What is a Capo and How Do I Use It?

Guitar with capo

The capo is one of the guitar player’s favorite accessories.

The capo is one of the guitar player’s favorite accessories. It is a clamp that holds all or some of the strings of the guitar down across a fret. Some capos are spring-loaded, others apply pressure by using a lever or strap. The capo can be placed across any fret of the guitar.

Why would a guitarist want to use a capo? The three most common reasons are:

1.  To take the key of a song up without changing the chord shapes. Have you ever tried to sing a song but it’s too low for your vocal range? This can be corrected with the simplest function of the capo. If the song is in the key of G, you can place the capo across the first fret, move all your chord shapes up the neck in relation to the capo, and you are now playing in G# (one half step higher in range). The best part is this – you’re still using the chord shapes from G! Easy-peasy!

Something to remember: Your chord shapes did not change but the chords themselves moved up one half step. What does this mean? The G major chord is made of three notes: G, B and D. When you placed the capo on the first fret and moved your first position G up the neck by one fret, your G major chord shape is now playing G#, C and D#. These three notes make a G# major chord, not a G major.

2. To take the key of a song down using different chord shapes. Let’s say the opposite is true… the song you want to sing is too high and you need to take the key down a little. You have to have a basic understanding of the musical alphabet to fix this problem. If you’re playing “I Love My Capo” in D but you need it just a little lower, you can capo on the first fret and use the chord shapes for the key of C.

This process involves a little more thought than moving the key up. First, choose a lower key in which you want to play. For our example, we want to play “I Love My Capo” in C#. Now that we have our target key, we need to choose chord shapes that would normally be used in a key lower than our target key. We’ll use the chord shapes for C. In the key of D, “I Love My Capo” uses the chords D, G, A and Bm. We’ll use chord shapes that are two half steps lower than these (D becomes C, G becomes F, A becomes G and Bm becomes Am). Now we will capo on the first fret and these chord shapes will move up one half step, just like is #1. Now we’re playing “I Love My Capo” in the key of C# using chord shapes from the key of C. Whew! You should feel like you’ve accomplished something!

3. To change the chord shapes without changing the key. This process is basically the same as #2. However, you will move the new chord shapes up the neck an appropriate number of frets until you are playing in the original key but using different chord shapes. For instance, if I wanted to play “I Love My Capo” in D using the chords from C, I would capo on the second fret. Now the C-shape chord actually plays D, F plays G, etc.

Doing this seems like a lot of work to end up in the original key. Why not play without the capo? Guitarists will capo and use alternate chord shapes to get different voicings of the chords. Play the same three notes of a G major chord (G, B and D) in different places on the neck using different strings and you will notice that they have varied nuances. These different voicings can make a song sound more interesting than playing in open position. Guitarists will also capo and use alternate chord shapes if they are more comfortable with certain shapes than others.

Using the capo will help you apply your understanding of the musical alphabet, half steps, whole steps and chord construction. Your next step… master barre chords and play any chord on the neck without a capo!

Strum happy!