How To Use Guitar Capo?

Alright – so you’ve been practicing hard and long…and getting a bit of a grip on this whole “playing guitar” thing.  It’s pretty cool, isn’t it?!?  You’ve got calluses growing on your fingertips so it just doesn’t hurt so flipping’ much to play (no pain no gain, my friend) and you’re developing a good vocabulary of chords (mostly open…some barre chords).  Congrats!

If you’re like most of us string slappers, you’re working on learning songs that you love – and would love to be able to play.  But sometimes it’s weird – that perfect song of yours has chords where you just can’t play the simple open chord shapes you’ve grown to be an expert at. 

You’re finding that the only way to play a song is to play some of those nasty barre chords.  You may even see on your guitar tab where it says “Capo 3” or something like that at the beginning.

Or…let’s say you are one of those singer-type players…and you’re finding that your favorite song – even though it’s played with open chords – is just in the wrong key for you to sing.  It’s super easy to play but you just can’t sing it.

The problem with both cases is the key of the song.  If a song is in, for example, the key of Eb…well, you aren’t playing that bad boy without barre chords.  And as far as the song being in the wrong key to sing, there just HAS to be a way to change the key without having to change the chord fingerings that you’re using, right?

My friends, the solution to all of your problems is a capo.

A capo is a spring-loaded device that acts like a “movable nut”:

Place it in between the nut and the first fret (called the “capo 1” position) and guess what?  That open D chord fingering is now actually sounding like an Eb.  Problem solved!  You can play that song using the open fingerings you are used to without having to entirely relearn or resort to barre chords.

Tips on how to use guitar capo

Parallel Lines

As I referred to earlier, placing a capo between the nut and the first fret is called “capo 1”.  Following that, “capo 2” goes between the first and second fret (and so on).  One thing to keep in mind is to put the capo on so it is parallel (running in the same direction) as the frets. 

Putting it on crooked can cause problems like dead open strings and also trouble getting your fingers in the right spot.  Using a capo on higher frets can get a little tight, but hey – tell that to Don Felder when he used a capo on the 7th fret (on a 12 string, no less) to record Hotel California!

Don’t get so tense

Similar to using too much finger pressure when you’re forming chords, using a capo that has too strong of spring can actually make your guitar go out of tune.  How?  If the capo has too much tension then it can actually push the strings slightly sharp – sometimes to the point where it just sounds terrible. 

Going back to the Hotel California example again: I played it at a gig one time and I found that I literally had to retune the whole guitar with the capo on the 7th fret to get it to be in tune (tuning a 12 string = yuck). 

The solution to this is to get a capo with a knob to adjust the spring tension.  That way you can use the same capo on either an acoustic (most common for a capo) or an electric (electrics require less tension since the string gauge is normally a lot lighter).

On the flip side of that, make sure that you have enough tension as well.  To light will lead to dead strings.  This is where having that adjustable capo really saves the day – I can use mine on numerous different guitars and just twist the knob to get the tension where it needs to be.

Rent a storage unit?

You’ve seen players do this all the time – they put their capo on their headstock when they aren’t using it.  That allows them to quickly grab it and throw it on when needed without having to fumble around picking it up off your amp or something.  Some simple capos have a bar with an elastic strap, so don’t use that style if you plan on taking yours on and off all the time.

Don’t Let Yourself Get Confused

Here is one of the biggest challenges when using a capo:  while the capo is indeed a “moveable nut” (and therefore changes your reference point), you have to sometimes actually remember that you’re using a capo. 

Confused?  Just keep in mind that, when using a capo, the actual pitch of the chord you’re playing doesn’t really relate to what your fingers are doing in a normal case with no capo at all. 

Let’s say you put the capo at the “capo 2” position and play an open D chord fingering.  Your eyes can see the D fingering position and your brain “thinks” it’s a D chord…but you have to remember that you’re actually playing an E chord in this case.  This is one of those things that really is kind of tricky to wrap your head around; the best way to understand it is to really put some practice time in.

Once you take the time to really sit down and understand what awesome stuff that using a capo can do, you’ll eventually see that it’s a wonderful tool that can unlock a lot of potential for your playing.

That’s all I’ve got for this week…we’ll see you on the other side or next week, whichever comes first.

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