The Underappreciated Art of Using a Capo

Nov16

I have small hands. Not that you’d notice, but for a guitarist (and especially a pianist), small hands are a bit of a liability. Pardon the pun, but it’s a big stretch for me to go from certain notes to others. And let’s not talk about barre chords, at least, not just yet. I will add that none of these considerations stopped me from choosing a twelve-string for my first guitar.

I should also note that when I started playing guitar, most of my friends who played music played piano or (high school) band instruments such as the saxophone or the trumpet. It wasn’t until I got to college that I met many other guitarists. Consequently, when I would jam with my high school friends it was often hard for us to agree upon which key to play a song. Since most of them were “strictly sheet music” types, I found myself faced with the prospects of playing quite a number of songs in F, Bb and, of course, Eb.

Fortunately, I discovered capos. A capo is a device that allows you so move the nut of your guitar around. Okay, not really, but if you think of it in those terms you’ll be able to get a lot out of one. Essentially a capo is a strip of hard material (usually rubber or plastic) which is clamped onto the neck of your guitar at a position of your choosing, effectively providing you with a full barre on whatever fret you place it. It is a floating nut, if you will. When I started playing, most capos were basically rubber tubes that you would attach with thick elastic straps. Nowadays, much like everything else, they tend to look fairly high-tech in spite of their simplicity of function.

Guitar Capo

This is how it works. If I put my capo on the first fret, every chord I play has now moved up a half step. An A chord is now a Bb (or A#). An E minor is now F minor. If I put it on the fourth fret, everything is now up two whole steps (four half steps). A C is now an E. An A minor is a C# minor. The following chart will give you some of the basic chord transpositions:

Basic Chord Transpositions

Now suppose I wanted to play Paul Simon’s Mrs. Robinson or America. The sheet music shows both songs are played in the key of Bb, which contains quite a few chords that are likely to cause me to cringe in fear. However, if I put my capo on the third fret I am now playing in the key of G and that gives me no anxiety whatsoever. I can handle just about anything in G. But just to make it seem like a bit of work, I still have to go through the sheet music and transpose the changes. To find out just how easy transposing can be, check out the article Turning Notes into Stone – A Basic Guide to Transposing.

A capo also enables you to play a song with a different picking pattern than might be possible without a capo. Simon and Garfunkel’s version of Scarborough Fair is a popular example of this. The song is in E minor but Simon plays it with A minor based chord voicing with capo on the his guitar’s seventh fret. Another song that you can easily hear being done this way is Lyle Lovett’s If I Had A Boat, which he sings in E but plays in the key of G (capo on the ninth fret). The chord voicings really ring out when played this way. Likewise on the Beatles’ Here Comes the Sun, where the song is in A, but played as a D chord with the capo on the seventh fret.

Another handy aspect to the capo involves singing. Many have been the times that I have learned a song only to find that I cannot sing it in the original key. A couple of capo placements later, I will have found a key I can sing in and I won’t have to relearn the chords of the song.

But I personally think the best use of the capo comes when jamming with other guitarists. Think about it, if there are four or more of you playing together, it gets pretty dense with everyone down on one end of the guitar. One way to liven things up a bit is to play with a capo. Not only do you now provide the song with different chord voicings, you also end up having to rethink your leads, bringing more new life to the piece. It’s best to start out with songs that are fairly uncomplicated and in easy keys (and of course it always helps if you’ve played them together before). Dylan’s Knocking on Heaven’s Door (it’s in G – play in D with capo on fifth fret or in C with capo on seventh fret) or even Soul Asylum’s Runaway Train (song is in C – play in G with capo on fifth fret) are pretty good places to begin. One of my favorites is playing the Eagles’ Hotel California (usually in B minor) with my capo on the seventh fret (I’m playing in E minor). If I’m lucky enough to have a third guitarist playing with his or her capo on the second fret (in A minor), then I’m on cloud nine.

All this can be a little confusing when you’re just starting out. That’s okay. Be sure to write things out – this helps immensely. Also, bookmark this page so you can refer to the above chart and please feel free to email me with questions. I try to answer each one. If a particular question keeps popping up, we’ll devote some space to it. And don’t forget all your fellow guitarists on the Guitar Forums.

