A capo is one of those pieces of equipment that can be very confusing for beginners. It’s easy to ignore what they do, as many songs can be played without a capo. When the day comes that you’re at band practice and someone says “you’ll need a capo on the 4th fret” then it pays to know what they are and what they do.
So, what is a capo? What benefits do they have for guitarists and how can a capo help you? We explain more in this article.
A capo is a small device that fits in the palm of your hand and is designed to clamp down on all strings across the guitar fretboard (this is why you might sometimes see a capo called a guitar clamp). This makes the area you can play on shorter and raises the pitch of your guitar. Placing the capo up a fret will make the pitch of your guitar higher as well.
Capo means “head” in Italian. This is an appropriate name. In a way, the capo is similar to the nut of the guitar. The nut, located on the headstock, dictates where the playable area of the strings ends and where the string vibrations stop. In other words, a capo acts as a sort of moveable nut. Instead of allowing the strings to pass over, though, it clamps over them to effectively shorten the strings.
By doing this, you change the pitch and key of the whole guitar. This means that the chord shapes you have learned can still be used higher up on the fretboard. The chords played will be different, but the chord progressions you have learned will still sound good. Effectively, playing something with a capo is simply transposing the song, or changing its pitch.
HOW TO USE A CAPO
Capos have some sort of clamping or tightening mechanism. There are a few different types, but all serve the same purpose. Some have a bar that clamps onto the strings, which is held in place by a cam-style clamp or by a screw that allows you to physically tighten it yourself.
The other popular style has a rubber bar attached to a material strap which can tighten around the back of the fretboard, like a watch on a wrist. These are sometimes called “cloth and toggle” capos.
In addition to the clamp-style capos and ones with a “cloth and toggle” mechanism, there are also partial capos. A partial capo works just like a regular one, but instead of covering all strings of the guitar, it only covers some of them. For example, you can use a partial capo to cover all but the low E string.
Partial capos are often used instead of alternative tunings, such as Drop D tuning, like in the previous example. Using partial capos can quickly end up in a world of complex tuning, so it’s recommended that beginners stick to the standard capo design covering all six strings.
Generally speaking, all styles of capo do the same thing. The choice will come down to your personal preference. You may want a capo which you can quickly and easily put on or take off the strings. In this case, you may want to go for a capo with a clamp design.
APPLYING YOUR CAPO
To apply your capo, simply choose which fret you are going to be using the capo on. Make sure it covers all of the strings on the same fret unless you are using a partial capo. Then use whatever mechanism is suggested to tighten your capo. It really is that simple!
Once you’ve applied the capo, strum the guitar and check that each string is ringing out clearly. Sometimes putting a capo on your guitar can create fret buzz—just readjust if needed. When moving the capo, try not to slide it up and down the strings. Instead, detach and then reattach the capo. This will avoid wear on the strings.
OTHER USES OF CAPOS
Capos can do more than just letting you change your tuning to play specific songs. There are other reasons to use a capo. Once you fully understand what a capo does, you can take advantage of some of its other benefits.
- To create a brighter sound. If you are shortening the length of the fretboard, you are making the tone of the guitar higher and brighter. Things you play will have much more ‘shine’ to them as the higher frequencies ring out more. This is often described as the ‘voicing’ of the guitar. An A chord played with a capo on a higher fret will have a different voicing than an A chord played near the nut without a capo.
- To change the key of a song you know. If you know a chord progression and you want to change things up, either for a different sound or to better suit a vocal range, a capo can be a good way to do so. You don’t need to learn how to play guitar differently, you can simply apply your capo.
- Avoiding barre chords. This is especially useful for a beginner. If you struggle to play a certain barre chord, transposing the song and playing with a capo may mean you can play a song without having to use your index finger to play a barre chord.
TUNINGS AND GUITAR CAPO CHART
As we already suggested, the tuning of your guitar will change based on where your capo is positioned. This means that if you learn a simple chord progression, and then play it with a capo on the third fret, for instance, those chords will have changed. It will still sound good, and the chords will be in key with one another, but the key itself will have changed.
The capo chord chart below does a very good job of showing how a capo changes the chords. For instance, playing the chord shape for an A chord with a capo on the third fret means you are technically playing a C chord.
Try learning this capo chart and use it to your advantage when playing with a capo. Whenever you’re in doubt, just come back and check the chart to get those guitar chords just right.
FINDING THE BEST CAPO FOR YOU
In spite of all capos pretty much doing the same thing, there are a few things you should consider before you purchase one.
The main decision you will have to make is the style of capo you want to use. A clamping design will be better than the cloth and toggle design if you need to change regularly or are playing live and need to quickly switch to a different key between songs. If you’re a bit more advanced with the guitar, you can also use a partial capo to experiment with different alternative tunings.
Investing in a well-made capo with quality rubber is a good way to protect your guitar. A lot of people invest in expensive and luxurious guitars but buy cheap accessories. The best way to keep your guitar in top condition is by protecting it. This includes using accessories that you can rely on.
A capo is an accessory you will find in pretty much every guitarist’s arsenal. Take some time to fully understand what a capo is, how to use different capos and which model of capo is right for you.