Embracing the Capo

February 14, 2006

Often overlooked—and sometimes disparaged—the capo is a powerful tool for creating rich, ringing guitar parts. Classical and jazz guitarists typically regard the capo as a crutch (calling it a “cheater”), but bluegrass, folk, country, blues, and roots-rock pickers all embrace the device as a way to add shimmer and sustain to their music. Essentially the capo is a clamp that acts as a moveable nut, allowing you to take advantage of open strings at any given fret position. Instead of playing barre chords in the higher registers, you can clamp a capo behind a designated fret and gain access to first-position voicings anywhere on the neck. Because your index finger doesn’t have to hold down the strings, you can embellish the harmony with hammer-ons and pull-offs that would be difficult or even impossible to wrangle without a capo.

Ever accompany a singer who loves to croon in the key of Ab or Bb? Armed with a capo, you can abandon stiff barre voicings and instead recycle more fluid moves from the key of G or A. And as we’ll see in a moment, the capo also lets you create stunning layered guitar parts in the studio. It takes practice to get the conceptual hang of using a capo, but you’ll find the sonic magic is worth the effort.

Ex. 1 illustrates the capo’s musical potential. You can play a four-bar Cm9-Bb-Ebmaj7-Cm9 progression using barre forms, but that approach won’t yield the chime of this particular passage. By clamping the capo at the 3rd fret, you can play Cm9, Bb, and Ebmaj7—all of which normally require serious barre grippage—using familiar and easy-to-play fingerings. Try it—though your ears will hear the music as written, your fingers will recognize the Am, G, and C forms (now each raised by three half-steps) lurking within. Notice how the various slurs let you create ear-grabbing tension and release. These moves would pose a real challenge to play sans capo.

When recording (or playing with another guitarist), the capo lets you stack several guitar parts that feature open strings in completely different fretboard positions. Ex. 2 revisits the chords from the previous example, but with a fresh twist. Capoed at the 8th fret, your guitar’s voice shifts to a higher, quasi-mandolin range replete with open-string jangle.

But the real payoff begins when you layer these two examples. Record Ex. 1 (or have someone play it for you) and then accompany it with Ex. 2. Listen to how the parts dovetail rhythmically and harmonically without getting sonically tangled. And notice how at all times there are open strings ringing. By forcing you to find new voicings and fingerings for the same progression, the capo will enhance your understanding of the fretboard while opening new doors to guitar orchestration, something we’ll continue to explore in the next lesson.

Next time: More capo wizardry.

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