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How To Use A Guitar Capo

A guitar capo is a device which forms a clamp across all six strings of your guitar and can be placed at practically any place (or fret number) along the neck of the guitar.

It’s an important guitar accessory and any quick visit to your guitar store will show you that they come in many different designs.

Some of them use a thick elastic band to create the tension needed to barre across the strings while other types use a spring or bolt down mechanism. Some recent designs also come with a quick release ‘push button’ system built in.

Over the years I have probably owned every design of capo at one point or another but my favorite ones now are the more modern type of spring capo’s as you can see in the picture below…

Popular models of guitar capo’s are made by Dunlop, Kyser and Planet Waves. You’ll find that the more expensive models will have a lower profile, are adjustable using only one hand, are faster to reposition between the frets and are less likely to scratch your guitar.

When buying a capo it’s important to take into consideration the type of guitar you’ll be using it on as there are…

  • Acoustic steel string capo’s
  • Classical guitar capo’s
  • Electric guitar capo’s
  • Capo’s for curved and flat fingerboards, and so forth

Capo’s are particularly useful for beginners learning songs on acoustic guitar. The reason is that they allow you to play in a wide range of different keys without having to learn the harder and more challenging barre chords.

While songs in the key of C and G are readily available for beginners to play (as they already consist of open chords) there are many more songs which were written in more remote keys requiring the use of barre chords to play them. The great advantage of a guitar capo is that placing one at the correct position will allow you to transpose the song into open chords (the old friends you already know) and instantly bring a song which was outside the technical range of a beginner guitarist well within reach.

In my guitar lessons I would always encourage every one of my students to buy a capo and a guitar tuner as a matter or priority.

The Price Of Capo’s And How It Affects Them

Capo’s can be expensive or cheap depending on their construction and design although they all essentially do the exact same job.

You can start out with a cheaper capo but you must make sure that it does not apply too much pressure when clamping the strings down as this would actually cause your guitar to go slightly (or very) out of tune. The more expensive capo’s for guitar tend to apply a more even and equally distributed pressure across all six strings which helps with the tuning issue. If you find that whenever you put a capo on your guitar goes out of tune there you should look at these two possible causes first

1. That the intonation on guitar is out and needs to be adjusted by a professional
2. That your capo is applying to much pressure to the strings when it clamps down. Either adjust the capo if the design will allow you to or buy another kind that will

How To Put A Capo On Correctly

To correctly set a capo you should place just behind the fret. If you remember our rules about getting clear and perfect sounding guitar chords then you’ll know that we always try to put our fingers just behind the frets when holding chords, well, the same is true when placing a capo. If you put it towards the back of the fret then you’re liable to hear ‘buzzing’ sounds from certain strings as they vibrate against the fret wire.

Secondly you need to ensure that your capo is not clamping down on the strings with excessive pressure as this causes the strings to be pulled slightly sharp much as though you were slightly bending the strings and raising the pitch.

Some capo’s will allow you to adjust the amount of tension so in that case it’s an easy fix of simply reducing it however the elastic style capo’s are more coarse in their design. At one setting you may find the capo does not exert enough pressure and so doesn’t push the strings down sufficiently enough to create the desired barre while the other setting pushes the strings down too much as makes your guitar go out of tune. You’re caught between a rock and a hard place with no in-between.

For this reason it’s best to always go for a capo design which allows you a decent amount of control in adjusting its level of tension or to buy one of the more expensive and modern spring type ones which are already set up correctly.

Important Uses Of Guitar Capo’s

Let’s imagine that you enjoy the song “Country Roads” by John Denver and wished to sing it yourself on guitar, or accompany a singer to perform the song. Well different people have different vocal ranges and so different keys where they feel comfortable to sing. It’s not always the case that the key the original song was recorded in will be comfortable for your voice and the answer is always to transpose the song into a different key, one which suits your voice more.
We can transpose songs in two ways.

Firstly you can convert the song into another key and change all the chords, probably using barre chords. Or secondly you could simply place your capo at the desired point on the guitar neck and just play all the same chords in front of it. It’s much faster to transpose songs using a capo and immediately bring the song into your preferred vocal range very quickly.

For more experienced guitar players the use of a capo can have nothing to do with transposition or keys. What they are after is the increased brightness in sound using a capo will produce from the guitar. In this way a capo is being used as a way to affect the tonal character of the instrument and you’ll see it frequently being employed in flamenco guitar. This style of guitar does not care about achieving sustained notes as classical guitarists do. Rather flamenco is more percussive and punchy, it wants notes to decay quickly and have a bright piecing sound capable of cutting through vocalists, dancers and castanets! You can immediately see how using a capo to brighten the sound even further would be desirable in this way.

Here’s yet another use of guitar capo’s… say for example we had two guitar players playing together. Well you can have it so that one guitarist is performing the song using his natural guitar voice without any capo while the second guitarist is using a capo somewhere along the neck. They are both playing the same song in the same key but the capo position forces a shift in chord voicing’s and timber of the piece which can form an interesting marriage with the first guitar.

Is Using A Capo “Cheating” And Only For Beginners?

Some people are of the ignorant viewpoint that using a capo is cheating. I personally have never heard a good guitar player say this… only mediocre guitarists who like to think they are good! The truth is that a capo is used by beginner players and expert players alike, it’s a musical tool which increases the scope of the instrument and you’re missing out by not taking advantage of it.

Some guitar styles, like folk guitar and finger-style, actually depend greatly upon open strings, open chord voicing’s and the use of capo’s. It forms the essence of the genre’s sound itself and you’ll see world renowned players using capo’s on stage and in recordings all over the world. This is why saying that the use of a capo is cheating is so ignorant and misleading.
Using A Capo And Your Singing Voice

If you enjoy singing along as you play guitar then I would encourage your to experiment with different capo positions in order to find the best vocal range and keys for your particular voice. It’s also a great way of breaking you free of ruts you may have become stuck in and you could be very surprised with the results you’ll achieve. For song writing it can sometimes cause a creative spark to jump out and you’ll be inspired by the ‘new way’ old chords can sound when placed in front of a guitar capo. Try it!