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How To Use a Capo – A Step-by-Step Guide

31/01/2024

The humble capo is your guitar’s secret weapon, allowing for easy pitch and key changes that transform your playing experience. It can also refer to the head of an Italian crime syndicate, so we’ll try not to confuse the two as we go on.

Our clear guide on how to use a capo will give you all the info you need on this valuable accessory. Read on to find out all the different types you might encounter, top tips, and a handy key chart to aid your playing.

In a hurry?

Here are the top notes for getting to grips with a capo:

  1. Choose your target fret – this will usually be highlighted at the start of song tablature or sheet music
  2. Affix the capo to the guitar neck and your chosen fret. Most capos come with strap, trigger or screw mechanisms
  3. Make sure the fit is tight and secure before you settle in for playing. Test each string is sounding out clearly and sustaining naturally

What is a capo?

Gear4music Deluxe Capo on an acoustic guitarA guitar capo is a device used to raise the pitch of the guitar strings. They allow you to easily change the key of a song without having to manually adjust your fingers further up the fretboard. Essentially, they move the guitar nut up the frets, meaning your chosen position becomes the new 0 fret.

The term “capotasto” is derived from the Italian words “capo” meaning “head” and “tasto” meaning “tie” or “fret”, which neatly describes its function.

This term has been in use for centuries, and even before that, medieval lute players would adjust fret positions to modify pitch and keys, demonstrating that this concept is far from novel!

Capos come in a variety of styles and mechanisms to suit different preferences and budgets. Basic and inexpensive capos typically come in a “strap” style, with hook notches to adjust tension. Above those are trigger models, which are easy to move around the board.

Other models include scissor-style capos and even some that clamp on around the neck.

How to use a capo

1. Work out the key you want

Some songs may be played in a key that’s tricky to manage while in standard E tunings. By using a capo, you can easily transpose the song to a key that suits your voice or playing style better. So before you start strumming, check what fret the capo needs to be on.


2. Position your capo

Once you know which fret you need to target, gently affix the capo just behind it. Position it as close to the middle of the fret as you can.


3. Ensure the capo is tight, straight, and even

Secure down the clamp or tighten the screw/strap until it feels snug but not too constricted. You don’t want the capo skewed at an angle, and it needs to be tight enough to remain in place if you accidentally knock it while playing. Test each string to ensure they’re clear and not buzzing.

Capo chart

No capo1st Fret2nd Fret3rd Fret4th Fret5th Fret6th Fret7th Fret8th Fret9th Fret10th Fret11th Fret12th Fret
CC#/DbDD#/EbEFF#/GbGG#/AbAA#/BbBC
C#/DbDD#/EbEFF#/GbGG#/AbAA#/BbBCC#/Db
DD#/EbEFF#/GbGG#/AbAA#/BbBCC#/DbD
D#/EbEFF#/GbGG#/AbAA#/BbBCC#/DbDD#/Eb
EFF#/GbGG#/AbAA#/BbBCC#/DbDD#/EbE
FF#/GbGG#/AbAA#/BbBCC#/DbDD#/EbEF
F#/GbGG#/AbAA#/BbBCC#/DbDD#/EbEFF#/Gb
GG#/AbAA#/BbBCC#/DbDD#/EbEFF#/GbG
G#/AbAA#/BbBCC#/DbDD#/EbEFF#/GbGG#/Ab
AA#/BbBCC#/DbDD#/EbEFF#/GbGG#/AbA
A#/BbBCC#/DbDD#/EbEFF#/GbGG#/AbAA#/Bb
BCC#/DbDD#/EbEFF#/GbGG#/AbAA#/BbB

This capo chart is a handy reference point for you to check while playing. It explains how your capo position affects your pitch, and how chords transpose when using standard E tuning.

The first column will reference chords with no capo attached while in standard E tuning. For example, if you take the open “C” chord and a capo on the 1st fret, it moves up and becomes C#. On the 2nd fret it would become D, 3rd it’d be Eb, and 4th would be E.

The idea is to be able to quickly scan this chart and check how basic chords are affected, allowing you to quickly identify the best position for the key you’re trying to play in.

Why do guitarists use a capo?

Guitarists use a capo for several reasons! Most of the time it’s to match the key and pitch of a piece of music. Other times it’s to adapt a song’s key to suit their singing voice range, which may differ from the original vocalist’s range in the recording. And sometimes, it’s just fun to mess around and explore new ideas further up the fretboard!


