Understanding how to use a capo is an important skill for a guitarist. Capos make life easier, make us sound better and make things more fun.
In this guitar lesson you will learn:
- What is a capo? Why is it so useful?
- How does a capo work? (Video)
- What does a capo do? What is it used for?
- How to put on a capo. (Video.)
- The different types of capo: triggers, toggles and partial capos.
- How to use the capo chart (included below) for fast chord transposing.
- 5 cool songs you can play with a capo.
Ok guys, let’s dive in!
Capos are awesome. They can make learning the guitar easier for beginners and for more advanced players they can offer greater depth and variety.
They really are a tool for all seasons. Understanding how to use a capo enriches your guitar playing so let’s look at how to use a capo in more detail.
What is a capo?
A capo is a handy tool that guitarists use to change the sound of their instrument.
This is a trigger capo:
When it’s on the guitar it looks like this:
How does a capo work?
A capo is basically a clamp that you can apply at any point on the fretboard. You open the ‘clamp’ and move it to wherever you want it to be on the fretboard. Then you close it and the capo presses all the strings down.
What does a capo do?
It raises the key of the guitar.
So for example, if you placed a capo on the 2nd fret and played a C chord, the sound that would come out of your guitar is D.
You’d be holding a C chord shape, but because the capo has raised the key of the guitar, the actual chord that would be sounded would be D.
This concept is critical to understanding how to use a capo. Some people ‘get it’ immediately and some people struggle to wrap their heads around it. Don’t worry if you’re in the latter camp, it WILL make sense soon! 🙂
What is a capo used for?
To learn how to use a capo you need to understand the capos 3 main functions:
A) To make songs easier to play
This is the main reason beginner guitarists use capos. It’s so awesome. (Watch my video later in this lesson to see examples of this in action.)
B) To play alternate chord voicings / To make a song sound cooler
Sometimes we simply want things to sound different, to give a song a bit more texture or character.
Learning how to use a capo means you can explore alternate tunings and chord voicings. This can sound amazing.
For example, one of the main reasons ‘Here Comes the Sun’ by the Beatles sounds so unique is it has a capo on the 7th fret.
This changes the voicing of the chords and gives it a fresher feel.
C) To quickly change the key of a song on-the-fly
This can be incredibly useful. If you’re struggling to sing a song, then try playing it in a different key.
- I can’t sing as high as John Fogerty, so I have to lower the key of ‘Bad Moon Rising’ when I sing it.
- I can’t sing as low as Johnny Cash, so I often raise the key of his songs so I can sing them.
In a group setting, knowing how to use a capo is vital.
- For example, there may be a keyboardist who wants to play in E flat.
- Or you may have a singer who wants to sing in the key of A. (Because that’s the sweet spot for his range.)
- Or you may have a lead guitarist who wants to play his flagship solo in Em.
- This list goes on and on…
Regardless of the reason why, if you need to change a song’s key you have two options:
- You can take the time to figure out all the different chord equivalents in the lower key (this is called ‘transposing’) and then play those different chord shapes.
- Use a capo and simply play the same chord shapes. (Albeit on a higher fret.)
I can do both now, but it took me YEARS to be able to transpose on-the-fly. Clearly, option 2 is a lot easier! 🙂
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How to put on a capo
I often see beginner guitarists attaching capos incorrectly. The most common mistake I see people make is they don’t take enough care when releasing the capo’s handle.
This means that the capo attaches to the guitar in an unbalanced way. This can make the guitar sound really bad because the capo’s tension bends the strings. It only bends them a little (it can be barely visible), but you only need the strings to bend a tiny amount for the guitar to sound out of tune.
The most important part of learning how to use a capo is ensuring a smooth and even fit.
It’s very important that the capo goes on the guitar in an even way. When you release the handle the tension from the capo’s spring will ‘close’ the capo and it will clamp onto the guitar’s neck. It’s important that before you release the handle you already have the capo straight and level.
It’s not hard to do (it takes less than a second), and is simply a case of exercising a little care. Take the time to learn how to use a capo properly!
How to use a guitar capo
There’s lots of different ways to use a capo and we’ve covered a lot of ground here.
I made this video to show you how to use a capo as clearly as possible. I also highlight some specific capo examples that sound awesome.
