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How to use a guitar capo… start today!

How to use a guitar capo

A capo is the most common accessory for guitarists; therefore, it’s crucial that you learn how to use a guitar capo. It’s a tool used to clamp down the strings across the fretboard at a specific fret. There are two different pronunciations, “cap-o”, or “Kay-po”, which are used interchangeably.

When thinking of how to use a capo, there are many ways to answer that question:

  1. How to use a capo to change the pitch of the open strings
  2. How to use a capo to for different musical purposes
  3. How to put the capo on the guitar

We will be answering all these questions in this post.

Changing the pitch of the open strings

Capos can be very confusing to beginner and even intermediate guitarists. Working out which key you are actually playing or which chords you need to play for each position can stretch the brain a bit. If you get it wrong, you’ll soon hear it sounds off.  Just make sure you don’t get it wrong in the middle of a performance (that would be bad 😀).

In standard tuning, the open guitar strings are tuned to the notes E,A,D,G,B,E. When a capo is applied, it raises the pitch of the open strings by creating a new nut. For example, if the capo is at the first fret, the pitch of each string increases by a semi-tone to F, A#, D#, G#, C, F (or if you prefer F, Bb, Db, Ab, C, F). For each fret on the guitar, the pitch raises by a semi-tone.

As all the strings are raised by the same amount, the notes all remain in the same relative position to each other. This is a significant benefit of using a capo, as the common chord shapes can still be used. For example, the standard G chord played on a guitar with a Capo at the 5th fret will become a C Chord.

The G chord contains just 3 separate notes, which may be repeated several times within the chord; G, B, and D. The C chord also contains 3 notes, C, E, and G.

Illustration of using a Capo

The fretboard above shows how the notes change perfectly between the two chords just by applying a capo.  This is great news, as you do not need to learn any new chord shapes.

Using a capo for different musical purposes?

When thinking of how to use a guitar capo, one of the key considerations is what you are trying to achieve musically.  Capos can be used for many different purposes.

Raise the key of a song

The key of a song is usually set according to the singer’s vocal range. Therefore, if a song originally recorded in the key of D is too low, a capo could be placed at the 2nd fret, and the key of the song will become E, which is one tone higher.

Changing the key mid-song

A key change for a bridge or a final chorus can help to lift a song. This method has been employed by songwriters from the beginning of time, and is now a clichéd trick used by ‘boy bands’. A “quick change” capo can enable that key change to happen with minimal effort and without changing chord voicings.  This can be important to maintain the feel of a song.

Simplify chord shapes without changing keys

If you struggle to play barre chords, but need to play a song with the chords F, Bb, and C, you could place a capo at the 3rd fret and play the chords D, G, and A. These chords are much easier to play, but would create the same musical notes as if you were playing the barre chords.

Create the effect of using an alternative tuning

Some special types of capos cover only some of the strings on the fretboard – these are called partial capos.  These create a similar effect to using alternative tunings, as chord voicings that were previously not available can now be achieved.  One of the most common is a “Drop-D” capo, which covers all the strings except the 6th string. When used at the 2nd fret, it creates the effect of the open 6th string appearing to be detuned.

Brighten tone

Adding a capo higher up the fretboard changes the sound of the guitar.  The notes sustain differently and have a brighter tone, which cannot be achieved using a barre chord. If you want to add a new feel or energy to a song, then a capo may be the perfect tool.

Change the range of the guitar

When playing with other instruments which occupy a similar range of notes, it is easy for those musical frequencies to become crowded.  Adding a capo enables clear sound differentiation between the instruments providing a fuller and less chaotic sound.  This is very effective when multiple guitars both play similar sounding strumming patterns.

How to put a capo on the guitar

Before we start looking at different types and how to use a guitar capo, we need to cover some fundamental principles of putting the capo on the guitar.

Where to put the capo on the guitar?

