What is a Guitar Capo?

Posted on July 18, 2019

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.

Guitar capos and clamps explained

A guitar 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). Applying a guitar capo makes the area you can play on shorter and raises the pitch of your guitar. Placing the capo up a fret (i.e. away from the headstock) 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.

Using a guitar clamp serves a similar purpose as your finger when playing barre chords. The chord shape of a barre chord requires you to lay one of your fingers across the guitar fretboard; in a way, this serves the same purpose as a guitar capo. However, in most cases, you can’t replace a guitar capo by simply playing barre chords alone, and you can’t avoid playing barre chords with the help of a capo, for that matter. So it pays to learn how to use both a guitar clamp and the barre chord shapes.

How does a guitar capo work?

Using a guitar capo is simple, and applying or changing its position (for example, between songs) on the guitar fretboard doesn’t take much time. All capos have some sort of clamping or tightening mechanism, and there are a few different types. Generally speaking, all styles of capo do the same thing: change the key of the instrument.

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, go for a capo with a clamp design.

Guitar clamp

Some capos 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 the capo. Another popular style of guitar clamp has a rubber bar attached to a material strap that can tighten around the back of the fretboard like a watch on a wrist. These are sometimes called “cloth and toggle” capos.

Partial guitar capos

In addition to the clamp-style guitar 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 of the strings on 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 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.

How to use a guitar capo?

To apply your capo, simply choose which fret you’re going to use the capo on. When learning new songs that require a capo, check which fret the capo should be placed on. For example, guitar tabs and chord diagrams indicate where to apply the capo with “capo on 2nd fret,” or wherever you need to place the capo. Make sure the capo covers all of the strings on the same fret unless you’re using a partial capo. Then use whatever mechanism is suggested to tighten your capo.

Once you’ve applied the capo, strum the guitar and check that each string rings 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 a guitar capo

Capos can do more than just change your tuning to play specific songs. There are other reasons to use a capo as well. Once you fully understand what a capo does, you can take advantage of some of its other benefits.

  • Create a brighter sound. If you’re shortening the length of the fretboard, you’re making the tone of the guitar higher and brighter. Your playing will have much more “shine” to it 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.
  • 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, consider using a guitar capo to change the key. You don’t need to learn how to play guitar differently; you can simply apply your capo.
  • Avoid barre chords. This is especially useful for beginner guitar players. 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 barre the strings.

Guitar capo chart

When you play a note or a chord with a guitar capo, it is transposed to a higher pitch depending 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 be different. 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 without a capo.

Capo Chart

Having difficulties deciphering the guitar capo chart? Here’s how it works in practice:

  • As you change the position of a guitar capo while playing the same chord shape, the chord you’re actually playing changes.
  • For example, if you play the G chord shape with a capo on the 2nd fret, you’re actually playing the A major chord. To play the G major chord with a guitar capo in this position, you need to use the F chord shape instead.
  • Depending on the guitar capo’s position, you can play the G major chord also with the capo on the 3rd, 5th, and 7th frets. You just need to change the chord shape according to the guitar capo chart above.

Try learning this capo chart so you can 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

Although all capos and guitar clamps do pretty much the same thing, there are a few things you should consider before buying one.

The main decision you’ll have to make is the style of capo you want to use. A guitar clamp design will be better than the cloth and toggle design if you need to change the position of a capo regularly. A guitar clamp is also better when you’re 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. Many players 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 guitar capos and other 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. Make sure to come back and check our guitar capo chart when you’re unsure how to play certain chords with your capo in different positions on the fretboard.

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