Using Guitar Capos

Using Guitar Capos

A capo is a mechanical device that clamps onto the neck of the guitar and changes the guitar's tuning. Capos are typically used by acoustic guitar players, but they work equally well on electric guitars. There are essentially two types of guitar capos: six string capos and cut capos. Six string capos hold down all six strings of the guitar when clamped onto the neck and are used to transpose the guitar’s tuning. Cut Capos hold down less than six strings. Cut capos were first made by physically cutting away part of the capo, but capo manufactures now make various cut capos. Cut capos are designed for easier fingering or other special uses like simulating Drop-D tuning. Some players even use them in conjunction with a six string capo. In this lesson I will be focusing on the six string capo, the most common type of capo. 

Note: There are also 12 string capos but they function the same as 6 string capos by holding down all the string of the guitar. So this lesson applies to both 6 and 12 string capos. A 12 string guitar will also have unison or octave strings of the same notes. 

Why Use A Capo?

Six string capos allow you to easily change the key of a song (transpose) while still playing open chords. They also allow you to get new tones out of your guitar. Placing a capo high up the neck will give you a higher pitched tone, more like a mandolin. If your band has two acoustic guitar players one can use a capo to get a different chord voicing (and tone) while playing the same chords. Using a capo also allows you to use open string hammer-ons pull-offs in different keys.

Steps and Frets

The guitar is a chromatic instrument and each fret represents a half step in the Chromatic scale. The open string notes in standard tuning are (6th string) E, A, D, G, B, E (1st string.) If you place a capo at the 1st fret you raise the pitch (tuning) of the entire guitar one half step. So now your open strings are (6th string) F, A#, D#, G#, C, F (1st string.) Any chord played now will be one half step higher. A C chord shape becomes a C# chord.

A C chord shape becomes a C Sharp chord when a capo is placed at the 1st fret. 

As you move the capo higher up the neck you continue to change the pitch of the guitar. Place the capo at the 2nd fret and a C chord shape becomes a D chord.

A C chord shape becomes a D chord when a capo is placed at the 2nd fret. 

Place the capo at the 4th fret and a C chord shape becomes an E chord.

A C chord shape becomes an E chord when a capo is placed at the 4th fret. 

Changing Keys (Transposing) With Capos

Here is an example that shows how easy it is to change keys using a capo. Suppose you are playing a song in the key of C with the following chord progression:

Here is the original chord progression in the key of C. 

Now let’s say you need to change the song to the key of D to fit a singer’s range better. Simply put a capo at the 2nd fret and play the same C | Am | G | C chord shapes. Because you put a capo at the 2nd fret, the chords you play will now be D | Bm | A | D.

Here are the resulting chords if you place a capo at the second fret and play the original chord shapes: C | Am | G | C. 

How Does This work?

Because you put the capo at the 2nd fret (up two half steps), the capo raised the pitch of the guitar two half steps. The capoed “open” guitar strings are now F# B E A C# F#. So every chord shape you play will actually be two half steps (or one whole step) higher in pitch than standard tuning. 

The C chord shape becomes a D chord: C - C# - D.
The Bm chord shape becomes an Am chord: Am - A#m - Bm.
The G chord shape becomes an A chord: G - G# - A.

Capoing Without Changing Keys

Sometimes you may want to capo up but not change the key of the song. For example, two acoustic guitar players are playing together and one capos up to get a different tone. In this case you need to figure out what chord shapes will give you a desired chord based on what fret you are capoed at.

Suppose, you put your capo at the 2nd fret and want to know what chord shape will produce an E chord? You simply count backwards the number of half steps that corresponds to the fret number you placed the capo at. In this case the capo is at the 2nd (two) fret so you count down two half steps from E: E - Eb - D. To play an E chord with a capo at the 2nd fret, you use the D open chord shape.

An E chord with the capo placed at the 2nd fret.

What if you put the capo at the 5th fret and want to know what chord shape will produce a D chord? Since the capo is at the 5th (five) fret, you count backwards five half steps from D (the chord you want to play): D - Db - C - B - Bb - A. To sound a D chord with a capo at the 5th fret, you use an A open chord shape.

A D chord with the capo placed at the 5th fret.

Capos are great tools, especially for acoustic guitarists who usually want to use as many open chords as possible.

Capo Chord Chart

Here is a list of common open chords and what chord the shape becomes with a capo placed at each fret. You can also look down the fret number column and find the chord you want to play, then look to the far left to find the chord shape that will produce that chord at that fret. 

Link to pdf of the Capo Chord Chart.  Use your browser's download or export features to save the pdf to your computer. 

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