Check it out, this is the most important part of this lesson.
Using a capo
For beginners trying to figure out how to use a capo, things usually pan out something like this:
Problem: There’s a song you want to play but the chords are too tough for you.
Solution: Look at the capo chart below and put the capo in a place where you CAN play the chords!
This capo chart will help you quickly slide around into different keys. This is the most useful way how to use a capo for beginners.
Click here to download a full-size version of this capo chart. (Save it or print it off for easy access in the future. Handy!)
How to use the capo chart
Can you figure it out? It sometimes takes people a few minutes… Let me walk you through it.
Let’s look at the first row. In the top left you will see the word “CHORD” with ‘C’ under it. If you go to the right you will see the column labelled “0 (with no capo)”.
If you play a C chord here (in position zero ‘0’, which is an open chord, with no capo) then surprise surprise this chord will be C! This is the C chord you know and love.
But if we move two columns to the right you’ll see ‘D’. This means that if the capo was on the 2nd fret and you held a C shape you would actually be playing a D chord.
Your hand is holding a shape you perceive as ‘C’, but the capo is on the second fret, so the key of the guitar is raised. That C is now a D.
Two frets higher (ie, two columns to the right), and you’ll be playing an E chord. And so on…
A super-cool capo benefit
For beginners, this is so cool. It’s worth learning how to use a capo purely for this.
Chords like F# and Bm are too hard for beginners to play because they’re barre chords. But our capo IS a barre. So we can put the capo on the 2nd fret (it’s doing the job our index finger would do in a barre chord) and now we can simply play E and Am.
Ask a beginner guitarist how much easier is it to play E and Am than F# and Bm! 🙂
How much are capos?
Cheap ones are just a few bucks. Good ones cost around $15 / £15.
What’s the best capo for a beginner?
My favourite capos are the Jim Dunlop trigger capos. They are fantastic value. Easy to use, robust and well-made.
Where can I buy a capo?
There’s tons of good capos for sale on Amazon. This list will get you started.
Do I have to get a trigger capo? Are there other types of capo?
Yes, there’s several types. When you know how to use a capo you can use them all. (They all work on the same principle.)
We’ve already looked at trigger capos:
This is a toggle capo:
These are cheaper than trigger capos but they don’t work as well and are fiddly to put on and take off.
I don’t like these at all, but they are super-cheap, so if you’re on a tight budget it might be an option. (I’d advise you to avoid them though.)
How to use a capo: Partial capos
Partial capos allow you to clamp some strings and leave others open. The spider capo is a famous example:
With this capo you can choose which strings you want to press down.
- Partial capos can be hugely empowering for a guitarist who wants to explore unusual tunings.
- Partial capos are fantastic for making the guitar accessible to people with disabilities. (They make it possible to play chords with one finger and even no fingers.)
You can learn a lot more about partial capos here.
Partial capos can make the impossible, possible. Check out this spider capo extravaganza from Luca Stricagnoli! 🙂
Learning how to use a capo with these 5 tracks will be a blast:
- ‘Get Lucky’ by Daft Punk (Capo on 2) Chords: Am7, C, Em, D
- ‘Radioactive’ by Imagine Dragons (Capo on 2) Chords: Am7, C, G, D
- ‘Sing’ by Ed Sheeran (Capo on 4) Chords: Em, Am7
- ‘Here Comes The Sun’ by the Beatles (Capo on 7) Tab is here.
- ‘Norwegian Wood’ by the Beatles (Capo on 2) Tab is here.
Find Out What You Should Learn Next With Our Guitar Map
If you want to understand where you’re up to in your guitar journey you should take a look at our Guitar Map. It will show you what you ‘should’ know by now (and also what you need to learn next to move forward as a guitarist).
Most people find that the Guitar Map shows them how everything fits together and best of all, it will help you identify gaps in your knowledge that are holding you back.
(There is often just one piece of information that holds people back, 1 key insight that they need to know so they can continue moving forward and improving in their guitar journey.)
I made the Guitar Map so people like you can quickly identify what you don’t know, that you need to know next. I hope that makes sense!?
NOTE: The Guitar Map is now included in our free special report: 'The 7 Steps To Guitar Mastery'.
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