Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Creative Capos

The capo has been around since the 17th century. Capos, from the Italian phrase “capo tasto” meaning “head fret”, are used to change the pitch - or transpose - various stringed instruments without re-tuning. Certain chord voicings, like the open-position G chord on a guitar, have a distinctive sound that cannot be completely captured by barring the strings. Bluegrass guitar, in particular, features the “Lester Flatt G-run” that is impossible to play correctly (with its distinctive open strings and hammer-ons) without a capo.

Capos are also used on 12-string guitars to play in concert pitch. Some guitarists like the bigger sound you get by using medium strings, which can put a lot of tension on an acoustic 12-string and make fingering difficult. By tuning down a whole step and capoing on the second fret, you get the extra thump of a medium gauge with the easier fingering of reduced string tension.

Some players with less appreciation of the importance of open chord voicings and string tension (and it’s effect on timbre) call capos “cheaters”. While it’s true that using a capo allows the “three-chord guitar player" the opportunity to play in any key without learning a new chord grip, capos can be used in more creative ways. In fact, a beginning guitarist with a capo can play many things that a professional without one cannot. You’d be cheating your music by not investigating the many uses of a capo.

The most obvious use is to simply change the pitch of the strings by capoing on any fret and playing the chords to the song as you would in the open, un-capoed position.

G chord in open position

G chord capoed at second fret is now an "A" chord

This is especially helpful when you have learned a song using open chords and have to play it in a different key. For example, female singers who are covering songs originally sung in lower keys benefit from this use of a capo. Guitar players gigging with a female singer-songwriter will often find themselves in the keys of B, Eb, Ab, Db and other keys that are simply guitar un-friendly. Capos are an essential tool in your gig bag.

Another great use for the capo is in the recording studio. When layering guitar tracks, it often sounds good to play a second acoustic track while capoed up several frets. The blend of the two chord voicings and timbres creates a warm, rich foundation for a track. You can also use a capo and play just the top three or four strings on the doubled part to get a faux-12 string sound.

Capos can also give you the sound of a “dropped-D” tuning. By placing a capo on strings 5 through 1 (the A, D, G, B and High E) at the second fret, leaving the Low E open, you get the sound of a dropped D tuning in the key of E. This allows you to use the friendlier D, G and A shapes in the key of E and gives you the solid bass note of the tonic E chord.

Capo at 2nd fret, with open E string

Planet Waves makes the NS Trio capo for this purpose. Partial capoing on an acoustic guitar is one part of the Trio concept, additionally it is a great capo for both mandolins and banjos. The Trio capo is shorter than a standard capo, and covers 5 strings of a standard guitar. Planet Waves also offers a Classical Capo, which is long enough to cover the width of a classical/nylon string guitar neck and is machined to fit it’s typically flattened fingerboard.

Once you’ve tried the “Dropped-D” trick using an open string in E, you can use two capos to get the same voicings in other keys. Try putting a standard NS capo across all six strings at the third fret and a Trio capo on strings 5 through 1 at the 5th fret. Now you can play in C using the "G chord" shape as your I chord and have your V chord (in this case, the G chord played in a D-shape voicing) still have plenty of low end.

A C chord using the "G shape" in the 2-capo "Drop D" set up

Playing a G chord in the "Drop D" 2-capo setup

The neat trick to this technique is that you can reach notes between the two capos, for example to fret the A note on the 5th fret to play a VIm (A minor) chord. Your first finger completes the barre at the 5th fret.

Playing an "Em barre shape" (sounding as an Am) in the two-capo setup

That ought to get you started thinking about creative capo uses. Check out all of the excellent capos from Planet Waves at www.planetwaves.com


  1. Great primer. The only way it could be improved would be for the author to google "It's vs. Its" and apply that primer to this one.

  2. I've never used the "third hand" capo, which allows individual strings to be selected for capo-ing, but here's an amazing demonstration:

  3. I play a lot with a cut Kyser capo. I cut the end that would normally cover the 1st and 2nd strings off, and cut out the rubber that would normally depress the 6th string. This means that the capo presses only the 2nd, 3rd and 4th strings. Putting this on the second fret is a shortcut to DADGAD tuning and it fairly widely used. Guys like Dave Wilcox and Share Barnard use this method pretty regularly.

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