The humble capo.
Beloved by some, misunderstood by many.
If you’re one of the “many”, never fear. JB is here to rock your world with The Definitive Lesson on the art of the capo.
Since open strings are fundamental to the guitar’s sound, especially in pop music styles, learning to maximize those open strings with a capo falls into the “must know” category. And if you’re primarily an acoustic guitarist, a capo should be one of your first purchases, along with a tuner and some picks.
The bottom line: Effective use of the capo is essential for the modern guitarist. It will make your playing more professional, and the side benefit of minimizing barre chords will make you a much happier player to boot!
So pack a lunch and buckle up, fellow six-stringers – The Definitive Lesson: Essential Capo Strategies awaits.
First, the Basics
This Definitive Lesson is intended for folks who already have a basic understanding of capo use.
If you’ve never used a capo before, but want to get started, first read Capo Basics. It will give you the rundown on all the fundamentals points: types of capos, how to properly clamp it on the fretboard, the “moveable nut” concept, and more.
If you’re past all that and just need to get to the good stuff, then read on, playa!
The Most Obvious Use
The most obvious use of the capo – the one most capo rookies are aware of – is the ability to raise the pitch of a song by placing the capo at a higher fret. You then play your song as usual, and presto, higher-pitched song!
This is a good strategy if you’re doing “Hey Soul Sister” with your sister, Sally, the soprano, and Sally says, “Make it go higher! Make it go higher!” So you bump the capo up a few frets and Sally gets to sing the song in the stratosphere.
However, the average dude or dudette is not looking to take a song higher, but rather lower, as pro singers tend to have pretty high vocal ranges already. We’ll cover this interesting and highly valuable use of the capo at the conclusion of this lesson (Vocal Assistance).
The single most important capo strategy to know allows us to keep the “sound” of the song in its original key, but change the “look” to more desirable chord shapes and fingerings. Luckily, this is right in the JB wheelhouse.
The CAGED System
Let’s set up our capo lesson with a basic guideline, courtesy of the CAGED system.
For those of you in the know, the CAGED system is a powerful, if complex, tool for understanding the layout of the fretboard. Scales, chords and arpeggios can all be connected using this method, and it’s typically regarded as a relatively advanced concept.
A discussion of the CAGED system is well beyond the scope of this lesson, so let’s break it down to the essential idea: “CAGED” refers to the five common open-position chords that we all know and love, namely C, A, G, E and D. For capoing purposes, we’ll use the CAGED chords as our criteria for open chord success. Here’s how:
If a song does not fall into one of the above keys – C, A, G, E or D – then we will convert it to one of those keys with help from the capo.
Even beginners can use the CAGED system in this way!
We’re Going to be Friends
How do we know that the CAGED keys are open-chord friendly? Certainly the chords themselves are easy to play and give us some nice open strings, but the entire key of G? Don’t we have more than just G chords to deal with?
Yes, and glad you asked.
In my article The Lost Art of Learning by Ear, I covered the basics of primary chords within common keys. Here is a summary of some of the main points:
In any major key, you have three primary major chords and three primary minor chords. The primary major chords are located at the 1, 4 and 5 scale degrees. For example, in the key of G, the primary major chords are G (1), C (4) and D (5).
The primary minor chords are located at the 2, 3 and 6 scale degrees. Again, in the key of G, the primary minors are Am (2), Bm (3) and Em (6).
If your song is in the key of C: C (1), Dm (2), Em (3), F (4), G or G7 (5), Am (6)
If your song is in the key of A: A (1), Bm (2), C#m (3), D (4), E or E7 (5), F#m (6)
If your song is in the key of E: E (1), F#m (2), G#m (3), A (4), B or B7 (5), C#m (6)
If your song is in the key of D: D (1), Em (2), F#m (3), G (4), A or A7 (5), Bm (6)
Now that we’re up to speed on the primary chords, let’s dig a little deeper.
From the above examples, you can see that certain keys in the CAGED system give us a tremendous amount of open-chord bang for our buck, while others are “just okay”. I’ll outline below the open-chord-to-primary-chord ratios of each key:
The key of C gives us a 5:6 ratio, with F (4) as a barre.
The key of A gives us a 3:6 ratio, with Bm (2), C#m (3) and F#m (6) as barres.