Oh, once I got to college I found that many of my new found college friends looked down on capos – until we saw Keith Richards using one. Things have been pretty cool since then.

About David Hodge

Since joining Guitar Noise in November 1999, David has written over a thousand articles, lessons, interviews and reviews. He also serves as the site's Managing Editor, supervising all content in addition to the continued writing of his own lessons and articles. In April 2013, David joined the writing staff of Answers.com, heading up their Guitar Pages. And if that wasn't enough to keep him busy, David contributes to regularly Acoustic Guitar Magazine. He is also the author of six instructional books, the most recent being Idiot’s Guide: Playing Guitar.

Comments [28]

  1. Am I crazy or are all of the capo positions stated in paragraph 8 (“But I personally think the best use of the capo comes…”) wrong? For Dylan’s Knocking on Heavens Door in G, wouldn’t the correct capo position be 7 and not 5 as stated for D? And wouldn’t C be position 5 rather than 7?

    Then there is the Soul Asylum example; If it’s in C and you want to play in G wouldn’t that be the 7th fret and not the 5th fret as stated?

    And finally, even the Hotel California example seems wrong to me. Going from B to E in my understanding would be capo 5 not capo 7 as stated.

    Do I not understand this at all or are my statements correct? I am very confused at the moment. Please let me know if I am right or not!

    Thanks!!!

    • Hi Jon

      Thanks for writing and my apologies about the confusion – and, believe me, it’s easy to get confused when capos are involved! Let’s take a look at the paragraph in question:

      But I personally think the best use of the capo comes when jamming with other guitarists. Think about it, if there are four or more of you playing together, it gets pretty dense with everyone down on one end of the guitar. One way to liven things up a bit is to play with a capo. Not only do you now provide the song with different chord voicings, you also end up having to rethink your leads, bringing more new life to the piece. It’s best to start out with songs that are fairly uncomplicated and in easy keys (and of course it always helps if you’ve played them together before). Dylan’s Knocking on Heaven’s Door (it’s in G – play in D with capo on fifth fret or in C with capo on seventh fret) or even Soul Asylum’s Runaway Train (song is in C – play in G with capo on fifth fret) are pretty good places to begin. One of my favorites is playing the Eagles’ Hotel California (usually in B minor) with my capo on the seventh fret (I’m playing in E minor). If I’m lucky enough to have a third guitarist playing with his or her capo on the second fret (in A minor), then I’m on cloud nine.

      Okay, the thing that we have to remember is that (in these examples, anyway) we want to play the song in it’s original key. That means “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” will be in G, while “Runaway Train” is in C and “Hotel California” is in B minor.

      That being said, we then want to use our capos to play different chords, but to have those chords (when we play them) actually be in the original key. If I play a D chord without a capo, it’s obviously a D chord. When I play a D chord with my capo on the first fret, it’s actually a D# (or Eb) chord because I have used the capo to rais each note on half-step (one fret). Using this logic, when I place my capo on the fifth fret and play a D chord, that chord is, in reality, now a G chord. We’ve raised the D chord up five half steps:

      D (open) – D# (1st fret) – E (2nd fret) – F (3rd fret) – F# (4th fret) – G (5th fret)

      Likewise, in order to turn my C chord into a G chord, the capo has to be placed on the seventh fret, raising the C chord up seven half-steps:

      C (open) – C# (1st fret) – D (2nd fret) – D# (3rd fret) – E (4th fret) – F (5th fret) – F# (6th fret) – G (7th fret)

      What you were doing in your calculating was correct in that playing a G chord at the seventh fret does give you a D chord. But what we’re trying to do is to not play the same chords, but rather figure out which chords, and what capo placement, we need to stay in the original key. You might want to read an old blog post at Guitar Noise called “Doublespeak” http://www.guitarnoise.com/blog/revisiting-the-capo-part-2/ which goes into this topic.

