What is a capo & how do you use one?
Beginners are often introduced to capos when they search for their first guitar. They tend to be included in guitar packs and are high on anyone’s list of recommended accessories for beginner guitarists. But what is a capo and what does it do?
What is a capo?
A capo is a device that clamps on the guitar’s fingerboard at a specific fret to shorten the length of all the strings at the same time.
Its name comes from the Italian word ‘capo’ literally meaning ‘head’. This allows you to play at a higher pitch than without it.
How does a capo work?
A capo works by clamping on the guitar strings. This, in turn, shortens the playable length of the string hence raising the pitch.
Raising the pitch of a guitar allows you to play in a different key.
How do you use a capo?
To use a capo, simply clamp the capo on the neck of the guitar near the desired fret to raise the pitch of the strings.
Don’t forget to check the tuning after applying the capo, then you’re good to play.
Spring loaded capos
A spring loaded capo is quick and easy use. It’s incredibly simple to apply and remove with the squeeze of your hand.
The spring does all the work, without the need to make adjustments. Also, it clips nicely on the head of the guitar when you don’t need it, keeping it handy at all times.
On the down side, you can’t change the amount of pressure it exerts. If the pressure is too great, it causes the strings to go out of tune and you’ll need to tune again when you apply and remove it.
C-clamp capos are a lot more precise than the spring loaded variety.
With the C-clamp you can adjust the amount of pressure the clamp exerts, which means there will be less chance that the strings will go out of tune.
Something to note, though: no capo’s ever perfect in this regard.
Toggle capos are like straps that have a toggle piece to exert pressure on your guitar strings. Due to its material, it is an affordable alternative to the more expensive C-clamp and spring loaded varieties.
Unfortunately, the design of a toggle capo makes it prone to exerting uneven pressure and sometimes falling off altogether. Use this only for practicing and not for live performance because it’s not as reliable as a C-clamp or a spring loaded capo.
- To change the key of a song
When you want to match the vocal range of a singer, you can use a capo to continue to play the chords you prefer.
- To brighten the sound of your guitar
Using a capo on the 4th fret or higher will change the sound of a guitar to resemble that of a mandolin.
- To make holding chords easier
As you go up the neck the fret gets closer together which means you don’t have to stretch as far, making some songs easier to play.
- To use chords of one key but play in another key
If you wish to play chords and variations in a certain key but set the song in a different key, a capo is the way to go. This is especially good when doing elaborate fingerpicking or pick work where tricks such as pull-offs or slides are being used in conjunction with chords.
- To change the key of an open tuned guitar
In this case, capos are the simplest way to shift the key of the open tuning, by essentially shortening the guitar strings.
Remember: Tune your guitar when you apply and remove a capo as they’re never perfect in the application of pressure, which results in the strings being out of tune with themselves.
Here are some examples of songs that are played using a capo, the number in parentheses is the fret on which the capo is clamped.
- Ed Sheeran’s “Photograph” (2nd)
- Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide” (3rd)
- Green Day’s “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” (1st)
- Oasis’ “Wonderwall” (2nd)
- The Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun” (7th)
- Taylor Swift’s “You Belong With Me” (4th)
- Paramore’s “The Only Exception” (2nd)
- Adele’s “When We Were Young” (3rd)
- Jeff Buckley’s “Hallelujah” (5th)
- OneRepublic’s “Secrets” (2nd)
We’d recommend a spring loaded or the c-clamp type.
The reason for this is that toggle-type capos are renowned for falling off or exerting uneven pressure, so they’re probably best avoided.
Many professional musicians use clamp capos because they’re easy to attach and move quickly while on stage.
Buy the best capo you can afford. Make sure it clamps down securely and exerts even pressure on the strings.
As mentioned above, avoid the use of a toggle capo if you can, because it’s prone to coming off during performances.
Final thought on capos for beginners
Just think, only a few minutes ago you were wondering ‘What is a capo?’ and now you have all the answers. Given all the points above, it’s easy to see why having a capo in your guitar toolkit is a must. That said, you won’t start to realise the benefits of using a capo until you’re beyond the beginner stage and starting to head into the more intermediate levels.
If you happen to be a beginner who sings though… you’re going to love your capo a little earlier than non-singers. What is a capo? Your new best friend!
Have you had any experience with capos so far? Which style did you go for and did you like how it worked? Leave us a comment and let us know your capo stories. You could be helping out other beginners, so don’t be shy.