What Is A Capo, And How Do You Use It?

Apr 6, 2007

The Bottom Line A capo is an interesting device that can make playing the acoustic guitar easier for some. It can also add versatility to your sound.

In my younger days, I rarely ever played an acoustic guitar--the music I played early in my career was hard and edgy and my weapon of choice in those times was an electric guitar. When I came out of musical retirement several years ago and became active in the business again, I started playing a lot of acoustic music, and as a result, became very interested in studying fingerpicking techniques. Although I'm not an accomplished fingerpicker, I've become fairly nimble in the technique, something that I take a lot of pride in. My interest in fingerpicking led me to the capo, a neat little device that sort of widens a guitarist's musical horizons and creates a lot of versatility, both in playability and sound. The purpose of my article is to give the beginner an idea of what a capo is and how it's actually used in playing the guitar.

So What Is A Capo?

A capo is an odd looking device that works sort of like a vise that's spring loaded. To place the capo on the neck of your guitar, grip the two handles with your thumb on the lower handle and your index and middle finger on the other handle. When you force the two handles together, this opens the "mouth" of the capo and allows you to place it on the neck of your guitar at whatever fret you select. The top "jaw" of the capo clamps down on the strings and fretboard of the guitar, while the lower "jaw" clamps down on the back of the neck. When placing the capo on the neck, you must open the "mouth" wide and release the handles very gently so the strings don't bend and the tuning of your guitar is not affected. If you apply the capo correctly, your guitar will be in tune just as if you were playing it in the standard open configuration.

The top "jaw" of the capo usually has a rubber strip that protects your fretboard, while the bottom "jaw" also has a protective rubber cover to prevent scarring of the neck. The capo itself is usually made of metal coated with plastic or some other material, but the parts that come in contact with your guitar have the protective coverings that I’ve noted.

How Do You Use A Capo?

A capo is used to allow the guitarist to play standard chords almost anywhere on the fretboard without having to use barre chords. For example, if you capoed the guitar on the second fret, you could make an A chord simply by making a standard G chord, without having to use a barre chord G. With the guitar capoed at the second fret, a standard C chord becomes a D chord, and so on. A capo is particularly helpful to a guitarist who is not particularly skillful at executing barre chords—all that the guitarist has to do is learn where to place the capo to achieve the correct key, and he can play standard chords to his heart’s desire, without having to resort to using what may be difficult and tedious barre chords.

Using a capo is not limited to beginning or intermediate players—many accomplished guitarists use a capo to facilitate fingerpicking patterns in different keys, or to give the guitar a little bit different sound. When a guitar is capoed way up on the fretboard, it gives the guitar an almost “mandolinish” sound—if you listen to a lot of bluegrass music, you’ll see what I mean.

A good way to think about how a capo works is to envision it as creating a new nut on your guitar. Once you become familiar with where to place a capo to create a standard chord key, it becomes quite easy and your guitar playing horizons can improve accordingly.

There are many different brands of capos on the market, but I prefer the Kyser capo. I’ve had the same capo for many years now and it remains solid, tight and functional, allowing me to capo away to my heart’s content.

If you’re a guitarist that’s not familiar with a capo, now would be a good time to become acquainted with one. It’s a handy tool to add to your arsenal and it will make you a more versatile guitar player.

Thanks for reading.

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