You’ve got yourself a guitar – from under an old tarpaulin in a bag in the garage, perhaps your uncle gave it to you, or you had a dream that you should get one. Either way, you’ve got a guitar and you’re learning, or about to learn. You’ve read about all the things you need, want and must learn. You’ve heard about these clampy things and you’re wondering “what is a capo, and how the hell do I use it?” Well fear not good friend, your old mate Fidel has the answers to all of your questions.
What is a capo?
A guitar capo is a clamp that changes the pitch of your guitar. It allows you to play simple chord shapes in awkward keys.
So say you want to play along to a song, and it’s in the key of G sharp (G#) or D flat (Db), you can slide your capo up the guitar neck and play along with your familiar chord shapes.
Consider it the best beginner guitar trick in the world! You don’t have to learn a bunch of new, difficult chord shapes, or understand music theory to get the full benefit of using one immediately.
Types of guitar capos
Below are some examples of different styles. They all do essentially the same job – change the pitch of your guitar. Some are more convenient and some give a cleaner sound.
Clip-on capo with adjustable tension.
I personally prefer this Shubb-style because it gives the cleanest sound and is relatively easy to attach and detach. I like that you’re able to screw the tension to exactly where you want it. These are mid-range in price, and well worth it.
The Spring or Trigger capo.
My second preference is the spring loaded clamp style. It’s super easy to take on and off, but not as firm and clean in it’s tone. The clamp arm that sticks out the back of the neck is a bit of a nuisance, but it’s ok. Be aware that there are some very cheap versions of these, which don’t work well.
Squeeze adjustable capo.
This style has a simple mechanism to get them on and off – squeeze to attach and squeeze to detach. Their low profile is also helpful. However in my experience they don’t get the tension perfect and they’re a little pricey for what you get.
Yoke-style capo with adjustable tension.
These yoke style are firm and steady. You can adjust the tension and get a clean grip across all strings, but they’re fiddly to get on and off the guitar. If you’re in a jam situation, or changing the capo a lot on stage, these can be a bit annoying.
The Strap capo.
This is an older style that isn’t as popular any more (it was the first style I ever owned). They’re cheap, tricky to get the placement just right, and have a tendency to pop off if not clipped in properly. But they’re still usable if you don’t have access to anything else.
Why is it called a capo?
The word capo is a shortened version of the Italian word capodastro, (or capotasto) which loosely translates to “head of fretboard”. The word capo literally means “head”.
Capos change where the ‘head’ of the fretboard finishes, which changes the pitch of the guitar.
Think about it in relation to other sized instruments.
The smaller ukulele (with it’s smaller fretboard) is higher pitched. The cello (with it’s larger fretboard) is lower pitched.
Using a capo on a guitar lets you change the ‘head’ position, making the fretboard shorter.
How do capos work?
When you ‘shorten’ the fretboard by using a capo, the tension on your guitar strings changes. This in turn alters the pitch and key of any chord you play.
And why would you want that?
Because it allows you to play songs in different keys without all the hassle – which is great for singing a song if the original is too high or low for your voice.
Each time you move the capo up a fret it changes the chords and notes you’re playing.
For example, if you play a D chord without a capo, then put your capo on the 2nd fret, you’d now be playing an E chord. Or if you play a G chord and put your capo on the 2nd fret, you’re now playing an A chord.
Do capos make it easier to play?
So easy, in fact, that some people think using a capo is ‘cheating’.
But that’s not the case at all. Advanced players use them all the time.
Capos are neither “good” or “bad”, they’re just a tool you can use. Anyone who judges you for using one is just trying to make themselves feel superior. Ignore them.
They add flexibility to your playing style, allowing you to use different chord shapes to create unique voicings (or flavours) in your song.
Let’s say you’ve learnt a guitar part in a certain position, but you can’t sing it there. The capo allows you to move the key so you can sing the song easily.
Capos are great when you’re first learning guitar because you can play along to your favourite songs without having to learn complicated chords.
How to use your capo
Ok, so you’ve got your capo, now how do you know where to put it?
The long, straight rubber side clamps onto the strings.
Position your capo between the guitar frets (the vertical metal markings on your guitar). The absolute best position is off-centre, close to the fret marking but not right over it. Like this:
Once you’ve clamped your capo in place, strum each string to make sure they ring out cleanly.
If you hear any muffled, muted or buzzing strings, adjust your capo slightly. Move it a little closer or further from the fret wire. You’ll get to know your perfect capo placement with a bit of practice!
What if you don't have a capo?
If you’ve ordered your capo, but you’re still waiting for it, there is one thing you can do.
This is definitely a temporary solution. It doesn’t work perfectly. So don’t do it instead of getting a capo, only do it if you absolutely must.
Here’s the trick: grab some rubber bands and a pen/pencil or piece of dowel and make a MacGyver capo.
Wrap a rubber band around each end of the pencil and loop it back and forth across the two ends until you create the appropriate amount of tension on your strings to allow them to ring out.
It looks like this:
But remember, this is only a temporary solution. A real capo is a great investment for your guitar playing journey.
That's all folks!
Now you know how to use your guitar capo.
Of course, you never have to use one. It’s quite possible to play guitar well without one. Having said that, it sure does make it easier to play along with any song you like, especially when you’re first learning.
I love my capo, and my guitar students use them all the time. I hope you find one you love, and go learn some songs to make good use of it!