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Using Capos

by Mark Starlin

A capo is a mechanical device that clamps onto the neck of the guitar. Capos are typically used by acoustic guitar players, but they work equally well on electric guitars. There are essentially two types of capos: six string capos and cut capos. Six string capos hold down all six strings of the guitar when clamped onto the neck. Cut Capos hold down less than six strings because part of the capo has been physically “cut” away. A cut capo with the 6th string portion of the capo removed is often called a “Drop D” capo because it mimics the popular tuning of the same name where the E string is lowered to D.

The Cutting Edge

While the term cut capo can refer to any capo with portions of the capo removed, “cut capo” has more recently referred to capos that hold down only three strings. This type of capo probably got its start when people began flipping over quick-release six string capos and using the part of the capo that usually grips the back of the guitar neck. This portion of the capo covers only covers three strings, and its use has gained quite a following.

Why use a capo?

Six string capos allow you to easily change the key of a song while still playing open chords. Cut capos allow you to play alternate (and sometimes easier) fingers of chords. Cut capos also allow you to play different tunings without actually retuning your guitar. You can even use a combination of six string and cut capos to play in new tunings and different keys. Let’s start by looking at the most common type of capo, the six string (also called standard or full) capo, and see how it works.

Six String Capos

Six string capos are the most common type of capo and are usually just called “capos.” They clamp onto the neck and hold down all six strings of the guitar. This allows you to easily change the key of a song (or pitch of the guitar) by placing the capo at different frets on the fretboard.

Changing Keys

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 D with the chord progression of: D - G - A - D. Now let’s say you need to change the song to the key of E to better fit a singer’s range. Simply put a capo at the 2nd fret and play the same D - G - A - D chord shapes. Because you have put a capo at the 2nd fret, the chords will now be E - A - B - E. How does this works?

Steps and Frets

The guitar is a chromatic instrument and each fret represents a half step in the chromatic scale. So to know where to place a capo, we need to know the chromatic scale. The chromatic scale moves in half steps (one fret.) So if we begin with an open sixth string E note, the chromatic scale moves in the following order, with each note being one half step (one fret) higher up the neck than the last: E - F - F# (or Gb) - G - G# (or Ab) - A - A# (or Bb) - B - C - C# (or Db) - D - D# (or Eb). The scale then repeats itself an octave (12 frets) higher.

Key movement

So if a song key is E and we put the capo at the 3rd fret (up three half steps) and play the same chord shapes, the song will now be in the key of G. G is three half steps up from E (E - F - F# - G). If we put the capo at the 5th fret and play the same chord shapes, the song will be in the key of A. A is five half steps up from E (E - F - F# - G - G# - A.)

If a song is in the key of C and we put the capo at the 2nd fret (up two half steps) and play the same chord shapes, the song will now be in the key of D. D is two half steps up from C (C - C# - D). If we put the capo at the 4th fret and play the same chord shapes, the song will be in the key of E. E is four half steps up from C (C - C# - D - D# - E).

Chord Shapes

Now suppose, you have put your capo at the 5th fret and want to know what chord shape will produce a D chord? You simply count backwards the number of half steps that corresponds to the fret number the capo is at. Since the capo is at the 5th (five) fret, you count backwards five half steps from D (the chord you want to play): D - C# - C - B - A# - A. To sound a D chord with a 5th fret capo, you use an A chord shape.

The fingering for a D chord with a capo at the 5th fret.

The fingering for a D chord with a capo at the 5th fret.

Let’s try a C chord with the capo at the 3rd fret. Count three half steps back from C: C - B - A# - A. To sound a C chord with a capo at the 3rd fret, you use an A chord shape.

The fingering for a C chord with a capo at the 3rd fret.

The fingering for a C chord with a capo at the 3rd fret.

