A capo is a cheap, simple, but invaluable tool for guitarists for a number of reasons that we’ll explore in this article. Keep reading if you

  • Are a singer-songwriter
  • Love the sound of open chords.
  • Can’t play bar chords.
  • Want a quick way to transpose songs.

So what does a capo do? 

A capo is a device that mimics barring all six strings with one finger. Clamp it down on the first fret and every open string becomes a half-step higher in pitch.

How to install the capo on your guitar

There are a few different mechanisms for how capos work. In most cases, a capo

  • Squeezes the fretboard, one side pressing down on the strings and the other pressing against the back of the guitar neck.
  • Should sit parallel to the fret wires, never crooked. 
  • Works best when placed close to the fret wire of the next fret up – not in the middle.

A buying guide for capos

As with every piece of music gear, capos come in simple and fancy versions. G7th, Shubb, and Kyser make some of the most popular capo models.

Performance 3 (G7th)

Thanks to its clever tension control system, this capo lets you quickly fine-tune the pressure on your strings – ensuring a solid grip without squeezing the strings out of tune.

Standard Capo C1 (Shubb)

The Shubb C1 Capo is the go-to for many guitarists with its simple yet effective design, offering precision and ease with its quick clamp and adjustable tension screw.

Quick-Change Classical Guitar Capo (Kyser)

As the name suggests, the Kyser ‘Quick-Change’ Capo is all about speed and simplicity. The clamp works a bit like a clothes peg – squeeze it to open, let go to grip on. This capo is good if you need to switch keys in the middle of a song.

How to choose the right capo

There are a few different mechanisms to choose from. It comes down to preference, how much time you have to put the capo on and off, and what fits your guitar. 

  • For some players, it’s important to change the position of the capo using only one hand
  • If you’re performing live and want to bring down the time you’re fiddling around with equipment for example, this is something to consider. 
  • The Kyser capo would do the trick while the Shubb and G7 need to be adjusted with both hands.

If your action is high (the strings are far away from your fretboard) you might want to look into a capo with a screw to get the pressure right.

Buy the capo that fits your fretboard

Most classical guitars have a wide, flat fretboard, most electric and steel-string acoustic guitars have an arched fretboard and the same capo will fit both. 

Yes, you can put a capo on an electric guitar!

Make sure the capo is the right model for your fretboard otherwise you’ll deal with string buzz. If you’re not sure, you can always contact the manufacturer and they’ll be able to help you find the right one.

Why use a capo?

Here are a few of reasons you should always keep a capo in your gig bag – regardless of your style or genre.  

  1. Change key without changing chords – A capo allows you to play a song in a different key without having to learn new chord shapes. 
  2. Access new sounds and tones – Placing a capo on your guitar changes the string tension, which can produce a brighter, more vibrant sound. This is great for creating different textures or mimicking the sound of other instruments like the mandolin, especially when played higher up the neck.
  3. Facilitate fingerpicking – A capo can make complex picking patterns easier to play by reducing the stretch required for certain chords (way more comfortable for long, intricate pieces).
  4. Vocalist's best friend – A capo can be an invaluable tool for quickly changing the key of a song to match a singer’s specific range.

Use a capo to match your vocal range

Let’s say you’ve written a verse for a song using these two chords:

You start to hum a pretty melody but it’s a bit of a strain on your vocal chords. How can you make things easier without changing the heart and soul of the tune?

  • Instead of modifying the melody or the chords, grab your capo and put it on the first fret. 
  • Now you can play the same chord shapes and see if the melody feels easier on your voice.
  • If it feels good – problem solved!
  • If it’s still a little tough, slide the capo up a couple more frets – experiment until you find a key that suits your vocal range.

You don’t need bar chords or music theory to pull this off. Just follow your ear and the capo will do the job of transposing your song into a different key for you.

Play open chords instead of bar chords

Sometimes, a song may be in Ab major but you still want to play open chords. Sure, many players could make do with closed triads or bar chords, but open chords often sound so much better. 

Here’s where a capo becomes your hero and makes open chords accessible all over the fretboard. 

Open chords for everyone, everywhere!

