A Necessary Tool That Can Become a Crutch
This is part of the "VERY Basic Guitar subset of our "How To Folk" articles. In an effort to "jump start" your enjoyment of Folk music and your ability to join in, no matter what instrument you play, we are providing some very basic notes about guitar chords.
Note: - This series is part of the Folkarama page, which is dedicated to helping beginners "get into" Folk music and join Folk communities as easily as possible, with simple articles and links to resources that provide hands-on instruction in traditional acoustic instruments.
Folkarama, in turn, contains many references to more extensive articles and resources in Paul Race's CreekDontRise.com site, as well as other related pages.
What is a Capo?A capo is any device that you attach to the neck of the guitar (or banjo, etc.) to raise the pitch of the strings. In almost every case, it presses down on all six strings at the same time, with enough pressure to fret them. Doing so essentially puts the guitar in another key, which is often helpful when the song is in a key that would otherwise be hard to play.
Two of the most common types are shown below:
What Does a Capo Do?
For example, I usually play "Fire and Rain" in D, but if someone needs to sing it in F, I can put a capo on the third fret and keep using the same chords, because it has essentially transposed everything up three half-steps - from D to F.
Similarly, an acoustic Blues guitar player used to playing his favorite Blues in E, might be asked to play in F or G. A capo will get him there and allow him to keep all his signature licks.
This works best if you're not dependent on chord sheets or sheet music in the new key. For example:
That's why chord sheets you download from the Internet often tell you where to put your capo. For example, if the song is in Eb, they will tell you to put your capo on the first fret and play in D. Then they'll show you the chords for D.
Piano/vocal sheet music, on the other hand, may just show the chords in Eb, which - for a three-chorder - would include Eb, Ab, and Bb7. Ouch.
All that said, best case is that you will eventually internalize the basic principles we've been discussing well enough to make the capo part of your tool kit, and not a crutch that fails you if you don't have the chords in front of you.
Tips for Playing Along with Capo Users - It helps if you know how much each fret position transposes the chords.
Say you're in a jam or sitting in with a friend and she slaps a capo on the second fret and starts playing a song that centers around the D chord. She's playing in E. How do you know that?
If the song is a "three-chorder," you can either play in E, using E, A, and B7. Or you can follow her example and slap a capo on your instrument and play in D.
What if she slaps a capo on the fourth fret and starts using C, F, and G7 a lot? Chances are she's still playing in E, and you can follow along by playing the song in E. Or you could slap a capo on the second fret and play in D.
Here's a tip - if you're both playing guitars, the song will sound fuller if you're NOT both playing the same chords in the same position. So if she's playing C chords up four frets, and you can play the song in E without a capo, the overall sound will be richer.
"Nashville System" With a Capo - Nashville musicians often use a chord numbering system in which the key of the song is chord #1, and so on. So a "three-chorder" would label the chords 1, 4, and 5. Then they tell you you're playing in C. Okay, that's C, F, and G7. But the singer would rather sing it higher. So they shout out "Eb!" You can put a capo on the first fret and play D, G, and A7. Or you can put a capo on the third fret and use C, F, and G7.
Capos on 12-strings - In my childnood, when "steel-reinforced neck" meant only that a unadjustable hunk of steel was imbedded below the fret-board, it was common for 12-string owners to tune their guitars a step down and use a capo on the second fret most of the time they were playing with other folks. Tuning those old 12-strings (and many new ones) up to pitch put more pressure on the neck than they were designed to bear for long. If you see a 12-string owner who keeps his capo on the second fret almost all the time, be glad he has enough sense not to make the instrument's neck crazy and old before its time. (Side note, a friend once borrowed my 12-string, tuned it up to pitch, and barely avoided injury when the bridge snapped off and whipped up past his face. It was an old guitar and easily fixed, but what if it had been something else?)
Capos on Long-Neck Guitars - Similarly, I have a "long-neck" guitar that is made to be tuned a step down. Most of the time I use it, I keep a capo on the second fret so I can play the same chords as everybody else. (Why have it? Because when I want to use D chords to play a song in C, etc. there's nothing better. And a "dropped D tuning" when you're really in C kicks!)
I'm just sticking this and the 12-string examples in to let you know that not everybody who seems to have a capo permanently installed on the second fret of his guitar is "cheating" or ignorant.
When a Capo is a Crutch - If you're serious about acoustic guitar, you need to learn to play well in multiple keys. I would recommend at least C, G, and D (and you won't regret it if you learn to play in A and E). But I know folks who own guitars and play them frequently who can only play in one or two keys so they have to use the capo whenever they stray from those keys.
Most common are the folks who play in C by capoing up to the fifth fret and playing in G. When you capo past the third fret, you start approaching a point when your guitar sounds more like a mandolin than a guitar. If you have a bass player and don't mind losing some of the lower sounds of your guitar, fine.
But as a frequent soloist, I need those lower notes. If I need to play a song in C I'll play it in C. Or if I was "iffy" in C, I'd play it in A and capo up three frets. If I was "iffy" in both keys, I'd practice more.
