You probably already know how to use a capo to change the pitch of a song to match a singer’s range. But did you know that you can use the capo to find new ways to “voice” a chord, or even create a signature guitar part?
Remember that the moment you clip on that capo you have fundamentally changed the sound of your instrument, because the entire string no longer vibrates. So by adding the capo we change the “scale length” of the guitar….”scale” in the sense of measurement, not the musical kind. This brings out different sounds that might remind you of other instruments with a shorter scale length, like a ukelele or mandolin. Try putting a capo on the seventh fret and strum a D shape…you’ll notice that the sound has a character of its own up there. Listen to the Beatles’ “Here Comes The Sun” for a definitive example.
This is also the reason why you sometimes see artists onstage backed by multiple acoustic guitarists. Three guitars with capos in different places can play the same chord in three different ways, creating a sound that is much fuller and richer than a single guitar or multiple guitars played in the same place. (You hear this effect on studio recordings all the time). This article is an introduction to how we learn to do this.
First of all, understand that when we clip on a capo we are “transposing”. That means that we are changing the key of the song, but without having to change the shape of the chords we use. Very convenient until you realize you may have no idea what chord you’re actually playing! So it helps to understand how transposition works on the guitar.
You may already know that there are twelve notes used in music: the letters A through G, plus a series of in-between notes called sharps and flats. Note that an in-between note can be “spelled” as either a sharp or a flat….more on this later, but basically which one you choose depends on the other notes that surround it. The letters A through G plus the sharps/flats in between form what we call the chromatic scale. Here is the scale spelled out using both sharps and flats….note that a sharp looks like a pound or number sign, while a flat looks like a lower-case letter b.
Using sharps: A A# B C C# D D# E F F# G G#
Using flats: A Bb B C Db D Eb E F Gb G Ab
By the way, notice that there’s no B sharp, E sharp, C flat, or F flat. (There CAN be, but not for our purposes…..too confusing and not useful). And note that the in-betweens, the sharps and flats, are interchangeable if they occupy the same position in the sequence….in other words, the note between C and D could be called C sharp OR D flat and would sound the same either way. So from here on I’ll express these notes as C#/Db, D#/Eb, etc.
The sequence will repeat over and over again no matter where you start. As written, the sequence would start over on A, but you could start from any other place and the notes will appear in the same order, with A always following G#/Ab.
On your guitar, every fret is one note of the chromatic sequence. So a C chord with a capo on the first fret becomes C#/Db (the next note in the sequence) while a C chord with a capo on the third fret becomes D#/Eb.
There’s a lot here to learn, but you could start by memorizing a few capo locations and the corresponding keys. Then as these become familiar, transposing is as simple as moving the capo up or down the right number of frets. Here’s some common ones to get you started:
Key of A: capo 2 and play in G, capo 7 and play in D, or capo 9 and play in C.
To get to A#/Bb, B, or C, move the capo up one, two, or three frets from these locations.
Very important: note that I said “play IN G”, not “play G”. When you play a G shape with the capo on fret 2, the chord that sounds is an A. The next step is to apply the same transposition to the other chords in the key of G. Fingering A minor sounds as a B minor, while a C shape sounds as D.
With that said, here’s some more:
Key of C#/Db: capo 1 and play in C, capo 4 and play in A, or capo 6 and play in G.
To get to D, D#/Eb, or E, move the capo up one, two, or three frets respectively.
Key of F: capo 1 and play in E, capo 3 and play in D, capo 5 and play in C, or capo 8 and play in A.
To reach F#/Gb, G, or G#/Ab, move the capo up one, two, or three frets as before.
Memorizing these locations allows you to reach all 12 keys with just a basic knowledge of music theory. Add a basic familiarity with the Nashville Number System and you have the entire neck open to you in all twelve keys. (For more on the number system, check out Chas Williams’ definitive book on the subject, “The Nashville Number System”).
If you find all of this confusing, don’t despair….just pick one example and play with that for a while until you can remember it easily. Then slowly add more until you’ve built a vocabulary of options. There’s so much to know that it’s easy to get overwhelmed, so sticking to bite-sized pieces of information keeps the task manageable. Good luck and have fun!