Play alternate voicings

Moving the capo up the fretboard is a great way to keep your playing fresh. If you like noodling with pentatonic blues scales, particularly in the open position, using a capo can give your playing a fun banjo-esque bright twang. The string tension will most likely feel tighter too, allowing you to dig in for a sharper attack.


Make something easier to play

Sometimes you might notice a song uses lots of tricky chords past a certain point on the fretboard. Sticking a capo on can transform those demanding barre chords into easier open chords.


Change the key quickly and easily

Like we’ve said before, it’s the fastest way to adapt your key bar none. No messing around with alternate tunings (though you can throw that into the mix too!) or playing difficult chords, just a quick-fix solution.

Gear4music Deluxe Capo

Types of capos

Here are the main types of capos:

Strap/Toggle: These use a strap to fasten the capo in place. These can either come with a belt-style buckle to fasten or the more common hook notch (toggle) system. The advantage of these styles is that they can accommodate virtually any size or shape of guitar neck, from thin to fat.

Trigger/Spring: These use a trigger-style grip that you press down to slacken and release to tighten. They’re by far the easiest to attach and reposition as they require minimal setup.

Screw fit: These capos have a thumbscrew that allows you to easily set your desired tension. They’re great for ensuring a clear and reliable string action. A subcategory of these capos is known as “yoke” capos, a design which encloses the entire guitar neck.

Partial: Sometimes you only want to change the pitch of a few strings at once, and that’s exactly what this style of capo allows you to do.

Best capos for beginners

1. Deluxe Acoustic/Electric Guitar Capo by Gear4music

Inexpensive, easy to use, and compatible with a variety of instruments, our Deluxe capo really is our best recommendation for a beginner.

When you’ve got loads of other guitar paraphernalia to purchase, the last thing you need is yet another accessory putting a burden on your wallet. The Deluxe capo strips away the unnecessary and keeps things straightforward, easy to use, and reliable.

Its soft liner padding ensures your axe won’t suffer marks or damage, while the spring mechanism makes it a breeze to position and reposition. And because it’s suitable for both acoustic and electric guitars, you can switch between both without hassle. Even if you’re a far more advanced player, we’d encourage you to give this one a try!


2. Dunlop JD-11FD Flat Capo

Dunlop’s toggle capo is great for precisely finding your ideal tension. Regardless of your style of guitar, you should be able to get a snug fit with the toggle hook notch system.

While it isn’t as easy to reposition as the spring capo, Dunlop’s Flat Capo can achieve greater tension and is less likely to be knocked out of position by your fretting hand thanks to its lower profile.

On top of that, Dunlop’s reputation as a manufacturer of quality guitar accessories is second to none, so even on their lower-end products, you’re guaranteed a stable and reliable experience.


3. Planet Waves NS Capo Lite

Combining the best of both worlds, Planet Waves’ slightly more expensive NS Capo Lite lets you quickly position your capo and tighten it with a thumbscrew. While moving it around won’t be as quick and easy as the Gear4music Deluxe Capo, it may offer greater tension thanks to the screw-in design.

Additionally, its low profile helps it avoid getting in the way of your fretting hand while you’re darting back to the lower frets.

It should be a breeze to get your perfect tension thanks to Planet Waves’ patented micro-adjustment system, which lets you precisely alter the tightness to get it just right for your instrument.

FAQs

How does a capo change the key?

When a capo is placed on the fretboard, it shortens the length of all strings, thereby raising their pitch. This changes the key of the guitar, allowing you to play in a different key using the same chord shapes.


What key is capo on 1st fret?

When a capo is placed on the 1st fret, your guitar essentially transposes to the key of F. All chord shapes are moved a half-step up.


Are capos for beginners?

Capos are excellent tools for beginners, making guitar playing less complex by simplifying chord shapes and allowing easy key changes. However, they’re used by guitarists of all ability levels, not just beginners.

Final thoughts

It’s time to put a cap on this capo article. We hope we’ve shone a light on how to use a capo and shown you that they’re suitable for any level of player!

Some popular songs to try with a capo include “Free Fallin'” by Tom Petty and (avoid groaning) “Wonderwall” by Oasis.

If you’re in need of more inspiration, check out our 27 easy songs for beginners guide which includes pieces that require a capo.

Content Writer (Guitars)

Mark has been a guitar aficionado for around twenty years. A lover of all things 6-string, he spends his days putting pen-to-paper about all manner of interesting instruments. From entry level Squiers to the most coveted Custom Shop desires, Mark's written about them.

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