The key of G gives us a 5:6 ratio, with Bm (3) as a barre.
The key of E gives us a 2:6 ratio, with F#m (2), G#m (3), B (5) and C#m (6) as barres.
The key of D gives us a 4:6 ratio, with F#m (3) and Bm (6) as barres.
A quick survey of these ratios tells us that the keys of C and G are the preferred CAGED keys, with the highest ratio of open chords (5) to primary chords. The key of D is next in terms of open chords (4), while A and E have the least to offer from the CAGED system (3 and 2, respectively).
This is important to know when applying capo strategies!
Setting the Stage
Here’s the scenario:
1) We have a song is in a non-CAGED key (example: Bb) with lots of barres for the primary chords.
2) We want to keep our song sounding like Bb, but convert to a more open-chord friendly key from the CAGED system.
3) We’ve got capo in hand and we’re reading for action.
The “sounding like Bb” thing is critical. We are NOT actually changing the key of the song. The original pitch remains. We are instead using the capo to change the appearance of the key, by converting to a more open-chord friendly approach. This is where using bass notes comes in handy.
To help my students understand and visualize how to change the “appearance” of the key, I like to use the bass (root) note positions of the CAGED chords. Let’s combine the bass notes, the CAGED system and the “moveable nut” concept for maximum awesome!
Gimme That Bass
Among the five CAGED chords, we have two chords with the bass on string 6, two with the bass on string 5, and one with the bass on string 4:
C has a fret 3 bass note on 5.
A has an open string bass note on 5.
G has a fret 3 bass note on 6.
E has an open string bass note on 6.
D has an open string bass note on 4.
Let’s use G – one of our preferred keys – as an example and get started by making our song in the key of Bb “look” like the key of G by using the capo.
The first step in the process is locating some Bb bass notes – our actual “sound” – on the lower strings. Since we’ll be creating the appearance of the key of G, and G has its bass on string 6, let’s match that idea by finding a Bb on string 6.
Answer? Bb is found at fret 6 on string 6.
Now that we know the location of the actual key’s root note, let’s make it look like a G chord by placing our 2nd finger on that Bb note at fret 6. Now place your other fingers in the standard G shape:
If you recall the “moveable nut” concept, you’ll see that in order for the G chord to sound properly, the nut would have to move to fret 3. That gives your G chord its open strings. So place the capo at fret 3, and play the G. It should sound like a Bb.
To test this out, remove the capo and play a Bb barre of some type. Now put the capo back on fret 3 and play G. They should match in pitch.
Success! Your G chord is now sounding at “concert pitch” Bb.
This process works in exactly the same way for root notes on string 5. As an example, let’s convert a song that “sounds” in Eb to “look” like C, one of our other preferred CAGED keys.
A quick rundown of the process:
1) The song is in Eb. There is an Eb bass note on string 5, fret 6.
2) The C chord also has a bass note on string 5. It’s played with finger 3 at fret 3.
3) Place finger 3 on the target Eb note at fret 6; visualize the C chord anchored by that bass note and make the C shape.
4) Recall the moveable nut concept; visualize where the capo would have to be placed for the C chord to sound properly. (Answer: fret 3)
5) Place the capo at fret 3 and play your C chord. It will sound like a concert pitch Eb.
Over time you will be able to follow this process and know where to capo instantly!
Open Roots are Cool Too
As opposed to the G and C chords, the other CAGED chords of D, A and E have their root notes as open strings. This presents a slightly different approach than chords with fretted roots. The fretted roots are easier to visualize, since you can see how your finger plays the note. But although the open string roots require greater imagination on your part, they’re actually easier to cue. Check it out.
If we wanted to make our example song in the key of Bb look like the key of E, follow the same basic process we used above for G:
1) The song is in Bb. There is a Bb bass note on string 6, fret 6.
2) The E chord also has a bass note on string 6, however it is the open string.
3) Remember that the nut is “zero fret”, where the open string is located.
4) Recall the moveable nut concept and that the capo does the work of the nut; visualize where the capo would have to be placed for the E chord to sound properly. (Answer: fret 6)
5) Place the capo at fret 6 (the Bb position) and play your E chord. It will sound like a concert pitch Bb.
