What is a capo & how do you use one?
Beginners are often introduced to capos when they search for their first guitar.
Capos also tend to be included in guitar packs and are high on anyone’s list of essential guitar accessories for beginners.
But what is a capo and what does it do?
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What is a capo?
Picture by Anil Öztas, CC BY-SA 3.0 de, Link
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’.
A capo allows you to play at a higher pitch than without it.
How does a capo work?
A capo works by clamping the guitar strings onto the fretboard, shortening the playable length of the strings and raising their pitch.
This means standard chord shapes no longer produce standard chord sounds, instead producing the sounds of a higher 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.
The three types of capo
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 is ever perfect in this regard.
Toggle capos have straps with a toggle piece to exert pressure on your guitar strings.
Due to their material, they are 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.
What do you use a capo for?
- 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.
Famous songs played with a capo
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)
Guitar capo FAQs
Which capo is best for an acoustic guitar?
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.
Which capo should I buy?
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 guitar capos
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.