A Simple Guide to Guitar Capo

A Simple Guide to Guitar Capo

A capo is a very useful tool to music transposition, which is done by its clamping down the strings on the guitar at a particular fret. This shortens the length of all the strings, in effect, changes the pitch of the strings to a higher pitch, and at the same time, brings out a certain characteristic of sound (timbre).

When to use a capo?

From above, we can derive the following two situations in which guitarists would use a capo. That’s when they want to (1) change the key of a song as well as (2) brighten the tone of the guitar.

(1) Change the key of a song

Why changing the key of a song? There are basically two main reasons; (a) to match the key of the song to the key the singer (maybe yourself) might need and (b) to play chords in an easier way.

(a) Play in the best key for singing

Say that you only know how to play a song in the key of G, while you need to accompany a singer whose strong and best-sounding range falls in the key of A. If this is the case, put your capo at the second fret and simply play the song in G as you normally do. And the capo will automatically cause all the strings to sound two half steps higher so the music now sounds in A.

What can we infer from the above mentioned case? That’s how the positioning of a capo affects the pitch to be given out—for every fret you move up the neck, the pitch produced by each string is going to be a half step higher. It is, therefore, a must to understand how scales work when you need to set a capo correctly. Refer to the first diagram at below and you should know the distance between notes (or pitches). To figure out how it fits into the setting of a guitar fretboard, have a look at the second diagram.

Diagram 1: The Distance between Notes
Diagram 2: The Setting of a Guitar Fretboard

Quick test: If you are playing a G major position, but want it to sound as if it was played in the key of Bb major. On which fret should you put the capo? Exactly! That’s on the third fret because there are three half steps from G to Bb.

(b) Play chords in an easier way

Again, why changing the key of a song? This time, it is done to play chords that would have been bent more difficultly in an easier way. Let’s trace back to the scene in the quick test. When you put the capo on the third fret and seem to play G, C and D major chord to your hand, it actually turns out to be Bb, Eb and F chord, as each string produces notes with pitch one step and a half higher. And the good thing is you have avoided all barre chords.

(2) Brighten the tone of the guitar

The use of a capo not only enables you to transpose your music, but also brighten the tone of your guitar. When a capo is used (further up the neck), the characteristic of the sound produced becomes very bright, which suits happy or upbeat music especially well.

Another way to make the most of a capo would be to use it when you are playing with a group of guitarists. The difference in timbre between the two (or even more) guitars ends up creating a fuller sound. See how common yet important it is in folk-guitar playing.

Last but not least, here come the tips for an effective use of capos:


  • Use a capo when the song requires the use of open strings
  • The capo should be placed before the fret but not directly on top of it (the metal fret wire)
  • Get your guitar in tune every time you attach or remove the capo
  • (Click here to) Understand how major scales works in order to know where to engage the capo
  • Never use the capo as a way to short-cut the step of mastering barre chords

Make the best use of a capo and let it become your best friend. Keep one in your guitar case and bring it along with you wherever you go!