The Underappreciated Art of Using a Capo

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.