I've even seen folks playing in D, or Eb by capoing on the seventh or eighth fret and playing in G. Their playing sounds like the mandolin break in "Maggie May." I shouldn't judge, I know . . . .
Why Folks Seldom Use Capos on Electric Guitar - Electric guitars are built differently from acoustics.
Because of this extra sustain, open strings on an electric tend to sound bad unless they're used carefully.
In addition, because they're using barre chords (or maybe complex Jazz chords, which also use no open strings), electric guitar players can play in any key just by sliding the chords they're using up and down the neck. You learned that guitar part in Ab because that was on the record, but your singer wants it in A? Move your barre chords a fret toward the bridge. Or vice versa.
That said, if someone needs to play a rock riff that depends on open chords and they need to pitch the song higher, a capo may be the best solution. But you won't see that more than a few times in your life.
What Kind of Capo Should I Use? My first capo was a pen and a rubber band (don't laugh - I lived in the sticks and almost never got to a music store).
So when Dunlop started making elastic capos strong enough to work on the twelve-string that was my first "real guitar," I was in! Nothing else was available, so I grew up with elastic capos, and I still find them handy for several reasons (listed below). At this point, I have no trouble using them for 99% of the situations I find myself in.
That said, most guitar players today use some sort of clip-on capo like the "trigger capo" shown above. They feel like they can get it on and off more quickly. And since you can pop it straight on the fingerboard, it's less likely to stretch the strings sideways than an elastic capo.
If you only have one or two acoustic guitars, you can probably afford two clip-on capos. And if your guitars are vastly different guitar - say one is a 12-string - you'll need two different ones anyway. You don't want to show up to a gig, open mic, or jam and say, "Oh, I left my capo in my other guitar case; can I borrow yours?"
On the other hand, I've used elastic capos since the mid-1960s. I learned long ago that after you snap it across the strings, you raise it slightly so the strings straighten out, and then drop it down so the strings aren't stretched sideways. (And the truth is, both kinds of capos stretch the strings a little bit just by putting that extra pressure on them, so that is something you may have to deal with, regardless.)
For most folks the biggest disadvantages to elastic capos are:
To me, the advantages of elastic capos are:
True confession, I have and use multiple acoustic guitars. I have guitars I use for recording, guitars I use for performing, old-timey-looking guitars I use for historical reenactments, guitars I use for demonstrations, etc.
Whenever I accumulate a guitar I plan to use often, I set it up. Then I acquire a suitable gig bag, a $10 strap, an elastic capo, and a handful of flatpicks. I adjust the strap to the length I will need when playing that guitar, slide 2 or 3 flatpicks into the side of the capo that doesn't get stretched out, and snap the capo on the strap so it's in a comfortable position to reach in a hurry while I'm holding the guitar. Then when I'm done practicing on it, I leave it in the gig bag exactly like that, so I don't need to go searching for strap, capo, or picks if I grab that guitar the next time I head out.
Practice Capoing - The main thing about capos is not choosing which kind to use, but knowing when and how to use them. If you are constantly playing acoustic guitar with folks who like to play in F, Bb, or Eb, you'll learn how in a hurry. But it might do you some good to practice using a capo at home to play along with songs you know on your favorite music playback device. Say you love a song that's in Eb on the recording. Practice putting a capo on the first fret and playing in D. Or if it's in F or Bb on the recording, practice putting the capo on the third fret and playing in D or G, respectively. It doesn't even matter what kind of song it is, as long as you learn the hows and whens of using a capo effectively.
Best case - play the songs on your favorite playlist without looking at the keys, and practice moving the capo around and trying different chords until you figure out what key the song is in and what chords you would use to play it with your capo.
ConclusionWhen I'm playing electric guitar, I have no trouble playing in keys like Ab. But I play acoustic guitar far more often. Since I jam and gig with a lot of different people playing a lot of different kinds of music, I often find myself playing a song I know in one key for a singer who performs it in another. If I know the song in D, and they want to play in C, no problem. But if they want to play in F, out comes the capo.
One of my favorite Folk Revival tunes is Noel "Paul" Stookey's "Early in the Morning." Peter, Paul and Mary sang the song in Bb, but Yarrow and Stookey played it in G, capoed up to the third fret. They had to - the song has a full two-octave range, and Stookey didn't have the vocal range to start on D below middle C. With the capo on the third fret, the song goes from low F to high F, all notes Stookey could sing in a pinch. (As of August, 2023, there's a YouTube of them doing this live here. If it goes away, you should be able to find a similar performance online.)
And you have to admit that playing chords like G, C, Bm, Am, A, and D7 is a lot easier than playing chords Bb, Eb, Dm, Cm, F7, especially when the chords change very fast, as they do in that song.
Capo intelligently and responsibly, and you'll be able to play a lot of songs that would otherwise be in impossible keys. And as long as you're getting the right sounds of your guitar, don't let anyone - not even me - tell you that you're using your capo wrong.
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