Capos photo by Shane Sanders

99% of electric players use picks, of course. But do you own a capo?

Because of the way a guitar is (Spanish) tuned, there are a number of keys that are easy for guitarists to play in. E, A, C, or G are common - probably because many songs are written on guitar. But if you are in a band with horns, these keys aren’t so easy. Songs based around horns are often written in keys such as F, B-flat or E-flat- yes, the instrument gods messed up on incompatibility, there. But using a capo it is easy to make your playing as a guitarist with horns much better.

Other times, it can just help you work better with a singer. Singers’ vocal ranges vary. If you want your band to get the best from your singer – and that’s often the point in “pop” music – then use your capo to help them.

It can benefit everyone. U.K. indie legends The Smiths were a good case in point. Singer Morrissey’s high tenor voice didn’t much suit E-based chords. So Johnny Marr usually slapped a capo on the second fret, elevating the “root” to F#. It worked for both, making Morrissey’s “singing” (yes, it’s an acquired taste) better and made Marr’s guitar sound more taut and brighter, without him having to fret overly complex shapes.

Others recommend using a capo if you have a female singer, with (usually) a higher register.

Using a capo isn’t complicated. As y’all know, a capo is simply a new, moveable “nut”. When you get one (and you should), abide by basic good practise:

1. Attach the capo as close to the metal fret as possible without causing buzzes when you hit the strings.

2. Make sure your capo is tight enough that all open strings ring clearly.

Choice of capo is up you.

A toggle capo is the simplest. They are just a few bucks, and their small size won't impede your fretting hand. But they can be flimsy and pull strings out of tune. Nevertheless, they are a decent introduction if you’ve never played capo guitar before.

A spring-loaded capo utilizes a spring-controlled handle that enables you to add or remove the device quickly. Most capos are now of this design. A spring-loaded capo can be added or removed, even mid-song, with one hand.

But the amount of pressure applied to your strings is not adjustable. You can sometimes get unwanted string-bend across the neck. And some spring-loaded capos are bulky. Don’t just buy online without advice or other players’ opinion: even if a capo is a small investment. Research what is best for you and your fretting style.

A C-clamp capo advances things. They are sturdier and have fewer tendencies to put your guitar out of tune. They are also more compact. But you’ll pay more.

Partial capos are another ballgame. A partial capo sits on top of fewer than your standard six strings. It can aid an open-tuning-type sound, but you need to be aware of your fretboard’s “math.”

Partial capos come in all sorts of flavors. Kyser’s Shortcut Esus, G-7’s #3 and Planet Waves’ Trio capos clamp three strings (highest or lowest, on either side). Others will clamp 5 strings, allowing for example, a Drop-D or E style tuning instantly. Others clamp middle strings for open A (for example) or even suspended 4th chord voicings when you play “open”. There are even “harmonic” capos that let you fret lower register chords normally, but aid harmonics above the 5th or 7th fret. Tricksy stuff!

Using capos can be a bit of a mindmeld at first, but get used to them and the rewards can be huge.

Capos photo by Shane Sanders

Capo songs

All this seems like theory, until you realize how important capos can be. They can be a great songwriting tool. Just some capo songs are:

The Beatles “Here Comes the Sun” (standard tuning, capo at 7), “Long Long Long” (capo at 3)

Bob Dylan “Blowing in the Wind” (capo at 7), “Don't Think Twice (It's Alright)” (capo at 4).

Bruce Springsteen “Atlantic City (capo at 2).

Simon and Garfunkel “Scarborough Fair” (capo at 7).

Oasis “Wonderwall” (capo at 2).

Fleetwood Mac “Landslide” (capo at 3).

The Eagles “Hotel California” (capo at 7 for one guitar).

James Taylor “Fire and Rain” (capo at 3).

Green Day “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” (capo at 1, it’s just a bit easier than tuning up a semitone).

Led Zeppelin “Bron-Y-Aur-Stomp (open D tuning, with a capo at 3… essentially making it in open F).

And songs played on mandolin – R.E.M’s “Losing My Religion” is a good case – can be “bluffed” by employing a capo on a regular guitar. (5th fret, as it happens.)

And if you play in a two-guitar band, even better. A song such as “Hotel California” will really hit the spot if you have one guitarist capo’d at 7, the other at 5 – your chord voicings will really ring, without you having to navigate repeatedly tiring barre shapes. Again, you may to rethink your fretboard but your actual fingering will be easy. It’s all about experimenting.

Who regularly uses a capo out there, and what are your favorite songs that can be helped by a capo?

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