Other Reasons To Use A Six String Capo

If your band has two acoustic guitar players, you can have one play with no capo and the other use a capo to get a different tone while playing the same chords. Using a capo also raises the pitch of your guitar giving you a brighter sound. If you put the capo high enough on the fretboard you will almost sound like a mandolin. Using a capo also allows you to use open string hammer-ons pull-offs in different keys.

Cut Capos

Cut capos allow you play different “voicings” of common open chords. They also allow easier fingerings of many chords. The most common type of cut capo is designed to hold down three strings of the guitar — the 3rd, 4th, and 5th — at the 2nd fret.

Here are the fingerings for an A chord using a cut capo:

Here are the fingerings for an A chord using a cut capo:

Here are the fingerings for a B chord using a cut capo:

Here are the fingerings for a B chord using a cut capo:

Here are the fingerings for an E chord using a cut capo:

Here are the fingerings for an E chord using a cut capo:
Cut Capo Tuning

When you use a cut capo by itself at the 2nd fret, you are placing the guitar in the key of E with a tuning of EBEABE, which is essentially the same tuning as the popular DADGAD tuning only in the key of E.

Changing Keys With Cut Capos

If you need to play in different key, you can use the cut capo along with a six string capo to change keys. Here is how you would position the capos to play cut capo chords in the key of G:

Here is how you would position the capos to play cut capo chords in the key of G

Since G is three half steps up from E, you place the six string capo at the third fret and the cut capo two frets higher (at the 5th fret.)

Like alternate tunings, cut capos force you to think differently about how you play the guitar. If you are interested in more information about cut capos, try doing a Web search for “cut capos.”

Capos can provide you with new sounds and inspire new songs. Give one a try.

links

  • Recommended Capos Available At Guitar Center
  • Kyser Quick Change Capo
    Kyser Quick Change Capo
    A perfect fit for the necks and fingerboards of acoustic 6-string guitars. A snap to park on the headstock and then reposition between frets using just one hand.
  • Kyser Quick-Change Capo 6-String White
  • Shubb Deluxe Capo
    Shubb Deluxe Capo
    Made of stainless steel with a new roller design that resists wear and opens and closes more smoothly. A restyled lever is easier to handle.
  • Shubb Deluxe S Series Steel String Capo Standard
  • G7th 405 Performance Guitar Capo
    G7th 405 Performance Guitar Capo
    The G7th Performance Guitar Capo is designed for enhanced performance and it's simple to use. Not only that, it looks and feels great! Push the lever to release the arms. The G7th Capo fits snugly behind the fret. Squeeze to tighten it from above or below. Simply press the lever to release the capo.
  • G7th 405 Performance Guitar Capo Standard
  • Planet Waves NS Aluminum Screw Type Capo
    Planet Waves NS Aluminum Screw Type Capo
    Ned Steinberger, the famed product designer, worked with Planet Waves to design this innovative patent-pending capo. The result is a capo that's strong yet lightweight with one-handed operation that allows extremely precise intonation. The NS Capo is made of a sleek, ultralight aerospace aluminum that adds virtually no weight to the neck of your guitar. Plus it has a smooth micrometer screw to ensure the perfect pressure for buzz-free performance at every fret.
  • Planet Waves NS Aluminum Screw Type Capo Standard
  • Kyser Short Cut 3-String Acoustic Guitar Capo
    Kyser Short Cut 3-String Acoustic Guitar Capo
    Use on any three adjacent strings to instantly create a variety of open and alternative tunings. The Kyser Short-Cut 3-string acoustic guitar capo is engineered with the same durability and ease of use as Kyser's original Quick-Change capo, but made for the creative artist who enjoys virtually unlimited tuning.
  • Kyser Short Cut 3-String Acoustic Guitar Capo Black
  • Kyser Drop D Capo
    Kyser Drop D Capo
    Special notch leaves the low E untouched while holding down the rest of the strings firmly. One-touch design lets you add, move, or remove the capo in a flash with one hand. Quality rubber pads won't mar the finish of your instrument.
  • Kyser Drop D Capo Standard

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