The humble capo is a tool used by millions of guitarists all over the world. It’s the go-to device for changing the pitch of the guitar to play in different keys. Despite their popularity, capos divide the guitar playing community; is using a capo cheating?. Some use them extensively at every opportunity whilst others claim that those who use them cannot play ‘properly’, that they are weaker players, or even worse, that they are cheating in some way.
What’s Wrong with Capos?
“Capos are for wimps”, is a phrase that I have heard many times before. The implication here is that a capo is used as some form of support device and the person would not be able to play the guitar without the help of a capo. This may actually be true. I certainly advocate that beginners use a capo to make an acoustic guitar with a high action (the distance between the strings and the fretboard) more comfortable to play. But I feel this is OK, as without the capo, that same beginner might never maintain the motivation to continue playing guitar.
Some claim that capos restrict your skill as a guitarist. A capo can make you sound better and appear more competent than you really are, and therefore you could do not continue to develop as a musician. It’s almost like the existence of the capo could prevent you from ever wanting to play ‘properly’. Exactly how a capo by itself can prevent development is never explained, though some claim it can lead to ‘weaker fingering’ and ‘lack of range’.
A capo holds down all the strings to create a new ‘nut’ (the word capo actually comes from the Italian capotasto which means ‘head of fretboard’). This is something which a competent guitarist can achieve with barre chords. Barre chords are those in which one of the player’s fingers is placed across multiple the strings to raise the pitch, just like a capo would. Many claim barre chords are infinitely superior because your hands can easily move from one point on the neck to another. In contrast, a capo is clamped in one place, and rarely if ever moved mid-song (unless you’ve mastered the art of mid-song changes with a Kyser quick change capo).
What’s Right with Capos?
But guess what… I think all those reasons are irrelevant. So if you hold that opinion, “you’re wrong, so there!”
Capos clamp down the strings and can make a guitar easier to play. And what is wrong with that? Professionals have guitar technicians who set-up their guitars to lower the action and make them easier to play. Nobody suggests that guitars should be made harder to play, we all want an easy to play guitar which minimizes finger and muscle strain.
Whilst it is possible to rely on a capo, it cannot magically make you a better player. Poor playing with or without a capo is still poor playing. There are plenty of guitarists who do not use a capo, but that does not make them better guitarists. Had they started out with a capo it may even have helped them develop better technique as a beginner.
Actually, using a capo is a skill in its own right. Recognising when to switch from barre chords to a capo for a certain songs shows an understanding of tone, providing a different timbre which can enhance a musical arrangement.
Capos do not necessarily restrict playing, neither do they stop you from expanding your playing expertise. Having more fingers free to control the strings can help you learn new chords, tricks and skills. Whilst inversely, the standard barre chords can be quite restricting; often all the fingers are used within the chord formation, providing limited options with which to experiment.
Don’t get me wrong, barre chords are an essential skill for a developing guitarist. Using a capo does not preclude the use of barre chords. For example, it is still possible to play an E shape barre chord at the 3rd even if there is a capo on the 1st fret. The two can be used interchangeably.
Barre chords do rely on finger strength. It is difficult to hold down barre chords for long periods, especially on an acoustic. Therefore capos are a good way to reduce the stress and tension, which can cause great discomfort if playing for long periods of time.
Interestingly, it is usually intermediate players who have mastered barre chords who look down on the use of capos, yet many more advanced players use them to explore new tones, and enhance their playing. These advanced players have realized that capos give them freedom to express themselves as musicians. Therefore they view capos as neither a sign of weakness or of cheating, but as an aid to get more from their instrument than might otherwise be possible.
If using a capo to raise the pitch of the strings is “cheating”, then the inverse of de-tuning must also be cheating, but nobody ever says that. Or how about those who play 7-string guitars, or Nashville tuning, or alternate tunings, that must be cheating too, right? The EADGBE tuning we use is called ‘standard tuning’. Therefore other tunings (including capos) must also be acceptable; they are just not ‘standard’.
Also, capos are not all created equal. While standard capos hold all the strings in place and retain the original intervals, there are also partial capos. These are designed to leave one or more strings free. Experimenting with these can be exciting, resulting in unique sounds that cannot be achieved in any other way.
So How Do You Decide?
As with all creative passions, there are no hard and fast rules. Once you have mastered the use of a capo, you may decide that it is not for you. But it would be a shame to discount it without even trying. You might just be missing out on a new sound which could inspire you.