      I hope this helps. And please feel free to email or post again with further questions. This is one topic where many guitarists have to stop a moment and think things out, so it can definitely be confusing. Even when you’ve been playing quite a while!

      Looking forward to chatting with you again.

      Peace

      • HI David,I was going thru songs on the internet,and seen this fellow named Kirby he posts a lot of songs on his web site he played the song am,Dm,E E7,with a capo on the 4th fret well lost my capo and have a hard time with it,but i can do barr chords not well thou but more practise it will be better.Well the song he was playing was his version he said and that song is by the raiders it’s called [ INDIAN RESERVATION] Well hooley mooley he does a very good job on this song.I asked him if he has the tabs on it,he said no and does not teach that song other then what you see on his video,for me to play this same song can i use barr chords,but the kicker is how do you make the base run for the drums and thrumpet and oregan,what kirby does sounds good.What i need to ask is barr chords going to make that same song sound just as good,if not i wont even try and figure it out i will use the guitar for fire wood when camping,just kidding.Any info on this would be appreciated thank you.

  2. hey david
    great article, very helpful.
    i get confused with where i’m at when using a capo but i love all the voicings it offers.
    i’ll be bookmarking this page and referring back!
    thanks man
    d

  3. 12-String Frank says:

    I play only a 12-string. I’d never put a capo higher than
    the 4th fret. After that it sounds lousy and like toy
    instrument sound. If I want it to sound like a mandolin …
    then yeah, I’d put it higher up the neck.

    But I like using capo to playing chords easier, like an Eb.
    Or if a song is in F key, I can play E on capo first fret.
    I do this particularly for Genesis and Jethro Tull songs.

  4. Fantastic article, very helpful! I’ve watched several YouTube videos where a person plays the intro to Hotel California and mostly they use capo on 7th fret, but I’ve seen several where they didn’t use a capo at all and one with capo on the 5th fret. I was confused because they all sounded about the same except the higher/lower pitch (hope I’m using the correct term here?). This article explains how they must have transposed the notes. I guess in the case of Hotel California it’d be best to learn to play the intro without capo though, right? That way one could switch to the verse and chorus without having to remove the capo? For one guitar payer that is, if there are several then I guess it doesn’t matter?

    • Hi Erik

      Thanks for writing and thank you, too, for your kind words concerning this lesson.

      It’s rare that one removes (or adds) a capo part-way through a song, so you definitely want to learn “Hotel California” so that you don’t have to. But I’ll also add that you can easily learn it all three ways (no capo, capo on 5th fret and capo on 7th fret) without too much trouble. You may not think so at the moment, but it’s just a matter of knowing the chord progression at each position. Doing so will also help you start being able to transpose in your head, which is an incredibly helpful skill to develop.

      Also, you may find that you enjoy playing this song in each position for different reasons. If you’re performing by yourself, having the capo at the seventh fret may not give you a lot of bass to work with, but it does make it easier to come up with solos at the end while still using the chords to fill out the sound.

      There’s no single right way of playing this song as a single gutiar arrangement, so try them all out and see which you like best. I’d also try using a capo on the second fret and playing in Am to see how you like that as well.

      Looking forward to chatting again.

      Peace

      • 12-String Frank says:

        I play some songs in which I have to add a capo even most of the song is without capo.
        I recently learned “And You and I” from Yes. The song is in D, and the chorus part use
        A chords. Then for the second part of this epic the song change key into E. But when I
        finally get to the last part, which is a reprise of the chorus, it is in B. Here I quickly put
        on the capo on the 2nd fret so I can play the A chords (easier for me), yet still be in the key of B.
        Another is “The Musical Box” from Genesis. I begin capo on 2nd fret and play E chord, but the
        song key is in F#. That’s simply for the famous Intro. For the last section (She’s a Lady), I put
        the capo back on fret 2 and play E chords, but the main key is F#. For Jethro Tull songs I use
        capo on 3rd fret. For some Peter Gabriel songs I use capo on 1st fret. Also, for Warren Zevon
        “Boom Boom Mancini” so I can sound like the record.

