What is a capo & how do you use one? by (Oli Braithwaite)

What is a capo?

A capo is a device that clamps on the guitar’s fingerboard at a specific fret to shorten the length of all the strings at the same time.

Its name comes from the Italian word ‘capo’ literally meaning ‘head’.

A capo allows you to play at a higher pitch than without it.

How does a capo work?

Guitarist using a capo on the fretboard

A capo works by clamping the guitar strings onto the fretboard, shortening the playable length of the strings and raising their pitch.

This means standard chord shapes no longer produce standard chord sounds, instead producing the sounds of a higher key.

How do you use a capo?

Spring loaded capo being used on the head of an acoustic guitar

To use a capo, simply clamp the capo on the neck of the guitar near the desired fret to raise the pitch of the strings.

Don’t forget to check the tuning after applying the capo, then you’re good to play.

The three types of capo

Spring-loaded capos

Spring-loaded capo for guitar

A spring-loaded capo is quick and easy use. It’s incredibly simple to apply and remove with the squeeze of your hand.

The spring does all the work, without the need to make adjustments. Also, it clips nicely on the head of the guitar when you don’t need it, keeping it handy at all times.

On the down side, you can’t change the amount of pressure it exerts. If the pressure is too great, it causes the strings to go out of tune and you’ll need to tune again when you apply and remove it.

C-clamp capos

C-clamp capo used for guitar

C-clamp capos are a lot more precise than the spring loaded variety.

With the C-clamp you can adjust the amount of pressure the clamp exerts, which means there will be less chance that the strings will go out of tune.

Something to note, though: no capo is ever perfect in this regard.

Toggle capos

Toggle capos have straps with a toggle piece to exert pressure on your guitar strings.

Due to their material, they are an affordable alternative to the more expensive C-clamp and spring-loaded varieties.

Unfortunately, the design of a toggle capo makes it prone to exerting uneven pressure and sometimes falling off altogether.

Use this only for practicing and not for live performance because it’s not as reliable as a C-clamp or a spring-loaded capo.

What do you use a capo for?

Man busking using a chain of guitar pedals and a capo
  • To change the key of a song
    When you want to match the vocal range of a singer, you can use a capo to continue to play the chords you prefer.
  • To brighten the sound of your guitar
    Using a capo on the 4th fret or higher will change the sound of a guitar to resemble that of a mandolin.
  • To make holding chords easier
    As you go up the neck the fret gets closer together which means you don’t have to stretch as far, making some songs easier to play.
  • To use chords of one key but play in another key
    If you wish to play chords and variations in a certain key but set the song in a different key, a capo is the way to go. This is especially good when doing elaborate fingerpicking or pick work where tricks such as pull-offs or slides are being used in conjunction with chords.
  • To change the key of an open-tuned guitar
    In this case, capos are the simplest way to shift the key of the open tuning, by essentially shortening the guitar strings.

Remember: Tune your guitar when you apply and remove a capo as they’re never perfect in the application of pressure, which results in the strings being out of tune with themselves.

Famous songs played with a capo

Here are some examples of songs that are played using a capo, the number in parentheses is the fret on which the capo is clamped.

  • Ed Sheeran’s “Photograph” (2nd)
  • Fleetwood Mac’s  “Landslide” (3rd)
  • Green Day’s “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” (1st)
  • Oasis’ “Wonderwall” (2nd)
  • The Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun” (7th)
  • Taylor Swift’s “You Belong With Me” (4th)
  • Paramore’s “The Only Exception” (2nd)
  • Adele’s “When We Were Young” (3rd)
  • Jeff Buckley’s “Hallelujah” (5th)
  • OneRepublic’s “Secrets” (2nd)

You are welcome to check this Amazon link to order yourself a capo today.

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