So you put a capo on your guitar, say the third fret, and you start playing a song using a D chord. What are you playing?
Most guitarists will say “D.” And that’s the start of a lot of confusion. In reality, when we place the capo on the third fret (as in this example) we raise all of our chords up a step and a half. So your D chord is actually now F. If you don’t believe me, place your capo on the third fret and check the open D string against your tuner.
Now it goes without saying that we do already know this. Or kind of know it. Somewhere in those brains of ours wheels are clicking and our ears are also telling us that this D chord doesn’t sound like D. But when we think about the actual chord we’re playing, our fingers and brains are saying “D” and not “F.” It might be even better to say that our fingers and brains are on autopilot and not thinking or saying anything.
This is part of the accepted “doublespeak” of the guitarist when it comes to using a capo. We’ll acknowledge that using a capo changes the simple chords we play but we continue to call the chords by their open position names. When you think about it, it’s interesting because we don’t do the same thing with barre chords as we move our index finger around the neck like an instantly adjustable capo.
And all this discussion might also be a big yawn, but not acknowledging the doublespeak is usually what makes us second guess all the time when using the capo. We know what we do but haven’t taken the time to understand what it is that’s exactly happening. And that understanding is key to help us make using the capo easier.
Now, this isn’t to say that you want to start thinking of the new chords and keys each time you use the capo. That’s like expecting some shredding lead guitarist to name off every note in a lightning-fast lick. It’s just not going to happen. We learn patterns, whether those patterns are scales or chord shapes, and we use them without thought once we know where to start, once we have a reference point. And what is a capo if not a reference point?
So begin to acknowledge, if not embrace, the doublespeak. When someone says, “This song is just G, C and D with the capo on the fourth fret,” somewhere in the back recesses of your mind you should be thinking, “Okay, that’s really B, E and F#” and then go back to talking about the chords as if nothing’s changed. Doing this will help you when you’re trying to change a song in a difficult key, because you’ll be starting to recognize the “real” chords as well as the “capo position” chords. And it will also start you on a path where you’ll be thinking about chord progressions in terms of scale degrees. Which is where we’ll pick up next time…
If you’ve got any questions, we at Guitar Noise are always happy to answer them. Just send any of your questions to David at [email protected]. He (or another Guitar Noise contributor) may not answer immediately but he will definitely answer!