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Revisiting the Capo (Part 3) – Getting Through Some Confusion

I recently received this email and it seemed like a great way to ease back into our discussion on the use of the capo:

First. Great articles.
You have a way of presenting potentially complicated music topics in a way that the average musician can get their brain around.
Thanks and please keep them coming.
I have a question on the transposition article you posted, and this could be a dumb question.
Sorry in advance for that.
I understand the transpose proc ess, and I understand the various reasons for using a capo in some situations.
Here’s what I don’t understand.
In several examples in the article, “Edmund Fitzgerald” etc… You do both.
In other words, you first transpose the song AND use the capo.
I guess my question revolves around the reasoning there. Without overlooking that the capo transforms the texture of the chords/sound as a possibility…
Why would there be a need to 1st transpose to a different key, and then use the capo?
Couldn’t the same be accomplished by just using the capo on the appropriate fret (for whatever key you desire..)?
I know I’m missing some fundamental here.
Any clarification would be a big help.
Thanks David
Best Regards

Thank you for writing and thank you as well for your truly kind words concerning my work at Guitar Noise. Both Paul (Paul Hackett, the gentleman who created and still owns and runs the website) and I always appreciate when someone makes the time to write to us.

Now let’s see if I can justify those nice things you said about me!

There are one basic reasons for both transposing and using a capo and this should have been cleared in the article. Let’s even use “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” as an example. The song, as pointed out, is in C and I’ve transposed it into the key of A. So picking the first line (and hoping I’ve spelled “Chippewa” correctly), the chords in C would be:

The (C) legend lives on from the (Gm) Chippewa on down to the (Bb) great lake they (F) call Gitchee (C) Gumee.

We’re okay so far?

Transposed into the key of A, the chords of the first line would be:

The (A) legend lives on from the (Em) Chippewa on down to the (G) great lake they (D) call Gitchee (A) Gumee.

I’m assuming we’re still okay. Now comes the tricky part.

If I play the transposed chord without a capo, meaning just using regular position chords, I am playing this in the key of A. We’re agreed on this. But suppose I actually want to play it in the key of C. Maybe the vocals are easier or maybe I’m playing with a bass player who insists on playing it in the “right” key. The trouble is that I still want to play it in A because I think the chords are easier or have better voicings.

So I need to play in one key (A) but have it magically be a different key (C). This is where the capo comes in. Placing the capo on the neck of the guitar automatically raises the key that you’re playing in. If I put my capo on the first fret and play an A chord, it’s not going to sound like the A chord of someone who doesn’t have a capo on his or her guitar. In fact if we both play A chords at the same time, it’s going to sound positively dreadful.

That’s because the minute I put my capo on, I stopped playing in “standard tuning,” Technically, my guitar is now tuned up a half-step on each string.

Here’s where a little “intentional magic” comes into play. When I transposed “Edmund” from C to A, I changed each chord one-and-a-half steps lower. So if I still want to play in the original key but still use the chords I’ve transposed to, then I need to use the capo to raise my transposed chords up one-and-a-half steps in order to play in the original key. If I place my capo on the third fret and play an A chord, and have another guitarist (without a capo) play a C chord, we will be playing the same chord. Different voicings (my A will have a note higher than his) but still the same chord.

So this two part process should be thought of in this manner:

1) Transpose down X number of half-steps20to make the chords easier or to get better voicings

2) Place capo X number of frets (the same “X” as in Step 1) to play transposed chords in the original key.

I hope this helps. Part of all the confusion is the language involved, an issure I tried to address in my last entry here. And hopefully we’ll keep this discussion going on a more regular basis! It would be great to get everything back on track again.

Until 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!

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