How To Use a Guitar Capo

Guitar capos are a beautiful thing. Not only are guitar capos practical, but by using a guitar capo, you’re given a whole new palette of options in the realm of creativity. You can even get a certain characteristic of sound in the songs you play. Every guitarist should keep a capo in their guitar case.

What Is a Capo?

A capo is a small tool that “clamps” down all the strings on your guitar. In a certain sense, it bars all the strings on a particular fret. This allows a guitarist to transpose keys. The capo shown on the left is a Kyser Capo, which is a pretty popular style of capo.

How Does a Capo Work?

As I said, a capo allows a guitarist to transpose the key they are playing in. For example, if you were playing a song in the key of E major, but you wanted to play the song in G major, you could put the capo on the 3rd fret and continue to play the song in an E major position, but the song would sound like it was in the key of G major. This is useful if you are accompanying a singer (or you are singing), and need the key raised because it is more suitable for the singer’s range.

It’s very helpful to be able to understand how scales work when using a guitar capo. For example, if you are playing a D major position, but want it to sound like it was in the key of G major, you need to know how many half steps you have to go up in order to be sounding in the key of G major. There are five half steps from D to G, so we would need to put our capo on the 5th fret.

Why Bother With a Capo?

You might be wondering, “If you are playing in the key of E major, but want it to sound in the key of G major, why not just scratch the capo and play it in G major?!”

Well first off, those are two very easy keys to play in on guitar. But let’s say we wanted to play in the key of F# major. We could do that by playing all barre chords, but who wants to really go through that hassle? Instead, we could put our capo on the 2nd fret, play the song in an E major position, and voila! We are playing in F# major.

Secondly, you’ll notice that with the use of a capo you can get a certain characteristic of sound. Without worrying about keys or anything like that, just try putting the capo on, say the 7th fret, and playing one of your favorite songs. You’ll notice that when the capo is that high up on the neck the characteristic of the sound is very bright. This is useful if you are playing with another guitarist. Instead of both playing in the same position, one of the guitarists can capo up higher on the neck to get a brighter characteristic of sound. This ends up really creating a fuller sound when the two guitarists are playing together!

I Heard Using a Capo Is For Pansies…

I’ve had some people tell me that using a capo is for “cheaters,” and they kind of say in such a way that I’m not a real guitarist if I’m not using barre chords instead of a capo. As you can see, using a capo is not a way to shortcut, but to open up the creativity in your guitar playing up to a whole new palette of color.  

Further Reading

I purposely avoided getting into the theory behind using a capo because we’ve recently talked about that in previous posts. If you have a general understanding of the foundations behind a scale and how major scales work, then you’ll be pretty well off!

About Brett McQueen

Brett McQueen is a musician, songwriter, and the founder and editor of Guitar Friendly and Ukulele Tricks. Learn more about him here and follow him on Twitter at @GuitarFriendly.