The most common use for a capo is to change the key of a song, whilst still playing the same chord shapes. For each fret, the key of the song increases by a semitone. However, there is another and possibly more useful way to use a capo, which requires the key of the song to remain the same.
Why use a capo without changing keys?
There are two circumstances where it is useful to use a capo without changing keys.
Creating sound differentiation
When playing with multiple guitars it is important for each guitar has a different sound, otherwise it creates a very mushy sound. Using a capo to raise the pitch of a guitar’s open strings can be used to create the necessary differentiation. The key of the song must remain the same, so this means using a capo without changing the key of a song.
Access higher pitches
Fingerstyle guitarists may need to play specific notes, such as notes from the melody of a song. It can be difficult to keep the feel and flow whilst playing these notes, especially when they are higher up the fretboard. Adding a capo can make these notes easier to reach whilst still using open chord shapes. Again, in this scenario, a capo is used but the key does not change.
Where to place the capo?
When using a capo in this way the question of where to place the capo becomes an important consideration.
Create sound differentiation
To create sound differentiation, the goal is to use different chord voicings and cover a different range of notes.
Look at the two G chords above. The first is a standard open chord, the second is an E chord with a capo at the 3rd fret. Both chords cover exactly the same range of notes from bass to treble and play 4 of the same notes. The mix of open and fingered notes differs slightly, so this will create some differentiation.
Using a capo higher up the fretboard will create a further sound differentiation.
The chords above are both G major. The first is the standard open chord, the second us a D chord shape with a capo at the 5th fret. The higher the capo along the fretboard the more differentiation:
- the shorter string length creates a tighter sound
- the note range is smaller
- the top note is a B, rather than a G
Access higher pitches
To access higher pitches, the accessible notes will be the key consideration of capo placement. Generally, the top 3 strings are used for melody notes. If the range of notes is an octave, then setting the capo so that the lowest note is the open 3rd string and the highest note is the 1st string 3rd fret should be a good location.
The image below shows the C Major Scale played with the capo at the 5th fret. If this position were used for fingerstyle playing, it would be possible to easily reach an octave of notes.
Reaching the notes above without a capo whilst also playing bass and harmony notes would be tricky. But with a capo it is significantly easier.
This is a very simplified answer, as many songs have more than an octave range. But that is a topic for another post.
Which chord shapes to play?
So, where to place the capo and which chords to use to play in the same key?
Each open chord shape can be played anywhere along the fretboard with a capo. An A chord shape played with a capo at the 3rd fret will have the same 3 notes as a standard C Chord. Even though it is an A chord shape, it has a C chord sound. Actually, it is possible to play a C chord with all 5 of the common chord shapes.
The following chords are all C major:
- C chord shape – no Capo
- A chord shape – 3rd fret Capo
- G chord shape – 5th fret Capo
- E chord shape – 8th fret Capo
- D chord shape – 10th fret Capo
OK, that’s all good to know, but wouldn’t it be easier if there were an easy to use reference source, which shows each key in every position? You’re in luck, I created one.
Learning how to use a capo to retain the original key is an important skill. It can help you to create differentiation in sound or simplify solo fingerstyle pieces. Using the Capo Chort Charts will help with the learning process.