use of familiar chord shapes in unfamiliar keys.  Whilst these can be worked out by subtracting semi-tones on a chord by chord basis, it is much easier to think in terms of the key and chord position.  For instance, take the key of Bb;

  • 1     2     3    4    5    6     7     
  • Bb Cm Dm  Eb  F Gm Adim Bb

Thinking in terms of chord positions rather than names, if a song contains Bb, Eb, F and Gm minor chords we consider these as 1, 4, 5 and 6 position chords.  We now decide which key to play in.  To play in the key of G for instance, this is three semi-tones lower therefore we place the capo behind the third fret.  If we write out the key of G:

  • 1    2      3     4    5    6     7     
  • G   Am  Bm   C   D  Em  F#dim G

 We can see that the 1, 4, 5 and 6 position chords give G, C, D and Em chord shapes instead. 

If we want to play in the key of E, this is 6 semi-tones lower and we therefore place the capo behind the sixth fret.  We now play 1, 4, 5 and 6 position chords in the key of E that we have transposed to, namely E, A, B, C#min.  

Similarly, any scales should be also be played in the key that we have transposed to.       

It is important to remember that when we say we are transposing to a new key, although we are thinking and playing in terms of more familiar chords and keys, we are still really playing those original chords in the original key.

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