I remember the first time I ever saw a capo. One of my school teachers had one on a twelve-string guitar while she was playing a song at a school assembly. I was probably about 8 years old and already interested in guitar, but there was something about what she was singing and playing which made me associate the capo with wimpy songs played by old ladies (she was probably only 25, really, but to an 8-year-old that was ancient). It took me a while to start to appreciate the flexibility that the capo afforded. And to appreciate all the meats of our musical stew, not just the bits involving angry-sounding guitars like 8-year-old-me was into.
Let’s backtrack for a second though, for those who might be new to guitar. A capo is a device that fits over the neck and holds down all six strings at whichever fret you place it at. The effect is to raise the pitch at which the open strings ring out, so you can play songs in higher keys than just down at the first position. You might want to do this to suit the range of a vocalist or another instrument, or perhaps you just want to explore the sonic texture of higher notes. There are plenty of reasons to use a capo and all of them are valid. Now, when installing the capo, whether it’s a spring-loaded type that presses against the neck from both sides or if it’s the kind that hooks onto itself via a stretchy fabric band, you want to make sure that you’ve placed it just behind the appropriate fret. If you place it in the middle of the space between two frets you risk getting a muffled sound, or even a buzzy sound depending on your guitar’s construction.
A lot of the sheet music that you’ll find written for capo’d guitars will use the original chord shape names - for instance, a song may require the capo to be placed at the 5th fret and played in the key of A, using the shape of an open E chord. That chord will still be referred to as E, even though the notes at the start of the music will say “Capo 5” (for ‘capo at the 5th fret). This makes it exceedingly easy for novice musicians to transcribe songs in an instant without having to re-learn a whole new set of chords. It might not be the most effective method for promoting musical literacy, but it works great. In Figure 1 we have two guitars: one without Capo (Guitar A) and one with (Guitar B). Guitar A plays an open-position E chord and then a 5th position A. Guitar B then plays a single strummed A chord, holding on for two bars. This would be pretty painful if you were fretting it as a barre chord like Guitar A, but since the capo is at the fifth fret, we’re freed from the tyranny of having to hold down all six strings at once. This also leaves us free to add little embellishments as we see fit.
Figure B features both guitars playing identical notes (an arpeggiated - that is, broken-up - A chord, followed by an arpeggiated D chord), but you’ll notice that Guitar A has to hold down the 5th fret throughout the entire sequence, while Guitar B - still with the capo at the 5th fret - gets to take things relatively easy by only needing to fret three strings to play the exact same notes and chords. And if you wanted to play the same pattern but using the chords C then F, you would simply move the capo up to the 8th fret.
There’s another way that capos can come in quite useful. Ever listen to the band Placebo? Brian Molko and Stefan Olsdal have been known to use a relatively unconventional tuning of F# Bb Eb G# C C - in other words, they tune their whole guitar up a half-step, with the exception of the high E string which they tune down to C in unison with the string immediately before it. That can be a pretty fiddly tuning to perform onstage in between songs, but it’s much easier to snap a capo on at the first fret and then down-tune the high E string until its pitch matches the C of the next string (most capos have a relaxed-enough grip that you’ll still be able to operate the tuners). And whether you’re a Placebo fan or not I highly encourage to you try this tuning. It can open up all sorts of doors creatively because it gives you access to those unison strings and a different tonal base compared to the E that we’re generally used to.
Another fun trick is to tune your guitar to Drop D (D A D G B E) then put the capo at the first fret, giving you a ‘Drop D’ version of an Eb tuning.
Oh and one last, really cool trick: record a rhythm part in standard tuning, then place a capo at the 12th fret and record another take. Pan them left and right, and you’ve instantly created the biggest-sounding 12-string guitar in the universe, where even the B and high E strings are doubled an octave above!
Photo Credit: Shane Sanders