The capo is a small but powerful tool that can be found in most guitarists’ piles of miscellaneous guitar picks and accessories. When you ask folks if they know how to use a capo, the answer is often: “Sure, you put it on, and it makes the guitar sound higher, right?” While that is true, in order to fully comprehend the capo’s role as a pocket-size transposition machine and more, knowing exactly where to place it for different keys is an invaluable skill. For instance, have you been at a jam when someone calls out a tune in the key of Eb and panicked, as you thought it might be a good time for a capo, but had no idea how to use it in a pinch? This lesson aims to remedy that situation.
Essentially, the capo functions as a nut and when placed on the neck, transposes, or raises the notes of the open strings but retains the individual relationships between strings. With the aid of a capo, you can know only three open chords and easily play in all 12 keys. In order to get the most benefit out of your capo, a small amount of music theory will go a long way. At a bare minimum, you should understand intervals, or the distances between notes. For instance, that the note a minor second (one fret) higher than C is C#; that a major third (four frets) above E is G#. It’s also useful to have a knowledge of the Roman numeral system used to label chord progressions independently of key signatures—I–IV–V, I–vi–ii–V, etc.
The easiest way to get comfortable with your capo is to start simply, with just one chord. Looking at Example 1, if you were to place a capo at the second fret and strum an open A chord, it would sound as B. Play the same A chord with the capo at the third fret and it sounds as C; move the capo up an additional fret and the chord sounds as C#.
This idea repeats with every chord shape on the neck. As long as you have a basic familiarity with the fretboard and are able to reference some familiar guideposts, such as the root note of each chord shape, you can figure out a variety of ways to play any given chord with the capo. In the case of that open A shape, with its fifth-string root, can you figure out what the chord would sound as with a capo at the seventh fret? I encourage you to pause and think about it. Hopefully, your answer is E.
Beginners’ Tip #1
Find a capo that snugly fits the radius of your fretboard and presses all six strings evenly. Before playing, check your tuning, sounding each open string to ensure that it is ringing freely.
Now let’s extend the concept to a common chord progression: I–IV–V–I or C–F–G–C, as notated in the key of C major in Example 2. If you clamp on the capo at the second fret, the progression will sound a major second higher (D–G–A–D); the third fret, a minor third higher (Eb–Ab–Bb–Eb); and so on. Try placing the capo at other frets when playing Ex. 2, and see if you can correctly identify the sounding chords.
Next, try playing the I–IV–V–I progression with a different set of chords, A (I), D (IV), and E (V), as shown in Example 3. If you were to place a capo at the third fret, the chords would sound a minor third higher than written, in the key of C, or the same as Ex. 2 without a capo. Before proceeding to the next example, play through Ex. 3 with the capo at various locations. Wrap up this week’s exercises by starting the same I–IV–V–I progression on a sixth-string-rooted chord, G (Example 4). See if you can figure out how to use the capo to transpose the figure to the keys of A and C. (Answer: place the capo at fret 2 for A and fret 5 for C.) Repeat the process for the I–IV–V–I progression in E notated in Example 5.
In order to really let these ideas sink in, take a song you are already familiar with and find other ways to play it with your capo. If you have a guitar-playing friend, try jamming on a song wherein you each play in a different position. One of you can use a capo, or you can each capo in a different location. As the capo also changes the tonal range of the guitar, you may find some interesting combinations. See what you come up with!
One of the capo’s biggest advantages is that it can make playing songs in non-guitar-friendly keys—like Ab or Db—more playable. This is especially true of music that requires the extensive use of barre chords, which can place undue strain on your fretting hand.
In other words, you needn’t fear barre chords anymore—let the capo do all the heavy lifting.
For example, what do you do if you look up a song on the internet and see that it has a chord progression of Fm–Bbm? As all the same rules that we’ve discussed obviously apply to minor keys, you’ve got options! One of the easiest solutions would be to play Em and Am in the open position and use a capo at the first fret, causing the chords to sound as Fm and Bbm, as shown in Example 6. Note that in this and all subsequent examples, the music is written as if there weren’t a capo, and that the zeros in tablature actually represent the fret that the capo is on.
