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How to use a Drop D capo

How to use a Drop D Capo

In this post, we are looking at the Drop D capo. But before we take a deeper look, let’s consider the context of why Drop D is useful.

Take a moment to consider these popular songs:

  • “Everlong by The Foo Fighters”
  • “The Chain” by Fleetwood Mac
  • “Harvest Moon” by Neil Young
  • “Kashmir” by Led Zeppelin

What do they all have in common? Besides representing some of the most iconic tunes on the planet, you might be surprised to learn that they are played with drop-D tuning.  Rather than tuning to EADGBE, the strings are tuned to DADGBE (i.e., the 6th string is tuned down one whole step).

Drop-D tuning is quite common and there are several advantages associated with it.  But there are some huge drawbacks, which in my opinion outweigh its benefits.  The fingering on some chords can be very challenging, and other chords are completely unplayable.  The good news is that there is an alternative method available, that bridges the gap between standard tuning and drop-D tuning.

Let’s take a closer look at what is known as a drop-D guitar capo.

What is a Drop-D Capo?

Before delving into the mechanics of a drop-d capo, it is a good idea to remind ourselves how a capo functions. A capo is a physical device meant to be clamped onto a specific fret to function in the same way as if you were playing a full barre chord.  But rather than using a finger, the capo frees your fingers up to play standard open chords. In other words, you will be able to play in a different key while still using (mostly) the same fingerings.

First and foremost, the name itself can be slightly confusing. The technical term for a drop-D capo is a “partial capo”, with Drop-D capos being just a single configuration into the broader category. In this case, the capo will be placed on the top five strings of the guitar and generally clamped on the second fret. By leaving the 6th string open, you are achieving a drop-D sound without having to physically tune the E string down a full step (a great advantage if you are playing live).

From the description above you may have realized that a drop-D capo does not have a D note on the 6th string.  Therefore, technically it should be called a “Drop-E” capo.  But, the critical point to note is that it creates a similar effect to drop-D tuning.

The images below show the open notes created by (1) Drop-D capo at 2nd fret (2) Drop-D tuning with a capo at 2nd fret.  The notes are the same.

1) Drop-D capo at 2nd Fret

The Drop-D capo is placed at the second fret; there is no need to retune any strings.

Drop D Open 2nd Fret

(2) Drop-D tuning with capo at 2nd fret

The bass E string is detuned to D, then a standard capo is placed on the 2nd fret.

Standard Capo 2nd Fret Open

As you might have already imagined, drop-D capos come in a variety of configurations. The most common is simply a full capo that has a notch or groove located where the low E string would normally be completely covered. However, others might simply have a shorter bar so that the low E string is completely untouched.

The Advantages of a Drop-D Capo

Now that we have a basic understanding of how a drop-D capo functions, let’s move on to take a look at some of its unique benefits.

Different chord voicings

This type of capo can mimic the open-string effects which are normally associated with alternative tuning methods. Therefore, you can achieve a different sound without having to learn advanced chords, which is ideal for beginner and intermediate guitarists.

The nature of the drop-D capo means that there are many harmony notes already contained in the open strings.  The open 6th, 5th and 4th string play the notes E, B, E, forming an E5 chord by themselves.  This creates a beautiful harmonic accompaniment.

The chord diagrams below show how it is possible to make use of the open strings and play chords which a much wider range of notes.

E Major using a D Shape with a Drop D Capo

Drop D E Major in D Shape

A Major with an E Bass using a G shape with a Drop D Capo

Drop D A Major with E Bass Note

Standard chord voicings still work

Fretting any note on the 6th string will close off the open string created by the capo, therefore many standard chords still work.  The chord shapes below show the chord shape of G (actual sound A) played with and without a drop-D capo.  Notice how the chord shapes are exactly the same. The Drop D capo has no impact in this scenario.

A Major (G Shape) with a Drop D capo

Drop D Capo - G Shape

A Major (G Shape) with a standard capo

G Shape Standard Capo

Moves the bass note to the 6th String

If you are a fingerstyle guitarist, you will know the pain of having the bass note on the 4th string.  This often happens for pieces in the key of D.  A bass note on the 4th string does not give much resonance and restricts the available notes.

The drop-D capo can move the bass note from the 4th string to the 6th string with only minor changes to the arrangement.  Obviously, this does not work in every case, but make the most of it when you can.

Standard tuning – bass on 4th string

D Major Standard

Drop-D Capo – bass on 6th string

E Major Drop D

Re-tuning

The most obvious benefit is that you no longer need to re-tune your guitar to play songs that require a drop-D type sound.  Simply add the capo, and you’re ready to go.

Encourages experimentation

Guitar playing should be fun; it should be a journey of musical discovery.  The change in intervals and unique sound created by the drop-D capo may be the inspiration you require to create something entirely new.

There are millions of different tuning variations associated with partial capos. Although not all of these configurations are pleasing to the ear, the possibilities are nearly limitless; a drop-D capo is just the start.

The Disadvantages of a Drop-D Capo

In my opinion, there are three significant disadvantages to using a drop-D capo

It’s not really drop-D

It is called a drop-D capo, but the bass note is actually an E.  Also, it doesn’t detune any notes, it increases the pitch on 5 strings.  So we could call it a drop-E capo or maybe even raise-E capo.  Either way, it doesn’t quite do what you might think.

Different keys require two capos

Playing in the key of E works exceptionally well with a drop-D capo, because the open bass notes are E and B (the 1st and 5th of the scale of E).

But what if you want to play in the key of F?  Answer, you need two capos.  One capo covering the 6th string of the 1st fret, and the drop-D capo at the 3rd fret.

Drop D Double capo

Cannot access all the notes

The drop-D capo makes certain notes impossible to play.  The notes between the 1st fret and the capo cannot be fretted.  For example, if the capo is at the 2nd fret the F (1st Fret) and F# (2nd Fret) cannot be played.

The F#m chord below (using the Em shape with the capo at the second fret) cannot be played with an F# bass note on the 6th string.

Drop D - E minor

In this scenario, the deepest F# bass note is on the 4th string, which may not be ideal if it is a significant chord within a piece of music.

Conclusion

It should come as no surprise that drop-D capos are becoming increasingly popular.

If you have just begun learning the guitar, or if you are a developing musician looking to add something to your music, then a drop-D capo could represent the ideal solution.

My advice: Just buy one, experiment, have fun!