Essays On Music & Musical Things...

Using A Capo by Willy Kelly ©2010 Wondrous Music

When I started playing guitar I noticed that some players were playing chords I recognized but playing them higher up the neck. Then I noticed a little bar strapped to the neck of their instrument. I came to find out that they were using a capo...

A capo is a device that clamps to the neck of a stringed instrument such as a guitar, banjo, or mandolin. It stops or “plays” all the strings up the neck to shorten all the strings at once acting like a moveable nut. Today there are many styles of capo available and one you use should be easy to get on and off. It is also important not to tighten it so much it puts the strings out of tune. Finally, I always listen to the lowest and highest strings to be sure they don't “buzz” and adjust the capo tension or position, slightly, if needed.

There are at least three good reasons to use a capo. It can allow the use of easier chords to play a song. For instance, if a song is in the key of Bb (Bb, Eb, and F chords, for example) you can capo up three frets and use chords from the key of G. (G, C, and D). This may not only be easier to play but may allow a more appropriate playing style. It may also permit certain bass lines or chord voicing. Playing G, C, and D chords on an acoustic guitar definitely sounds different that Bb, Eb and F. Being able to play root position chords certainly provides options that wouldn't be convenient for most players, using basic bar-chords. (Root position chords are the those played close to the nut with open strings, such as C, G, E, and A)

Another great reason to use a capo is the change in sound it can create. Two guitar players playing root position chords together in a song creates a richer sound than one guitar alone. When one of those guitars is capo'd up say, three to five frets the sound is even more dynamic. The capo'd guitar gets a subdued “jangle” to the sound that can be very pleasing.

The one big issue to deal with when using a capo'd instrument in a group of players, is that the capo changes the note names of the root position chords. A G-chord capo'd up three frets becomes a Bb-chord. This can be a problem if you don't know the note names for each fret on each string of the guitar. If you haven't already memorized all the note names you can figure out the notes for each fret and string using the “musical alphabet”.

The “musical” alphabet consists of the twelve notes of the chromatic scale: A, A#/Bb, B, C, C#/Db, D, D#/Eb, E, F, F#/Gb, G, G#/Ab and then back to A (an octave higher)**. You will notice that between the “natural” notes (A, B, C, etc.) there are notes that have two names that use a sharp (#) or a flat (b), (A#/Bb, C#/Db, etc.). The two exceptions to this are between notes B to C and notes E to F.

If you are anything like me, you are now asking, “WHY?!” Creating the written language for music as we know it was a long and difficult process. In fact it is still evolving as musicians find new ways to express themselves. I believe we come to really understand music by doing it. Some things need to be memorized and at some later time, after much joyful music-making, we have a moment of clarity. Then we truly understand. Please trust someone who's “been there” and just accept the situation.

For everyone that first hears this, the mantra is “half-steps between B, C and E, F,... B, C, and E, F...”

For the notes that have two names, either name can be used to refer to it. For example you could say, “A, Bb, C” or “A, A#, C”. The distance or interval between each note is one half-step. The interval between each fret of the guitar is also on half-step. So if you capo up three frets and play a G-chord you can count up the musical alphabet 3 half-steps to Bb . (G#, A, A# or Ab, A, Bb) If you play an Am (A minor) with that same capo up three frets you will be playing a Cm. (“half-steps between B, C and E, F,... B, C, and E, F...”) The function of the chord remains the same. A minor chord is still a minor and a major chord is still a major.

So a C-chord moved up two half-steps or two frets, becomes a D-chord. A Dm-chord (D minor) capo'd up four frets becomes an F#m-chord. Once you get familiar with "counting by half-steps", it becomes very "do-able" with a little practice.

Using a capo can make what you play easier and open up new ways to play familiar songs. It can help you play in a key that is really right for your vocal range and improve the way your chord accompaniment works for a song. Taking the time and energy to play songs in different keys using a capo can add a variety of tones and colors to your music.

Now go strap on that capo and play me some "Dead Flowers" in Eb or F or maybe Bb...


Willy Kelly is a Singer-Songwriter living on the Maine coast. When he's not performing he's improving his "piano tuning" chops, working on broken banjos and fixing obstinate computers. You can email Willy at:

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