When used as a tool—and not merely a crutch—a capo can offer inspiration and creativity for players of all skill levels. A capo is, of course, a useful gadget for accompanying a singer to get the actual key of a song in a better vocal range without changing from your favorite chords. There’s more to try out, though, and it’s not just about avoiding barre chords. It’s really about expanding your choices and making your guitar sound great.
Capit, the Latin root word for “head,” gives us the perspective of thinking of a capo as the temporary new head of the strings. A capo placed just behind a fret makes that fret the new nut, if you will, or the lowest point of contact for the strings. There is an interesting tonal quality that comes from playing open chords while using a capo; the open strings aren’t exactly open anymore, but they are still different from the sound of the fretted notes you play beyond the capo. The shimmery quality that results from playing with a capo on high frets is an attractive addition to solo guitar arrangements—and much more.
1. Making Things More Playable
Some guitars just lend themselves to intricate passages, challenging chord forms, and angular melodies. Others don’t. My humble beginnings were on a very inexpensive student guitar that featured mile-high action (and a painted-on pickguard!). Learning about capos saved the day just in time before I gave up on ever playing F. Even for advanced players, a capo on an acoustic guitar can transform a beautiful instrument into a short-scale version of that same beautiful instrument, with slightly lower action. Unreachable stretches are now within reach. Get around on that two-chords-per-bar jazz tune complete with extensions and tensions with ease. Your arrangement of a chord-melody solo can be more playable, and therefore cleaner, with a capo on even just the first or second fret.
You can choose to bring a song up a whole step by putting the capo on the second fret, or you can keep it in its original key by tuning your guitar down a whole step and placing the capo in that same position. I’ve recorded both ways, and my day in the studio was made easier and more creative.
2. Moving Up the Neck
Try out a song you know in the key of A major. Something typical would be A–D–E or variations of those chords. It’s a perfectly good progression and easy enough to play well down around the first few frets. Now try it in a much higher position: put a capo at the seventh fret. To keep the song in the key of A, play the chords as if the song is in D, using D–G–A instead of A–D–E. Listen to that sound! The choices you make with regard to open strings, bass notes, hammer-ons, pull-offs, and various other expressions and embellishments are different from what you usually do in the key of A with no capo. Accessing high notes to double a melody while still having the benefit of open strings for bass notes or middle notes of chords brings new life to an ordinary progression.
3. Suiting the Singer
Singers have a particular range, and that range might not always be in your favorite guitar key. While guitarists can change keys readily enough through the use of moveable chords, such as barre chords, having to do so might blow the chances of being able to use that gorgeous arrangement containing those certain voicings with those well-placed open strings. If a singer needs a higher key, there’s an easy solution: capo up until the singer says yes. But if a singer needs a lower key, a capo can help with that, too. If you like playing a song in G, for example, but it puts the melody too high for the singer, try a capo at the fourth fret. The singer can now try the melody down an octave in relation to the chords.
In this example, the song is now in the key of B, as long as you keep playing it as if it’s in G. As always with a capo, it might take some adjusting to taste to find the sweet spot for the vocalist. If you’re wondering, a capo on the eighth fret will put the song in this scenario in the key of Eb. Keep playing it as if it’s in G.
4. Creating a Wall of Sound
When you are in a group with two or three guitarists, it can sound more interesting if you’re not playing the same things in the same ways. Without a capo, this can be achieved by using different voicings between players. Adding a capo or two can bring out an exquisite blend of sound, similar to the ways in which, say, an acoustic guitar and mandolin work together.
To play a song in the key of D major, for instance, one player can stay capo-free in the lower register. A second guitarist can capo at the fifth fret and play as if in A, and a third player could work in G with a capo VII, C with capo II, or E with capo X.
A jazz guitar trio playing the standard “All the Things You Are,” which starts in the key of Ab major, with a progression of Fm7–Bbm7–Eb7–Abmaj7, could have a lot of fun dividing up the chordal work. One guitarist could use a capo at the sixth fret and play it as if in D (Bm7–Em7–A7–Dmaj7). A second guitarist might capo at the first fret and play shapes in G (Em7–Am7–D7–Gmaj7). If the third guitarist works in standard tuning, sans capo, that will spread out the voicings nicely throughout the trio; the sum of the parts will be great.
Exploring the possibilities at a rehearsal or on your own in your studio is sure to ignite some creative sparks in your music.
This article originally appeared in the September/October 2022 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.