A capo is one of those pieces of equipment that can be very confusing for beginners. It is 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 they help you? We explain more in this article.
A capo is a small device which will fit in the palm of your hand and is designed to clamp down upon all the strings across the fretboard of a guitar, in turn, making the area you can play shorter, and raising the pitch. Every fret up you place the capo, the pitch of the guitar will get higher.
Capo means “head” in Italian. This is an appropriate name. The capo is similar in a way to the nut of the guitar, which dictates where the playable area of the strings ends and where the string vibrations stop. This is located at the headstock. Strings are placed within grooves in the nut. 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 at a higher location on the fretboard. The chords played will be different, but 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 which clamps onto the strings, this is held in place by a cam-style clamp or by a screw, so that you can 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 fitting a wrist. These are sometimes called “cloth and toggle” capos.
Generally speaking, all styles of capo do the same thing. The choice will come down to personal preference. You may want a capo which can be quickly and easily put on or taken off the strings. This may mean you go for 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, desired fret, and then use whatever mechanism is suggested to tighten your capo. It really is that simple!
Once you’ve applied a capo, strum the guitar and check that each string is ringing out clearly and that you haven’t created any fret buzz in the process of putting a capo on your guitar. When moving the capo, try not to slide it up and down the strings. Instead, detach and then reattach the capo, which will avoid wear on the strings.
There are some more specialist models of capo which are designed to cover the fingerboard partially, rather than the whole thing. For instance, they may shorten three of the strings only. This can quickly end up in a world of complex tuning, and it is recommended that beginners stick to the standard capo design, covering all six strings.
Other Uses of Capos
There are other reasons to use a capo. It isn’t just to be able to play songs that you know, and 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 to 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 simply apply your capo.
- Avoiding bar chords. This is especially useful for a beginner. If you struggle a little to play a certain bar 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 bar chord. This is something a lot of people struggle to get to grips with.
Tunings and Guitar Capo Chart
As already alluded to, 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.
Finding the Best Capo for You
In spite of all pretty much doing the same function, there are a few things you should consider before you purchase a capo.
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. For instance, if you quickly need to switch to a different key between songs.
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 and then cheap accessories. The best way to keep the guitar in top condition is by protecting it, including using accessories you can rely on.
A capo is an accessory you will find in pretty much every guitarist’s arsenal. Fully understand what a capo is, how to use a capo and which model of capo is for you is key (pun intended).