I became a different guitar player yesterday. And I’d learned nothing new. How so? Easy really... I reached for a capo.

I’ve had a capo (or usually three or so) for years, of course, but I don’t use them that often. But, bored of noodling the same, and playing the same ol’ same old, I decided to get busy and.... oh, the joys of playing in C# without bad barre chords.

Don’t believe it? It’s time for me testify! Here’s 5 reasons I think capos are great for keeping your guitar playing moving in new directions...

capos by Shane Sanders

A Capo Is a Great Cheat!

This shouldn’t be the main reason for using a capo, but it is a pretty good one. Songs written in guitar-unfriendly keys such as C# can suddenly became relatively easy. Whack a capo on at the 4th fret (or 8th, if you’re feeling mandolin-y!) and off you go. What sort of “idiot” writes songs in C#? Pianists, that’s who.

On a more basic level, you may have a singer (or be that singer) whose range doesn’t always mesh well with traditional guitar keys. A capo can help you make that swift adjustment so neither your playing or vocals are straining.

Using a capo should never be an excuse to not learn barre chords, of course. But once you’ve got your basic chord vocab down, using a capo to switch into new keys is okay. It’s a tool. Use it!

And if you’re regularly (or even occasionally) asked to sit in with another band or back a singer you don’t usually play with, packing a capo is damned essential. Probably moreso than a second guitar or FX board. Honestly.

Capo’s Are Great for Open String Zing

“Open” chords just sound better, right? Well, not “better” but more ringing and bell-like and to keep playing open chords in non-traditional guitar tuning, a capo is a must. Put a capo on at the 3rd fret, and your Bb (G shape) and Eb (C shape) will sing like rarely before.

Capos are a Brilliant Writing Tool

If you’re anything like me, you likely gravitate towards writing riffs and progressions in certain keys. But they’re not really “keys” are they? They’re shapes. Using a capo can help the most tired progression sound a little new by simply altering the root key. And, as per point 1, it can help you fit in and co-write with band-members who play instruments other than guitars.

Capos Make Two Guitars Sound Better

If you play in a two guitar band, you probably spend fair bit of time thinking about you and your bud’s gear and your relative tone differences. All good, but if you’re playing in the same neck positions there’s inevitably going to be a similarity in sound purely because of frequencies. One player using a capo will accentuate differences in tone and generally give a richer, more layered tonality to two guitars working together. It really does work... as some of the songs below will tell you.

Capos Breathe Life into “Old” Chords

This is a catch-all related to all the above really. And exactly why I was so darn bored of my own playing. Fact is, we’re all used to how even the most basic of chords “sound”, we’re used to their traditional “voicing”. Hit a full open E chord, and we all know that sound. Probably likewise with an E (D shape) played at the 4th fret. But an E (played as an A shape) with capo at the 7th fret? It’s a whole new world, even if the notes are “the same”. This is the same point as 2, really, but will stop you feeling guilty about playing the “same old chords”. Because with a capo, they’re not the same!

Using A Capo in Songs

All of these things above come into play on songs and writing, and that’s the bottom line. There are numerous guitar greats who’ve used capos adeptly throughout their careers. Paul Simon used one a lot to temper his songs for Art Garfunkels’s extraordinary voice and breathe new life into basic patterns: listen to “The Sound of Silence” and “Scarborough Fair”. The Beatles used capos on some of their most enduring acoustic guitar classics: “Norwegian Wood” and “Here Comes the Sun” being prime examples.

In The Smiths, Johnny Marr used a capo to likewise match Morrissey’s voice but also add some extra “chime” to his guitar overdubs and patterns. On “Hotel California”, Eagles’ Don Felder shifted his original composition (key of E minor) down to accommodate Don Henley’s voice: it was eventually recorded with Felder’s capo at the 7th fret (key of B minor). The second guitar as then capo’d at the 5th, to give that key contrast between two guitars picking the same chords (but now with different voicings). On Oasis’s “Wonderwall”, Noel Gallagher used a capo to get maximum open strings in an “unfriendly” key.

A capo really can change everything. Ryan Adams’ cover of Taylor Swift’s “Out of The Woods” is a case in point, using a capo at the 6th fret to give a mandolin-esque chime to his newly waltzing chords. Adams acoustic arrangement had already changed the song: the capo sealed it as a stunning reinterpretation.

You Want A List? You’ve Got A List!

Here’s a few big songs that use a capo, based on confirmations of the players and “received wisdom” about the recordings. Live versions may differ. Just cut as some slack, if you see different. Okay? Okay.

The Beatles “Here Comes the Sun” (capo at 7);“Long Long Long” (capo at 3); “If I Needed Someone” (capo at 7); “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)” (capo at 2).

Simon and Garfunkel “Scarborough Fair” (capo at 7); “Mrs. Robinson” (capo at 3); “The Sound Of Silence” (capo at 6); “I Am A Rock” (capo at 5); “Homeward Bound” (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);“Independence Day” (capo at 3).

Oasis “Wonderwall” (capo at 2).

Jethro Tull “Aqualung” (capo at 3).

Fleetwood Mac “Landslide” (capo at 3).

The Smiths “Bigmouth Strikes Again” (capo at 4); numerous other Smiths songs feature a capo at 2.

Eagles “Hotel California” (capo at 7 for one guitar, capo at 5 for other).

The Stone Roses “Made of Stone” (capo at 2), “Waterfall” (capo at 4). Many others Roses songs use a capo.

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

Tom Petty “Free Fallin’” (one guitar capo at 1, other guitar capo at 3).

Green Day “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” (capo at 1). There are many songs with a capo “only” at the 1st fret. Unless you’ve got a G FORCE tuning Gibson, using a capo may be just a bit easier than tuning up a semitone.

Led Zeppelin “Bron-Y-Aur-Stomp (open D tuning with a capo at 3).

The Rolling Stones “Tumbling Dice” (open G tuning with capo at 3).

capos by Shane Sanders

There are a few issues about using a capo and its effect on your tuning/string tension and, of course, a decision on what type of capo to buy. But we’ll leave those for another time. If any our original reasons seem a good reason to use a capo, that’s because they damn well are. Go get one: you won’t regret it. I’m off to write something really easy in the key of Bb. If only because it’ll help me apologize to my keyboard player...