What do classic songs like “Hotel California”, “Here Comes the Sun”, “Fire and Rain”, and “Landslide” have in common?
How about modern pop tunes like “If I Die Young”, “I’m Yours”, and “Hey Soul Sister”?
Answer: They all require a capo for maximum musical mojo!
If you’re not using a capo, then you’re doing your guitar playing a major disservice. The modern guitarist needs to learn to use a capo effectively since so many songs either benefit from it or require it to sound their best.
This easy lesson will answer all of your basic questions, including types of capos, positioning, the “moveable nut” concept, and more.
Let’s get this party started with a trip through Capo Basics!
First of all, let’s get one thing perfectly clear: using a capo is not “cheating”.
Some guitarists like to accuse capo users of this, but I call nonsense on that narrow-minded line of thinking.
The humble capo is a time-honored tool in the guitar arsenal of acoustic, folk, rock and bluegrass players the world over. It allows you to access open-position chord shapes at any fret position.
Basically, it increases the awesome in your playing by a factor of 10. In no way, shape or form is it “cheating”.
When I was first learning to play in the late 1970’s, the only capos available were giant metal clamps or cheesy multicolored elastic bands.
I had a few of the elastic types and they were all awful. They never held the strings firmly enough and the elastic was prone to wearing out.
Capos today are the best they’ve ever been. A good-quality modern capo will last for years, will hold the strings firmly, and shouldn’t cost more than $20 max. Here are some examples:
- Shubb – My personal, all-purpose fave. Requires two hands, but is high-quality and the grip tension is adjustable by screw. Used by lots of pro acoustic players.
- Kyser – This one-hand, quick-change type is also excellent and is an industry standard, used by many pros onstage. Kysers are great for acoustics, but a little too firm for electrics, IMHO, as they tend to squeeze the strings sharp. Young players may have trouble squeezing the trigger with one hand, as it is typically high-tension.
- Performance G7 – These capos are applied by squeezing onto the fretboard. They have a clamping “memory” which keeps them in place. Squeeze gently and it works great on electrics.
- Dunlop Trigger – This is also a nice, one-hand, quick-change type. Less firm than the Kyser, and an easier trigger to squeeze for younger hands.
There are lots of other great capos, too, I’m sure, but I’m most familiar with these. We’ve come a long way since the days of massive death clamps and elastic bands, folks – take advantage!
No Manual Required
A capo is just a clamp, but to function properly, that clamp must be correctly positioned.
If the song calls for “capo 3”, for example, you’ll want to clamp the capo directly behind the third fret. [Note: “Behind the third fret” means in the fret 3 space, directly behind the third metal fret.] Make sure the rubber bar is placed squarely across all six strings and that it is neither too far back from the fret, nor on top of the fret.
Positioning the capo too far back will often cause the sound to get sketchy, and placing it directly over the fret will usually dampen the vibrations of the strings.
You’ll get the cleanest, most in-tune notes by clamping the capo directly behind the target fret. Once the capo is clamped, I suggest you check the sound by simply strumming the open strings and making sure they all ring clearly.
No Cheating, Take 2
The “cheater” crowd likes to say that capo users should just learn to play their songs with barre chords. After all, avoiding barres is the main reason for using a capo.
Let me clue you in on something, Yngwie: Playing barre chords doesn’t make you a hero. Playing the appropriate thing for the song makes you a hero.
And sometimes the capo is required gear for playing the appropriate thing. In this case, the appropriate thing is the open string.
It’s not so much the avoidance of barre chords that inspires the use of the capo; rather, it’s the desire for as many open position chords as possible.
Guitars – especially acoustic guitars – sound full, resonant and exciting when open strings are used. The capo is used to maximize the open strings while minimizing the barre chords.
In the open position, the nut is the point at which the open strings are suspended, so we can think of the nut as “zero fret”. When the capo is applied to any fret position, it now does the work of the nut and becomes “zero fret”. In essence, the capo is a moveable nut.
Interestingly, that’s exactly why barres are used. They turn open chords into moveable shapes, with the barre finger doing the work of the nut.
But the problem with moveable barre shapes is that they are closed position chords – no open strings. This means they only ring as long as you hold them down. When you release the pressure, they abruptly cut off.
That’s fine if that’s the sound you’re going for. But if you want notes that ring and bleed into each, and the ability to move effortlessly in the process, then you need open position chords. With the capo, we’re just working in reverse, turning barres back into open chords!
And that, my friends, is not cheating. It’s #winning.
QUESTION: Do use a capo regularly? Have you ever considered it “cheating”? Leave me a comment below!