  5. Wow; a chart that makes sense.Now when I capo up to make songs work with my,not so country tenor voice,I can tell Mandolin and banjo what chords to accompany with. Dan’s back in the saddle again thanks to you.

  6. Good article, I love using a capo. I began using them for all the reasons in this article. I just wanted to empasise their importance. When I started using Capo regurally, I began learning the other postions for the chords as well as the notes in those particular parts of the Guitar neck. It wasn’t long before I began connecting my licks / scales and now I can cover the entire fret board with ease and stay in key when playing my leads. Too often, I see people calling the chord by the name of fingering postion rather the actual note. For example, Capo on third, they are calling an “A” shape an A, when it is a C. I can not stress enough that when they start calling these chords by their correct names they will begin to associate the notes in that position and will begin to understand the guitar as never before. One other thing, be careful when placing the Capo on the neck, it may pull some of your strings slightly out of tune. you should check this immediatly after placing the Capo on the neck. You can try to reseat it and then retune the strings that are out. When I am recording I use the tuner to make sure every string is the exact pitch it is supposed to be (seldom is it perfect). for ex. Capo on 2nd fret, strings low to high should be F#,B,E,A,C#,F#. and etc. as you move the capo down the neck. I hope I helped someone and didn’t throw out too much confusion here………………..”don’t stop rockin’”…………..KSK

    • 12-String Frank says:

      Yeah, but what’s the deal with girl guitar players and capos? Really, 95% of the time I see a girl play a guitar, she has a capo. Can’t she just change the key?

      • Did you actually read the article?? Here’s the very first sentence: “…I have small hands. Not that you’d notice, but for a guitarist (and especially a pianist), small hands are a bit of a liability…”

        Erik

      • 12-String Frank says:

        I have never heard “small hands” being a reason to use a capo. So every song you play, you have to capo your guitar because of that. So no songs you play sound like the record since you keep changing the key. As aforesaid in my earlier post, a capo is used well for playing a song in the key that’s on the record, and playing chords which are easier to finger. I.E. – if the key of the song is in Eb and sounds too weird for you, then place your capo ong frest fret, and form a D chord, and the rest will follow.

      • I replied the way I did because you were generalizing. Not all girls use capo, my teacher certainly doesn’t. So I replied with yet another generalization. :)

      • 12-String Frank says:

        I was at an open mike last night. Every girl there that had a guitar used a capo. So it’s not a generalization. Anything wrong with it? Not intrinsically, I guess, but it’s not that easy playing with other people if You wanna capo your guitar, and the others don’t want to, or maybe even don’t have a capo with in their case.

      • Just because YOU witnessed it doesn’t mean it applies to 95% of girls which is what you claimed earlier. Either way, let’s focus on the great article rather than your fantastic knowledge of female guitar players’ capo preferences. Shall we?

        PS. My sister agrees with my point and that’s all that matters to me.

      • Part of it also depends on song selection. Men and women, obviously, sing in different ranges. So when a woman wants to sing a song that’s been done by a guy, they usually have to find another key to sing it in. If they’ve already learned the song in a particular key then a capo is the smart way to go. Likewise if a man wants to sing a song that was written by a woman, chances are very likely he’ll have to use a capo to find the proper key to sing in.

        Sometimes using a capo is done to simply make sure one is singing a song in the best key for the singer. Which is usually a good thing for the audience as well!

        Peace

      • David – you’re a voice of knowledge and reason. Thank you.

  7. 12-String Frank says:

    I’m sorry — typo — I meant to write “then place your capo on the first fret, and form a D chord, and the rest will follow.”

  8. JORGE DE JESUS says:

    I have a very old Capo… Has no trademark…
    Looks like a SHUBB, but I don’t know.
    I’d like to show it to someone.
    where can I send a photo of the capo, and maybe -
    find out, its origin.

    • 12-String Frank says:

      Jorge — that sounds like a poem.
      Erik — I don’t want to have an argument about this. It’s a friendly topic. But I am going by what I have seen and my experience playing in different places. That being said, I still feel that using a capo can be a Help and also Burden. The highest fret I will go to on my 12-string is the 4th. Anything higher will make it sound lousy and be more like a mandolin. I saw a guy recently at an open mike and he did 2 songs with capo on the 6th fret. There’s something in my mind that objects to this. 6th fret? I mean, really, it has to be that high up and tinny? For that type of thing, I would determine the key he originally wanted to play, and then just change the chords.

