If you’ve never used a capo, you are missing out on some of the great practical solutions and creative benefits it can provide in your guitar playing. By performing one simple task – raising the pitch of the strings – it allows you to use chord voicings of your choice, match a key to your vocal range or that of other instruments or play more easily in keys that contain chords that are difficult to make on the guitar. Even if you have already discovered the usefulness of the capo, further exploration may lead you to new ways to use it or to unique capo designs that add surprising new sounds to your music!
Choosing a Capo
Look for a straightforward capo that holds all six strings evenly and is easy to use. The strap-on capo is one example of a simple and popular style. The part of this type of capo that presses on the strings is usually a metal bar that is covered in rubber. An elastic band attaches to one end of the bar and wraps around the guitar neck, where it can be attached to the other end of the bar. A variation of this design uses a fabric band in place of the elastic one and a flat plastic bar with a ratchet system that allows the user to adjust the tightness of the fit.
Another popular capo design is the trigger style, or quick-release capo. As the name implies, this type of capo is easy to put on or adjust and can even be done with one hand. The Shubb capo, also widely used and similar in style to the quick-release style, ensures longer lasting and more accurate tuning than many other designs, but requires two hands to properly place and adjust. There are plenty of other types to check out, so have fun experimenting – just be sure that the capo you choose has no sharp edges that could scratch the guitar!
How to Use It
Before you put the capo in place, tune your guitar. When you have determined where you want to place it, put the capo just behind the fret and check your tuning again.
If you are using a capo to put a song in a comfortable range for your voice, the best way to determine the placement of the capo is to experiment! Every song will be different, and you may even find that as your voice strengthens or your range increases, you change the fret you use.
If you are using a capo to play in a particular key, such as when you are playing with other musicians or trying to match the key on a recording, you may find yourself confused at times about where to place it. A little information about keys will go a long way toward clearing up any confusion!
Confused About Keys?
It’s common to feel confused about keys when using a capo. The first step is to learn how to tell the key you are actually playing in, with or without the capo.
To determine the key of a song, look either at the key signature (if you have written music) or at the chord progression. The most common progression is I, IV, V. For example, if a song has G, C and D chords, it is in the key of G. (G is the I chord, C is the IV and D is the V.) If you’re not sure about which chords are the I, IV and V chords in a key, refer to the major scales. (Major scales can be found on p.14 of A Guitar Player’s Guide to Ear Training, p.23 of A Guitar Player’s Guide to Music Theory and on the insert to Comprehensive Guitar Instruction.) Most songs will end on the tonic chord (the one that is the key name).
Once you are sure of the key, simply go up the order of notes ½ step for each fret you move the capo up the guitar neck. (This is the same way that you find notes on the fretboard.) For instance, if you are playing the shape that you normally use for a G chord and you put the capo on the 1st fret, you will be playing a G# or Ab. When you move the capo to the 2nd fret, the chord becomes an A. Likewise, if the song is played with the chord shapes of G’s, C’s and D’s, but you have the capo on the second fret, you are actually playing in the key of A. Put the capo on the 3rd fret and you will be playing in the key of Bb (even though the chords may not look like that to you!).
How to Handle Soloing
When playing melodies or soloing, forget that the capo is on! The 8th fret on the 1st string is a C, whether there is a capo behind it or not. Your scale patterns will still work, provided you stick to the ones that you can play high enough on the neck to be in front of the capo. So, know what key you’re in, forget that the capo is there, and use your scale patterns to solo the way you normally would.
Now it’s time to practice what you’ve learned!
In all of the instances below, determine where to place the capo in order to play the chord shapes from the original key and achieve the key that is called for.
1. The song is written in the key of C and you want to play it in E
2. The song is written in the key of Am and you want to play it in Fm
3. The song is written in the key of D and you want to play it in F
4. The song is written in the key of Dm and you want to play it in E
Answers: 1. capo IV; 2. capo VIII; 3. capo III; 4. capo II
Next, start with a key, then determine where you would put the capo in order to use common chords. As you explore the options for each key, and you will learn a lot about your guitar!
Capos for the Creative and Adventuresome
Once you understand how to use the capo and have put in enough miles to be comfortable with it, you may want to experiment with ways to use it creatively. One popular variation of conventional capo use is the drop D tuning (which in this case is actually drop E), which can be achieved by putting the capo on upside down on the second fret and covering the first five strings only.
If you enjoy combining open strings to create new voicings on the guitar or if you like playing in altered tunings, you may want to experiment with a partial capo, such as the Spider Capo. With this type of capo you can clamp any combination of strings anywhere on the fretboard. The possibilities are endless, so be prepared to lose track of time when you begin working through new fingerings and chords and relishing the results!
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