I remember as a young guitarist I knew how to use a guitar capo, but thought a capo was for cheating if you didn’t know all of your chords. As a matter of fact I remember it being referred to as a “cheater” by many players. Some of the first guitar capo designs were complicated, cumbersome mechanical contraptions that took forever to get on and off so I never really bothered with them and as a result had something of a negative bias regarding their use.

guitar capo

It was not until years later with the event of some new guitar capo designs and a clearer focus on musical reasoning that I discovered what a powerful tool the capo could be. Open chord voicings just sound great and it is a bit of a waste to use those voicings only in one key when you can move them around and get the benefits of easy to change nice sounding forms in other keys.

Once you understand how to use a guitar capo there are many new possibilities.  For instance, taking a I IV V chord progression in the key of G and putting the capo on fret III to play in the key of Bb just sounds better than stopping all the strings with barres. There is also no comparison to the difficulty of the technical requirements especially for the novice player. In fact many players just don’t have the strength in their hands to play barres. It only makes sense to have a quick change tool that can provide more opportunity to use open voicings while at the same time providing the complete range of keys without struggling.

flamenco guitar capo

Flamenco players use the capo extensively thus allowing for big sounding quick changing chords that don’t detract from the real business of creating rhythm for the dance. These same principles apply to accompaniment for voice and rhythm playing for all of the folk, blues and pop genres. Easy to change chords in the left hand allow for the right hand rhythm to be unencumbered by technically difficult changes.

george harrison guitar capo

For the singer/songwriter the capo becomes an invaluable tool to open up new doors to new keys and new tonal textures. If you use the capo in the upper regions of the instrument you can achieve an almost mandolin like quality that is bright and colorful in a way that cannot be achieved simply by using barres. This same technique of putting the capo further up the fretboard can be used to great effect when layering guitars in recording. If you record one guitar in regular open position tuning and then double the same chords on another track only much further up the fretboard using a capo, you can achieve some really great sounding guitar layers.

How to Use a Guitar Capo – Moving a Single Chord Shape

All right, let’s look at some specifics on how to use a guitar capo.  Here’s what happens when we move a single chord shape (C) up one fret (semitone) at a time.

how to use a guitar capo

Notice how the shape stays the same, but the names of the notes change? Try to remember where your root notes are so you can name the actual chords you are playing. What you do not want to do is name the chord by its shape, for instance, “it’s just a C chord with a capo on the third fret”. This will lead to confusion for other instrumentalists as well as other guitar players not using a capo. If you want to really know how to use a guitar capo, you’ll want to learn to name the chord by the actual notes used, in this case, Eb or D#. Look for your root note. You could also just count up through the chromatic scale by three semitones from your root C as well.

Playing in All Keys using the Common Open Voicings

The most common use of the capo is to allow for simply and easily changing of keys while not having to leave your favorite chord voicings. The table below gives you an easy and comprehensive method for achieving this with some extra options as well. This is an excellent starting point and will allow you to play in all 12 keys without having to leave your open position forms while providing the chord names.

The most common open keys spell the word CAGED. In each of these keys it gives us the following using the I IV V chord progression.

Key I IV V

When we place the capo on frets I, II and III it gives us the following keys:

Position C A G E D
Fret I C#/Db A#/Bb G#/Ab F D#/Eb
Fret II D B A F#/Gb E
Fret III D#/Eb C A#/Bb G F

So within the first two frets we have covered all of the 12 keys as well as a few alternates.

Actual Key Capo Position Chord Forms
Key of C Open or Capo III A
Key of C#/Db Capo I C
Key of D Open or Capo II C
Key or D#/Eb Capo I or Capo III D or C
Key of E Open or Capo II D
Key of F Capo I or Capo III E or D
Key of F#/Gb Capo II E
Key of G Open or Capo III E
Key of Ab Capo I G
Key of A Open or Capo III G
Key of A#/Bb Capo I or Capo III A or G
Key of B Capo II A

Keys and Communication

As for the I IV V chord progressions you should always group your chords in this way so that you have the foundation chords in every key. From here you can build to the other chords in the key as well as related keys. This I IV V approach will build a strong harmonic platform to work from.

One of the drawbacks with the capo is that many players don’t take the time to learn to rename the chords once the capo is placed and this can become a problem with communication when playing with other instrumentalists. Learning the chord names will make things easier for you and all of your band mates.

Other Considerations When Using a Guitar Capo

split guitar capo

Using the capo to simply change keys while not losing the harmonic characteristics and ease of the chord voicings is the most common reason for the use of the capo but there are other reasons as well, alternate tunings is one of those.

Once you have gone to the trouble to get the instrument in an alternate or open tuning it becomes a simple matter of changing the key of that alternate/open tuning with the use of the capo while not losing the individuality of the new tuning. As a matter of fact many players choose to have guitars kept in their favorite alternate tunings complete with a capo ready to go on the headstock.

split guitar capo

Another capo type splits between strings that are capo’d and strings that are open. This will open up a whole new realm and let it suffice that we just introduce that idea at this point. Maybe we will cover split capos and alternate tunings at a later date in our postings.

Purchasing a Capo

When purchasing a capo make sure to get one that changes quickly and easily and that fits the width and profile of your guitar neck. Try it out in the store as well and have it demonstrated. When setting the capo make sure it is tucked up close to the fret wire and in line with it as small discrepancies can cause tuning problems.

In Closing

As you may have guessed by now capos and their use on the guitar can be simple or rather involved. This post is really meant as an introduction to how to use a guitar capo as well as some of the musical and technical considerations. In closing, capos are very often used in recordings and unless you know where the capo is in that recording you will have a really difficult time figuring it out. If you want to work through figuring out tunes do a bit of background work on the players first, find out how they use the capo and when, it could save you a lot of ear searching.

lots of guitar capos