Beginners’ Tip #2
If you see “Capo V” indicated on a piece of guitar music, it means that the capo is to be placed on the fifth fret.
What if you were going to strum a I–vi–ii–V progression in E, but didn’t feel comfortable with your C# and F# minor barre chords? Example 7 shows one possibility: playing in a C position with your capo at the fourth fret. If a song calls for arpeggios and you see Bm and F# listed as the chords, you could put the capo on the second fret and play with more manageable shapes in the first position, as in Example 8.
The capo isn’t used just to get out of playing in certain keys and barre chords. You could, for instance, finger a I–vi progression in G (G–Em) without a capo using standard open grips. But when you place a capo at the seventh fret and use open C and Am shapes, the chords sound as G and Em—while taking on a fresh timbre. Try it for yourself by playing the Travis-picked Example 9. (For more on Travis picking, see my lessons in the December 2017 and January 2019 issues of AG.)
You’ve been focusing on playing chords with the capo, but this week will be about incorporating scales and melodies. Whether you are a flatpicker or a fingerpicker, the capo can be used to make soloing in different keys more manageable. For example, many bluegrass players prefer to play in open G position, so if a song is in the key of Bb they might place the capo on the third fret to take advantage of the open strings they normally use in G.
Example 10 mimics some common bluegrass runs, fingered without the capo, in Bb. Playing in this key in the first position can be a little awkward, especially considering bluegrass’ customarily brisk tempos. Example 11 is the exact same idea, but played out of a G position, with the capo at the third fret. The open strings make the run easier to play, promoting more fluid phrasing.
Beginners’ Tip #3
Enharmonic keys are written differently but identical in pitch. For instance, F# major is the same as Gb major.
A familiar melody like “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” might be a cinch in a guitar-friendly key, but what if I asked you to play it in Ab? I can almost hear your groans of disbelief. You could certainly play it without the capo, as shown in Example 12. But now place a capo at the first fret, play “Twinkle” in G, and it will sound in Ab (Example 13). Did it get any easier? I’ll bet it did.
Of course, capo use isn’t limited to just standard tuning. In order to tie together all the ideas presented in this lesson, I’ve written a short etude in open-D tuning (D A D F# A D). Example 14 (p. 58) is capoed at the sixth fret, with a mix of strummed chords and single notes. Have you figured out what key it sounds in? (The answer is Ab.) This etude, which can be played either with a pick or fingerstyle, contains a lot of space for your own exploration of new sounds. Note how not only is the guitar’s tonality affected by the nonstandard tuning, its timbre is transformed when the capo is placed in the middle of the neck like this.
Beginners’ Tip #4
It’s a good idea to have a least one major scale—the basis of Western music—under your fingers in open position. In conjunction with a capo, you can get a whole lot of mileage out of that scale.
It’s important to remember that using a capo is not a sign of weakness or ineptitude, it is simply a tool that helps you capitalize on the guitar’s inherent strengths. Of course, you could take a very basic approach to the capo and simply place it wherever sounds good to you, but hopefully you have acquired some skills to use the device to its full potential. Be patient with yourself, as there are a lot of things to think about when using the capo as a transposing and arranging tool. And always remember that music should be fun!
TAKE IT TO THE NEXT LEVEL
Once you have the basics mastered, it’s fun to experiment with less-traditional uses of the capo, like partial capoing, which can offer you access to chordal moves that would be otherwise difficult or impossible to play. In this example, which sounds in the key of E major, the capo is placed at the fourth fret, covering only strings 1–5. If you play a Cmaj7 shape with the open sixth string, you get a big-sounding Emaj7 chord. (For more on partial capoing, see the Weekly Workout in the May 2017 issue of AG.)
Jamie Stillway is a fingerstyle guitarist and educator based in Portland, Oregon.
This article originally appeared in the May/June 2019 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.
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