  9. Iggy Reefs says:

    David-
    I’m sorry in advance that this question has nothing to do with capos, but I figured you would respond. I’m just starting out on guitar (6string) and I would like to know if it’s best for me to learn notes or just use chord diagrams and tabs while playing. I’ve heard that the diagrams and tabs are easier. I want to learn fast too! Please Respond.

  10. Hi, I have never used a capo and probably never will. Most of what I have ever played in the past has been with barr chords (Rock Blues or 60;s music), you can create some amazing stuff using those chords by emphasising the different strings when playing chords or lead arpeggios Anyway just wanted to say that your chart made sense, others I have looked at were not so clear to really understand, so from someone who does not own or use a capo, thanks for the concise layout of your chart, I have made the necessary notes and keep those for possible future use or just to help someone else…………. great !!!!!!!

    • 12-String Frank says:

      Hey Bazz,
      I sort feel the same way. But I don’t play just rock and blues. I also love doing some Jethro Tull songs and in order to get the sound just right, I have use the capo on the 3rd fret. My whole problem with the capo is why so many folk artists feel they have to use it, and also feel that they have use it way up the neck… like on the 9th fret. Then it sounds like a mandolin. I also wonder why 95% of women performers have to use capo. They can’t learn and/or sing a song w/o it ?

      • @ 12-String. Did you notice when reading the article that many times using a capo DOESN’T change the key of the song? It just lets you play it on a different part of the neck with different voicings. As for how far up the neck you can go – that depends on a lot of things: your guitar, your tuning, and the strings you use being chief among them. My archtop with medium strings (pure nickel 12-56 wound G) sounds fine with a capo at the seventh fret. Finally, did you know that 72.5% of all statistics are made up on the spot? Maybe girls are just more creative with how they use their guitars and aren’t locked into ‘standard tuning’ mode. If so many other people are using a technique, maybe you’re the one who’s “wrong” by dismissing it out of hand.

        @Bazz: don’t become ‘too cool’ for a capo. There are sounds and effect you simply cannot achieve using barre chords – an open string droning on from one chord to the next being the most obvious. That said, I generally don’t reach for my capo as soon as I see ‘hard’ chords. Truthfully, there are no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ keys on a guitar. It’s just as easy to play in Ab as it is to play in G once you know all your chord forms and can comp rhythm reasonably competently.

        @Iggy: learn the notes, especially on the two bottom (thickest) strings. Once you’ve got those down you can use octaves to easily see the next two, so you only have to learn the B string – thin E is the same as thick E.

      • 12-String Frank says:

        “Maybe girls are just more creative with how they use their guitars and aren’t locked into ‘standard tuning’ mode. If so many other people are using a technique, maybe you’re the one who’s “wrong” by dismissing it out of hand. ”

        ???? I doubt it. I never met a girl guitarist who played with a different tuning. Like I said, 95% of women players use the capo, most probably for their singing.

  11. I’m so happy I found this article. I recently started using a capo (not because of my lack of voice range or being a female) but because the casual group I play with has more guitars than other instruments, so I wanted to add some variety. I think of it as harmonizing, just like in a choir, you go low and I’ll go high. I do have a question, though. Is using a capo the definition of transposing? Or is transposing only using the capo to change key while using the same chord shapes? If you use the original key with the capo i.e. different chord shapes, is it also considered transposing? When a song says use capo on the 5th fret, then gives the chord as e.g. G, does it mean to play the shape of open G, or does it mean the actual chord of G on the new fret, which is the shape of open D?

    • 12-String Frank says:

      Hi Linni,
      I believe that if the song says to use a capo on the 5th fret, and gives the chord as G,
      then yeah — you should play the standard G chord with capo on 5th fret. It is some sort of
      transposing. I think a G chord on a capo-5 neck sounds like C chord.

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