If you’re not sold, here are a few reasons why you would want to stick to open chords:

  • You’re a singer-songwriter, and singing while playing is hard enough – you don’t need to add complicated chord voicings to your plate.
  • You’re unable to play bar chords or your hand tires easily when you do.
  • You primarily play acoustic guitar and want the lush sound of open strings ringing out.

A capo can help you arrange a song

If you want to combine melodies and chords, open chords are because you usually have a free finger or two. This allows you to add additional melodic notes into the progression. 

When you play bar chords, most of your fingers are already busy.

Watch the video below of Collin Hill playing a rendition of The Beatles’ Here Comes the Sun. The choice of open chord shapes allows him to play both harmony and melody at the same time.

When it comes to arranging your own songs or song covers, be aware that 

  • Even when you’re playing a chord progression, you are also always playing a melody.
  • The highest note of any chord you play will always be perceived by our ears as a melody.
  • This means it matters which chord shapes (or chord voicings) you choose.

On the guitar, there’s never just one way to play a chord. It’s both a blessing and a curse – we get lots of options, but then we also need to spend more time making decisions

The guitar gifts us with tons of different positions and string combinations to spell out a chord. For example, play these two versions of a G chord and notice their distinct characteristics:

Sure, they’re both G major – but they differ in several ways:

The open chord – shape 1

  • Emphasizes the root note G on the first string.
  • Sounds warm and the register is low. 
  • Has a lot of sustain because of the open strings.

Whereas shape 2

  • Emphasizes the 5th (D) on the first string.
  • Sounds brighter and the register is high.
  • Dies down more quickly.

Next time, you arrange a song, think about the shapes you’d ideally like to play and then use the capo to move them to your key of choice.

Double a guitar part with open strings

What sounds better than one guitar? Two guitars! 

When recording or jamming with another guitarist, try using a capo on one of the guitars to add some variety – the contrast can sound quite beautiful.

Which fret should I put my capo on?

If you want to get more specific than “just move it up the fretboard” when it comes to choosing a key or chord voicing, you’ll have to know a few things:

  • The note names on the fretboard (or at least the ones on the E, A, and D string).
  • Which of the notes in a chord shape is the root note.
  • The CAGED system.

The CAGED system gets its name because it uses different open chord shapes (C, A, G, E, and D) to map out one chord repeatedly across the fretboard. 

Do you recognize each shape in the diagram above?

If you’re completely new to the CAGED system, it might take a moment to understand what’s going on – here’s a cheat sheet:

  • Letters can signify one of two things.
  • Either the root note of the chord.
  • Or the open chord that the shape is named after.
  • For example, most of us think of an F bar chord as an E shape moved up a fret.

Ready to have your mind blown? 

In the above diagram, you can see the G, E, D, C, and A shapes – if you play through each one, you’ll hear they are all the same chord – C

If you want to go deeper, we have an entire blog article dedicated to the CAGED system

Use the capo to switch between different CAGED shapes

Let’s look at an example.

Below are three chords for a progression in G major. Our home chord G major is in a G shape voicing. You can play these chords without a capo.

Below is the same chord progression, still in G major. This time, our home chord (G) is in an E shape voicing. You can play these chords with your capo on the 3rd fret.

The capo on the 3rd fret covers the G note on the lowest string – it acts as if you were playing a G bar chord.

Things that can go wrong when you play with a capo

If you’re new to using a capo, there are a few things to look out for. Nothing life-threatening but stuff that’s good to know! 

  • Check your tuning after you position your capo.
  • If you rely on a capo, forgetting to bring it can destroy a show – always keep one in your gig bag!
  • Add notes to your setlist to indicate which songs need a capo, and in which key – your anxious performing brain will thank you.

 What’s next?

To get the most out of the open chords/capo combo, it’s a good idea to get familiar with the CAGED system. You can check out Pickup Music’s CAGED Learning Pathway using our free 14-day trial

All our pathways have a structured lesson plan that will guide you through daily exercises. You’ll learn performance pieces and receive personal feedback from our amazing instructors.

Author: Julia Mahncke