You’ve probably seen people use that mysterious clamp on the guitar or ukulele and wondered what it does. Simply put, the capo (pronounced ‘cap-oh’ or ‘cape-oh’) changes the pitch or key of the chords you play. It might be a little difficult to wrap your head around at first, but whether you’re a beginner or a pro, a capo can be a great tool to make playing chords a little easier, make it easier to sing along or to experiment with cool sounds.
How it works
Without diving too deep into music theory, a capo basically shortens the length of your strings, making them sound higher. All the “open” strings now play in higher pitches than they do without the capo.
Here’s how that works. If you put your capo on the first fret, every chord you play has now moved up a half step. So if you play an E major chord, it would now be an F. And let’s say you put your capo on the second fret and play a G major. Because you’re two half steps up, the G chord becomes an A chord, and an A becomes a B.
If you’re just starting out and don’t know a lot about chords yet, your brain may start to hurt a little when reading this… No biggie, let’s give you an example. Have you tried playing the F and B chords yet and failed miserably, fingers all cramped up? Those are called barre chords and they’re the most difficult basic chords to play, because your index finger has to cover all six strings.
A capo basically does the hard work for you in the case of barre chords and lets you play a lot more songs without using those nasty chords. When you put the capo on the first fret and play an E major, you’re actually playing the dreaded F major.
Still having trouble wrapping your head around it? Let’s take the ultimate campfire song Wonderwall by Oasis. The intro chords (in the key you hear on the recording) are F#m, A, E and B. That’s pretty tricky, so that’s why many people (Oasis’ Noel Gallagher included) put a capo on the second fret, so you’ll play it using much easier chords: E minor, G, D and A.
Play along with ‘Oasis – Wonderwall’
The most common reason people use a capo is to change the key of a song on the fly when you or someone else is singing along. That’s because sometimes the key of a particular song is too low or too high for your vocal range.
Changing the key with your capo is a super easy way to do that, because you’re still basically playing the same chords and shapes as you normally would. Without the capo, it’s just a lot of hassle figuring out the new chords and shapes.
Changing the sound. Alone or together with friends
If you’re a more experienced player, using a capo will open up a whole new range of possibilities for experimenting with your sound. Not just in the way chords sound, but also your actual sound. If you want to give your guitar more of a mandolin sound, try putting the capo on the 7th fret. Sounds pretty cool, right? That’s also what George Harrison though when he wrote Here Comes the Sun. That unique sound? All capo!
George Harrison – Here Comes The Sun
If you’re playing with a friend, having two guitars doing the same thing can sometimes muddy up the sound, or is just a little boring. Why not spice things up a little? If one of you straps on a capo, the chords you both play (one higher, one lower) will create a very cool, complementing sound. It might take some time finding the sweet spot, but it’s definitely worth the try.