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What is a Capo? How and Why to Use a Capo on Guitar

Ah, the seduction of guitar gizmos.

Electric guitarists get to play with loads of pedals and effects. We classical (and acoustic guitar) players don’t have many accessories.
But we do have few.

One such gizmo is the capo.

What is a Capo?

A capo is a device that clamps onto a guitar neck to shorten the string length.

Imagine someone walking up behind you and pressing a finger across all your strings on whatever fret you choose. This is the capo.

This raises the pitch of what are now the open strings. The guitar has become “smaller” and higher pitched. This is because the vibrating section of string is now shorter.

Jargon Guide:  A “capo” is a device, but we can also use the word for the action of using a capo. i.e. “She’s capoing the second fret”. The word comes from the Italian “capotasto”, referring to the “nut” of the guitar, which stops the strings at the headstock.

Capos come in many shapes and sizes, but all have the same function: to shorten the vibrating section of the strings.

But why is this useful?

Use #1: Same Chords, Different Key

The largest population using capos are players who also sing, or accompany singers.

Using a capo, a guitarist can play chords he/she already knows, but have those chords sound in a different key.

This can cut the need for bar chords or playing in less-familiar locations on the guitar neck.

For example, a singer may prefer to sing in a “less-guitar-friendly” key, such as E-flat. The guitarist could then use a capo to change the tuning of the open strings. They they can then use “cowboy chords” (basic open-position guitar chords). The guitarists can use familiar chords and have them sound in the key of E-flat.

As a technical example, the guitarist could capo the first fret then play in the key of D. Where normal tuning allowed a “D” chord, that same chord now sounds as an E-flat chord (because E-flat is one note up from D, and we’ve capoed one fret up).

Use #2: Brighten the Sound

Flamenco players often capo at the first or second fret. This “brightens” the sound (makes it higher).

This can help the guitar be more easily heard among all the dancing and clapping in flamenco music.

Outside flamenco, other guitarists use capos for this same purpose: to help the guitar “cut through” ambient noise.

Note: There may be other reasons flamenco players do this. If you know of any, please share it with us in the comments below.

Use #3: The Composer wants a Specific Sound

In some classical guitar pieces, a composer will call for a capo. This is usually to get a specific effect.

They may want the guitar to sound like a different instrument, such as a lute or mandolin.

Or they may want the sound of the piece to contrast with other pieces in a suite or collection.

Some pieces create unique sounds by capoing only some of the strings, or altering the capo in some way.

Use #4: Spice Up Your Practice

Many guitarists enjoy using a capo in practice. They do this to vary the sound of technical exercises, chord practice or familiar pieces.

This can add some variation and novelty to their practice, and encourage them to practice more. In other words, it’s just for fun.

A warning: If you use a capo in practice, be sure to vary the positions. This way, you don’t become accustomed to it one way, and feel awkward in others (or worse, when not using it).

Use #5: Shrink Your Guitar

Kids and guitarists with smaller hands can use a capo to make the distance between frets smaller.

This is a viable alternative to getting a custom-made guitar or having to search out a decent small-scale guitar.

Using a capo at the first fret will create the same effect as having a smaller guitar.  This permits more comfortable playing and sitting.

When playing with others, however, we’d need to tune the guitar lower (so the note we play is the actual note on the page), or remove the capo.

Do You Need a Capo?

If any of the reasons above sound attractive to you, then by all means, get one.

Capos are relatively inexpensive and easy to come by in music stores and online.

If someone wants to get you a guitar-related gift, this would be a good one. And likewise, if you know a guitarist, a capo is generally a safe bet for a gift.

If you’re in a rut or need some excitement in your practice, this could also be something to try. A little novelty can “grease the skids” and get us back in action.

“What Style of Capo Should I Get? (there are so many…)”

If you play classical guitar, you’ll need a capo made for classical guitar.

Steel-string acoustic guitars and electric guitars have narrower necks than nylon-string classical guitars. Most capos fit these narrower necks.

So be sure to get a larger one made for classical guitars.

IMPORTANT: Capos come in different sizes.  Get a classical guitar capo if you play classical guitar.

Besides that, it doesn’t matter. Any capo should do the job, so the choice comes down to price, aesthetics, and availability.

You can rest assured that whichever capo you choose will hold down your strings.

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7 Responses to What is a Capo? How and Why to Use a Capo on Guitar

  1. Sylvia Moodie-Kublalsingh October 14, 2017 at 12:19 pm #

    Very informative. Thank you for this.

  2. Charles Avalos October 14, 2017 at 7:43 am #

    I am using a capo more now since reading this article. I have a flamenco book where I usually ignored when some pieces called for a capo thinking it was a trivial little thing but starting to appreciate the additional brightness in sound.

  3. Joanne Fekete October 14, 2017 at 7:14 am #

    A capo is useful when you have a guitar strumming along with a piano and/or more guitars. The capo would allow your guitar to play in a higher range, giving a more pleasant sound than having all the instruments play in the tenor range. If the song is in G, capo at V and transpose to D. This will keep the music from sounding “muddy.”

  4. Johnny Howell October 14, 2017 at 5:59 am #

    Yea back in the day a capo was called a cheater Barr (I’m oldtimer) Glen Campbell who started as a studio musician used one which made his career Another note is that most Hymn Books Have capo chords above regular chords I have not tried one but maybe Thanks for all your info Allen Educational Johnny

    • Allen October 14, 2017 at 6:59 am #

      Thanks, Johnny,
      I love Glen Campbell. I just think of Lineman of the County and get melancholy.
      Have fun with the capo on the hymns. That should sound wonderful.
      All the best,

  5. Martin Dillon October 14, 2017 at 4:54 am #

    Great suggestion! I can think of one additional reason for incorporating the use of a capo: to play easily pieces in keys remote from those customarily used for guitar music. My original reason for taking up the guitar was to advance my study of music generally. One gains a great deal from the ability to play a piece of music – listening pleasure but also insight into its structure and the relationship of its parts. Songs in strange keys, or some not so strange but just unfamiliar, can be made available for playing by the simple expedient of capoing the instrument! Bravo!

    • Allen October 14, 2017 at 6:57 am #

      Hi Martin,
      Thanks, that’s an excellent one as well!


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