What is a Capo?

what do you use a guitar capo for

Have you just started learning how to play the guitar and have come across a weird little device that some people have put on their guitar neck? And then you have maybe wondered why they have put it on in the first place?

The little thing you put on your guitar is called a ‘capo’.

A capo is a ‘clamp’ that a musician attaches on the neck of a musical instrument, most commonly the guitar. Using a capo shortens the guitar neck, resulting in the pitch being raised.

In this post, you will discover how a capo works, when you should use it and why it is so important that you own this little thing.

In addition, I’ve put together a helpful chart for you at the end to easily find out which key you are playing in when you use a capo.  

How does a Capo Work?

There are a lot of explanations around the web, but I’ve often found them to be a little too ‘technical’ for a beginner. Easily explained, a capo is this clamp that you put on the guitar fret, effectively shortening the guitar neck. 

Why do we do this? 

Logically enough, putting on a capo results in the sound getting brighter and brighter, the closer you move it towards your strumming hand. 

Furthermore, let’s look at some other results as well.

What are the Results of Using a Capo? 

It raises the key of the guitar, even though you are still playing the same chords. Let’s say that, without the capo, you like to play the chords G-C-D-Em and Am (which are in the key of G minor).

But what happens when you put a capo on the second fret? Well, if you play the same chords now, they are in another key than you would have without the capo! The key has now changed from G to A.

The capo makes it easier for you to play in different keys with the exact same chord progression as you would play without the capo.

This is crucial to know. If you are trying to sing a Johnny Cash song, you might not be able to go as low as his iconic voice. Slapping on a capo will help you find a more comfortable key for you to sing in.

Also, it makes it easier to jam with other vocalists and instrumentalists. I will come back to a more detailed example of this a little later in this post.

You will see the complete chart over which keys that correspond to different capo positions further down.

It changes the sound of the chords. Many people feel the chords are much sweeter-sounding with the capo on.

I agree.

You see, the higher up you put the capo (closer to your strumming hand) it will almost sound like a mandolin. In other words, in addition to making it easier for you to play in different keys, a capo could also give you a new, different sound signature.

It could accentuate specific notes. With a new sound signature, it is also easier to define and enhance specific notes in the melody. For instance, if you want the bright, high notes to really come forward, the capo can help you accomplish this.

The Benefits of Using a Capo

A capo helps you adapt to other musicians efficiently. In the video below, you can see the world-class violinist Alexander Rybak and myself playing a duet, “Song From a Secret Garden”.

I had learned the song in a very specific way, without using a capo. I also tend to prefer playing with alternate tuning, so my preferred tuning for the day was in open D. When I heard that Alexander played the tune in the key of C Minor, I had to put on the capo in order to play in that key.

This is a great example of when to use the capo. To be able to play the chord progression that I had learned (and used a couple of days on), I needed to put on the capo on the first fret to be in tune with Alexander.

In this case, if I didn’t own a capo I would need to play different chords.

Which probably would have taken me a little longer to learn.

Another benefit the capo has is that it changes how the audience interprets a song. Since the sound has a noticeable change when you put on a capo, the overall sound might be brighter, happier or sweeter than you would get without it.  

Just like with the example above, a capo is also of great help to vocalists. Since a capo raises the key when you put it on, it is very easy for you to try playing your chord progression, testing out different keys as you go. 

This is especially useful if you sing, or you are working with a vocalist. He or she might not be comfortable singing in the open key. It might be too high for the singer, so try putting on the capo and move it fret by fret, until the singer finds the sweet spot.

And actually, this is exactly why the legendary song Hotel California, by Eagles, is in B minor. Originally, Don Felder wrote and recorded the song in E. When the vocalist, Dan Henley tried to sing it, it was way too high for him. In an interview with Guitarworld, Felder said:

So, I took a guitar, went out in the studio and said, ‘OK, let’s move it down to D minor.’ Still too high… C minor… a little bit too high; A minor… no, that’s too low. It wound up being in the key of B minor, which is on the seventh fret.

Don Felder

Is Using a Capo Cheating?

I have registered multiple people online asking this question. At the same time, they claim that professional musicians say so.

This is not true. While yes the capo is an easier way to play in different keys as you only have to put it on instead of having to…

a) Tune your guitar
b) Playing other types of chords (like barre chords)

… it is definitely not cheating. When you use a capo, techniques like hammer-ons are much easier than if you try to do it while playing a barre chord.

Same goes for the ring of the tone and how long and clear it will get. This is also easier to accomplish with a capo.

And after all, it is the quality of the music that matters. Not how it is accomplished.

My facial expression every time someone says the using a capo is ‘cheating’.

Capo for Acoustic and Electric Guitars

Yes, the capo you use on the acoustic is a little different from the electric guitar. 

Why? Because the strings are harder to press down on an acoustic than on the electric. They are often further away from the fret. As mentioned earlier, this makes it harder to do techniques like hammer-ons and to make the notes ring.

That is why a capo used for acoustic guitars needs to have greater tension in order to press down the strings perfectly.

You have probably noticed that you most often see acoustic guitars using capos. Even though electric guitars also can use it, it is more uncommon to see a capo on the electric guitar.

Because it is easier to press down the strings, it is also easier to do barre chords with different techniques on the electric. Eliminating the need for a capo in many cases.

That said, if you play the electric guitar and just want an easy way to transpose the key without playing different chords, you should definitely get a capo regardless.

My favorite capo is the Kyser, which is awesome for acoustic guitars. If you play the electric guitar, Shubb is a great and durable choice.

5 Awesome “Capo Songs” you Should try out now

There are a lot of really good, iconic songs out there where the guitarist is using a capo. Here are 5 songs you could try out right away:

  • I’m Yours (Jason Mraz) – capo 4th fret (some live versions are played with capo 3rd fret)
  • Free Fallin (John Mayer version) capo 3rd fret
  • Hotel California (Eagles) – capo 7th fret
  • Here comes the Sun (The Beatles) – capo 7th fret
  • Don’t think Twice, It’s Alright (Bob Dylan) – capo 4th fret

Complete Chart: Keys Corresponding to Different Capo Positions

Down the left column, you will see which chord you actually play when you haven’t put on the capo yet.

In the following rows, you can see what your chord will turn into, depending on which fret you put the capo on. For example, the C chord you play without capo turns into an F chord when you put the capo on the 5th fret.

0 (No Capo1st fret2nd fret3rd fret4th fret5th fret6th fret7th fret8th fret9th fret10th fret 11th fret12th fret

Thomas Leypoldt

Hey there! My name is Thomas and I have been a film composer for over 10 years, delivering music to feature films, documentaries, video games, and commercials. I share everything I have learned on this website, to hopefully be of help to your own development as a musician.

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