Ultimately, the capo cue is simple: When you’re converting a chord to look like one with an open-string root, just place the capo at the original root note position. No fingers necessary!
And for you barre-savvy folks, you’ll notice that the capo is placed where your barre finger would be placed for a root-6 Bb chord. Nifty.
This exact process could be used to convert our Bb song to the A fingering on string 5 (if you follow the steps, the capo should end up on fret 1).
We could also convert our Eb example to the D fingering on string 4 using the same steps (the capo would end up on fret 1 also).
The Next Step: Transposing Chords
I’m sure you realize that it’s not enough to convert just the tonic (root) chord to a nice, open-string friendly version; we must also convert the other five primary chords to our newly capoed key.
This is where the scale degree numbers come into play. If your song is in the key of Bb and consists of Bb, F, Gm and Eb, you should first think of those chords by their scale degrees (1, 5, 6 and 4, respectively). Then simply match those scale degree numbers in your new key. This is the science behind transposing to any new key.
Download the following handy-dandy chart to help you along. In it, I’ve outlined some non-CAGED keys with primary chords, and two capo possibilities for each that will make your life a lot easier!
One interesting point: Even though E is a CAGED chord, it only offers us two open chords (the 1 and 4) out of six primaries. To my way of thinking, that ratio is low enough to be considered non-CAGED, so I’ve included it in the chart. As a modern and highly relevant example, the hit song, “If I Die Young”, by The Band Perry, is in the key of E, but certainly benefits from capoing it on fret 2 and playing it in the key of D. The key of A has also been included, as this is commonly capoed at 2 and played in G.
What’s Practical and Possible
Keep in mind that the fret position of your original root note plays a huge part in what capo substitutions are practical or even possible.
For example, I’d never try to capo a song in Eb using a string 6 root note as my guide, because the lowest note is open string E (meaning there is no low Eb to be had) and the only possible Eb is on fret 11 – much too high for comfort. I’d always opt for roots on string 5/fret 6 or string 4/fret 1 (as explained in the above examples).
Also, if your original root is too low on the fretboard it may be impractical to use certain subs. For example, if the root is F# and you’re looking at fret 2 of string 6, you’ll notice that you can capo at fret 2 and play it in E, but you cannot play it at all in the key of G. Placing your second finger on F# and holding a G shape should reveal why: the chord is now partially off the fretboard and won’t work!
That F# would best be located on string 4/fret 4 and played as capo 4 in D, or possibly string 5/fret 9 and played as capo 6 in C (although that may prove to sound more like a mandolin than a guitar – your call).
My advice is to try and keep your capo positions between fret 1 and fret 6. Any higher than that and things start to get weird – the tuning becomes suspect and the fret spacing gets very tight for chords.
Half-Step Down Helper
There is one fantastic and highly underrated use of the capo that we have yet to mention: it instantly puts any guitar tuned a half-step down (Eb tuning) back in standard tuning by simply capoing at fret 1.
As a matter of fact, my main acoustic is always tuned to Eb. There are so many songs that use half-step down tuning that it became a real drag to keep dropping my tuning. So I decided to keep it a half-step down and just capo at fret 1 for songs in standard pitch. The only small downside to this is that the capo number will always be one higher than the song calls for (my guitar at capo 1 = a standard guitar with no capo).
As mentioned at the start of this lesson, the capo can be very helpful in changing not just the chord shapes we play, but also the pitch of the song for singers. If the song is too high to sing in its original key, you can enlist the capo to assist in finding a lower vocal key. And if you plan on singing along with your guitar playing, this should probably be Step 1 in the process.
Say the song you want to sing is originally in the key of C. Unfortunately it’s a tad too high to sing comfortably. You try pitching it down a whole step to Bb, which is great for singing, but now it’s full of barre chords. No problem!
Capo at fret 3 and play it in the key of G, following the transposition process above. You’ve now pitched the song down to Bb to help vocally, and the capo placement puts the fingerings in G. Sweet!
Song Examples and Analysis
In the following downloadable PDF file, I’ve compiled a few classic and modern examples of capoed songs.
With my eagle eye and keen musical understanding, I’ve analyzed and detailed why they are capoed the way they are. Check ’em out – there are all sorts of reasons for using that capo!
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