A capo is a helpful device that allows you to easily change the key of a song while using the standard “open position” chords that every guitarist knows. With a capo, you can play those same chords in any fret position along the neck of the guitar. Keep reading to find more answers to all of your capo-related questions!
What is a Capo?
A capo (pronounced “cape-oh”) is a small clamp that you can attach to the neck of the guitar at a specific fret. What does a capo do? It keeps all of the guitar’s strings depressed at that specific fret, all of the time. The parts of the capo that squeeze the strings against the fret board are made of rubber, so they don’t damage the wood on your guitar.
Let’s say you attach the capo at fret two. It will squeeze down all of the strings at fret two and keep them pressed down. So it’s like you’re playing a note at fret two with your finger, but on all six strings simultaneously.
If you were to lay your index finger across all six strings at fret two and press down hard enough so that all the notes at fret two sounded clearly on each string, that technique would be called a “barre.” This barre technique is used by guitarists all the time, but if you are just beginning you may not have tried it yet and when you do, it will take a few weeks to master.
Attaching a capo is a much easier way to achieve the same result. You could say that the capo produces a permanent barre at a specific fret. Now let’s look at what exactly happens when you have a capo attached to your guitar.
How Does a Capo Work?
Let’s use the capo attached at fret two as an example again, although you can put the capo across any fret. Once the capo is on, when you play your strings open, the notes that sound are not E, A, D, G, B, and E (the notes of open strings six through one). Instead, they are F#, B, E, A, C#, and F#.
We say these notes are “one tone higher” or a “whole step” higher (the distance of two frets) than the normal open string notes. If you think of fret three as if it were fret one, and form a C chord as you normally would (but above the capo), it will sound as a D chord.
If you played a song with Am, G, and C chords (which would be in the key of C major), you will hear Bm, A, and D chords (which would move the song to the key of D major). Every time you move the capo one fret higher, you have raised the music by one key. The most common reason for changing the key of a song is to make it easier to sing in your vocal range.
To hear the sound of a guitar with a capo on, listen to “Here Comes the Sun” by the Beatles. The capo is on fret seven and it gives the guitar a bright, mandolin-like quality. The chord progression would be in the key of D major, but with the capo on, it comes out in A major.
Who Should Use a Capo?
For beginners, using a capo means that you can play more songs with a limited knowledge of chords and delay learning those difficult “barre chords” you may have heard about. But capos are not just for beginners.
Many songwriters use capos so they can play chords in the style they’re accustomed to anywhere along the neck of the guitar. By moving the capo, they can easily try singing a song in different keys until they find the one that works best for their voice.
In fact, flamenco guitar players routinely use a capo in the first few frets for two reasons – to play songs in the traditional keys, but also for the way the capo tends to push the strings closer to the neck, making chords and fast melodic runs easier to play. Try this if your guitar is a beginner model that is a bit more difficult to play.
Which Capo is the Best?
There are a few different capo designs. One of the best capos is the Shubb, which retails for about $16 on Amazon. It’s made of rugged steel and clamps on very securely. This is handy because if you accidentally bump the capo while playing, it won’t pop off and ruin your performance.
If you’re on a budget, one of Amazon’s best sellers is the UGY plastic capo which retails for about $7. This capo uses a spring action and can be attached or moved very quickly by squeezing two levers together. There are many manufacturers making capos in this style.
A third option is the Dunlop elastic capo, starting at around $3. It uses a stretchy elastic cloth that attaches to a rubber coated, pole piece. Several holes are provided along the elastic to allow for different tensions, as the neck gets wider the higher you go.
Whatever style you prefer, you need to make sure you order the right one for the type of guitar you have. If you order the wrong one, it won’t squeeze the strings correctly. A “steel string” guitar capo has a slight curvature to the part that lies across the fret board, as the fret board on a steel string guitar is slightly convex. A “nylon string” guitar capo is wider and very flat.
Many beginning guitarists often ask their instructors, “What is a capo?” Now that you know what a capo is and how to use one, you’ll be on your way to playing more songs than you thought you could! You’ll also be able to more easily play and sing along at the same time.
Although the capo can be a very helpful tool, try not to rely on it too much. It’s still very important to expand your knowledge of different chords on the guitar. Need some help mastering some of the more challenging chords? Check out TakeLessons. Our expert guitar instructors can help take your skills to the next level!
Mike J. teaches acoustic guitar, bass guitar, blues guitar, classical guitar, as well as country guitar in Ogden, UT. He received his Applied Music Degree from Mohawk College and has gone on to receive many certifications and awards since then. Mike is a full time music instructor with over 30 years of experience teaching, performing, and writing music. Learn more about Mike J. here!