Capos must be placed in the right place on the fretboard to function correctly. Unfortunately, many beginner guitarists make a similar error; they put the capo directly on top of the fret, which can create a terrible buzzing noise, reduce sustain, and, over time, cause damage to the frets or the capo itself.

It is the fret itself, rather than the capo, which creates the new nut.  The capo simulates where a finger would be used and, therefore, should be placed behind the fret.

Capo placement

After placing the capo in the correct place along the fretboard, it may be necessary to adjust the tension of the capo to ensure there is no buzz when the open strings are played.

How to place a capo onto a guitar

The method of applying a capo to a guitar will vary depending on the style of capo:

Elastic Capo
The elastic capo uses a plastic bar to hold down the strings, with an elastic strap around the neck to create the tension. To use this type of capo, place the plastic bar onto the strings at the relevant fret, and stretch the elastic band until the eyelet hole can be threaded over the central metal rod. These capos often need adjusting after initially being applied. Adjust the angle of the bar across the fretboard and tighten/loosen the elastic as necessary to create the right level of tension.

Toggle capo
A strap wraps around the back of the neck and secures itself using the notches along the back of a metal bar, which pushes a rubber pad to hold down the strings. As there are only 2 to 5 notches to use, it can be challenging to find the ideal tension. Much like the elastic capos, adjust the angle of the bar across the fretboard and tighten/loosen the toggle as necessary to create the right level of tension.

Screw adjustment capo
Screw adjustment capos are held into place with a thumbscrew forcing the front and back of the capo together.  Once applied, these usually require only a small adjustment to achieve the correct tension.

Roller capos
Roller capos are not removed from the guitar, therefore taking more effort to install.  Once installed, they can be rolled up/down the neck to apply pressure to the relevant fret position.

Trigger capo
Trigger capos have two levers, which are pushed together with a tight spring. Squeeze the levers to release the spring, then move, add or remove the capo from the guitar neck.  Once in the correct position, release the levers and the spring will cause the capo to grip the guitar neck. The design should ensure an appropriate amount of tension is already applied, as it cannot be adjusted.  If you do experience fret buzz, you may need a new capo with a tighter spring.

Lever capo
Lever capos have a quick-release catch which will force together two rubber pads, one on the fretboard and one on the back of the neck. The lever can be adjusted with the thumbscrew to ensure the proper level of tension is applied.  Once an ideal screw position has been identified, it rarely needs to be changed, unless used on multiple guitars.

Clutch capo
Clutch capos can simply be held in the correct place and squeezed tight. These are probably the easiest capos to apply.  There will be a release mechanism that will operate with a small button, latch, or squeezing the capo in the right way.

Other thoughts for using a guitar capo

When thinking about how to use a capo, there are a few other things you should be aware of:

  • Once a capo has been applied, the notes between the nut and the capo are no longer available to be played. For example, if the capo is used at the 2nd fret, it is impossible to play the F (1st Fret) or E (open string).
  • Applying and removing a capo causes the tension of the strings to change, which may make the guitar go out of tune. Remember to check your tuning when applying or removing the capo.
  • If bending a string when using a  capo, string slippage can occur underneath the capo. If the string does not return after the bend is released, the note will permanently be out of tune until the capo is removed.
  • The frets become closer together the higher up the fretboard. This means you do not need to stretch your fingers as far when using a capo, making some songs much easier for beginners and those with a small hand span and making some chords very tight further up the neck.
  • The distance between the fretboard and the string is known as the “action”. The nut, the curve of the fretboard, and the string tension all affect the action.  A capo will bring the strings closer to the fretboard than the nut, making the strings easier to hold down, which is excellent for beginners, who do not yet have enough hand strength to hold the strings for long periods.

Conclusion

Guitar capos are one of the most useful tools at a guitarist’s disposal. They can provide new tones, make the guitar easier to play, and provide a lifeline when the key of a song is changed at the last minute. This is why you need to learn how to use a guitar capo.

Given their low price point, every guitarist should have at least one, if not more.