The word capo is short for capotasto, which means principal fret in Italian.
A capo is used to shorten the vibrating length of a guitar’s strings. When fitted across a fret, the device stops the strings at that point, essentially creating a new nut and raising the pitch of the open strings (which are still denoted as “0” in TAB). This makes it particularly easy to transpose a progression of open chords—you simply move the shapes up the neck relative to the capo location.
For this reason, the capo gets a bad rap from some players, who see it as a way to avoid any real physical/mental effort when performing on the guitar. But as you’ll see in this lesson, the capo is an invaluable tool in the arsenal of a thoughtful player.
Capos comes strap-on, screw-on and clamp-on varieties. They are most commonly used to take a basic open-chord progression, like the C–G–Am–Em–F–C–Dm–G change in FIGURE 1A, and place everything in a different spot on the neck.
FIGURE 1B shows the same progression played with a 2nd-fret capo, causing everything to sound a whole step, or major 2nd, higher (D–A–Bm–F#m–G–D–Em–A).
This sort of transposition might be done to place a song’s original chord voicings in a key that suits that vocalist’s range. Without the capo, barre chords would be the only other option—and a duller one, sound wise on the acoustic at that.
Song in flat keys (e.g. F, Bb, Eb, Ab, etc.) usually require barre shapes, like those shown in FIGURE 2A’s Eb–Bb–Cm–Ab progression.
FIGURE 2B shows how, with a 3rd-fret capo, these same chords can be played at pitch using open shapes, which allow for the sparkle and airiness of open strings and lead to common tones in the upper register—for instance, prettier versions of Cm and Ab (Cm7 and Abadd9, fingered as Am7 Fadd9 when capoed).
Many piano-based songs are played in flat keys. Playing these tunes on guitar typically requires the sort of knuckle -busting moves seen in FIGURE 3A—a Bb6 arpeggio riff similar to Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Here’s it’s difficult to keep the Bb (6th fret, 6th string) bass note ringing while single notes are picked above it.
In contrast, check out FIGURE 3B, in which a 1st-fret capo makes for a much more playable arrangement. The bass note is now played on an open string, and most of the remaining tones are fretted with a 1st-finger barre.
If you’re playing an acoustic solo set and your repertoire consists of songs played in both standard and slack (down a whole step, down a half step, etc.) tunings, start with your strings detuned a whole step to avoid retuning between songs, as seen in FIGURE 4.
Then, for standard-tuned songs, simply place a capo at the 2nd fret, which produced the open-string notes E, A, D, G, B and E, and fret normally (FIGURE 5). (Don’t get distracted by the new neck positions. Likewise, for songs tuned down a half step, use a 1st-fret capo.)
In his hit “Your Smiling Face,” James Taylor actually moves his capo during the song, at the beginning of each verse, up two frets each time (FIGURE 6). This requires a capo with a handle-style grip, for one-handed attachment/removal. When playing solo, this type of capo works well for songs featuring half-step modulations.
FIGURE 7A presents an open C G Am F progression, which is played with different chord shapes in FIGURE 7B–D.
To determine capo placement options, simply locate all the places you can play the progression’s first chord, C using other open shapes (think C, A, G, E and D). Playing an A shape across the 3rd fret produces a C chord.
In FIGURE 7B, a 3rd-fret capo makes C–G–Am–F playable with A, E, F#m and D shapes.
In FIGURE 7C, a fifth-get capo make C–G–Am–F playable with G, D/F#, Em and C shapes.
Finally, try using a 10th-fret capo with the D–A–Bm–G shapes of FIGURE 7D.
For fun, play FIGURES 7A–D into a multitrack recorder, then listen to them in different pairs. Or listen to them along with another guitar playing sustained low-register shapes, and note how the music’s texture changes. Sooner or later, you’ll find a capo’s sparkling magic creeping into your own recordings.