Years ago, when I first started learning to play the guitar, I used to have so much trouble just getting a tune out of the damn thing that I used to be in total awe of anyone who could string a few chords together or pull off a few notes of a dodgy Metallica riff.
When ever I saw a guitarist on stage with a capo it used to just blow my mind and I would think it was some amazing, advanced contraption that only really technically experienced guitar players would use. The thought of getting involved with a weird thing like a capo seemed like another world away.
The fear of unknown things like capos keeps many beginner acoustic guitarists from trying new things which would ultimately open up new doors for them. Overcoming these minor obstacles and embracing the use of these unknown oddities allows a beginner to discover new ways of playing and will undoubtedly make their lives much easier in future.
This post is designed to persuade all you newbies out there to go out and buy one right now, instead of waiting years to get round to it and then finally finding out you’ve been missing out.
What is a Capo & Why Use One ?
A capo basically acts like movable nut that you can place anywhere you like across the strings of your guitar which changes the pitch of all your open chords and strings.
This effectively raises the pitch of your whole guitar to just about any pitch you like.
‘Why would I need one of those ?’ I hear you ask.
I’ll tell you why, because just about every other half decent acoustic guitarist uses them, and if you are intent on playing other peoples songs, either for fun or to do a few gigs yourself, the chances are pretty soon you are going to come across loads of other songs that are a pain in the arse to play unless you have a capo too.
Aside form that, you’ll also find that sticking a capo across your guitar suddenly gives your playing a whole new sound without having to do much else than playing chords you already know. This will allow you to create new riffs and songs that you may not have been able to achieve easily without the help of a capo.
As a busker, I’ve had to learn a ridiculous amount of songs from typical pop and rock genres to allow me to play in the street for hours without repeating myself, and the one thing I found out as my song collection grew, is that life can be much more difficult if you haven’t got a capo
O.K.. generally if you know what you are doing, you can get round most awkward chord problems by converting to bar chords, but that is not always practical and there is a good chance that if you are playing an acoustic song, the guy who wrote the song did so with a capo in mind.
There are so many great songs out there which at first seem like a nightmare for the average guitarist to play, but add a simple capo across the right fret and ‘hey presto’, the song is now a complete doddle and can be played with a few simple open chords.
Remember what I said in my post about conquering bar chords. Most guitarists are not actually that great players and will not be able to pull off ridiculous feats of finger dexterity to achieve some impossible chord. They will either use a simple easy bar shape to hit an otherwise awkward chord or they will use a capo and let that do the hard work for them.
When I first started building my song list, I found that after learning a few easy pop songs, it was time to start covering the more ‘typical’ busking songs from groups like Oasis, U2, The Eagles etc.
The first thing I noticed was that to learn the songs in question, you either had to be some sort of contortionist with your fingers and learn loads of new chord shapes, names and positions, or you could simply play the same old easy open chords and whack a capo over the whole lot making the whole thing a cinch.
I’ll give you an example.
You can’t get much easier than Wonderwall.
The proper chord names for the verse of this song go like this.
F#m7, A, Esus4, B7sus4
Which after checking the chords online, any beginner looking to conquer this one would be trying to play it using the chords below.
Now that is going to sound really bad and screw with any guitarist’s head. In theory the chords are right, but in practice they are way out.
In actual fact the song is actually played using simple open chords like this
Em7, G, Dsus4, A7 sus4
…these are really easy chords and are shown below.
Em7 G majD sus4
Now if you play the song like this, it will still sound o.k, but there will be something missing… it just won’t hit that button.
Now, with exactly the same finger shapes, playing the same chords but simply adding a capo over the 2nd fret gives you this.
Esus4 B7sus 4
…that’s going to sound much better, now it’s in the right key.
A while ago I was watching the Isle of Wight Festival and Oasis failed to appear for their main slot.
Snow Patrol stood up to the mark and filled in for them which was a really cool thing to do. Their front man Gary Lightbody performed a great acoustic cover of Wonderwall which was a pretty brave thing to pull off in front of thousands of Oasis fans. Now before I start getting any hate mail from Snow Patrol fans, I’m in no way criticising Gary’s performance or playing ability and I have much respect for his band and what he did, but as I was listening to the performance, I couldn’t help thinking…’Man he seriously needs a capo on that’.
Everyone loved it, but some of the comments on this You Tube vid have people saying it was a good performance but his voice wasn’t suited to the song. That’s not the case, if anyone thinks it didn’t sound quite right it’s simply because he was singing it in a lower key without the capo on the second fret.
Every now and then when I’m busking in the street, I’ll get carried away and start singing a song, forgetting to put the capo on my guitar.
When it happens (most likely on a hangover) I’ll be in full swing, singing away and for some reason I’ll feel something is just not right and just won’t be getting the right buzz out of the song.
Although I am seriously not an Oasis fan, you still get a good feeling if you are singing a song well. Half way through you realise you forgot the damn capo and by that time it’s too late and you’ve got to keep going until you’ve finished the song.
As soon as you add the capo, the world is returned to it’s rightful harmony. Try it and see.
There are literally thousands of songs out there where the songwriters have chosen to use capos to enhance the performance and playability of their songs.
Capo’s are really useful things but as a beginner you must ensure you don’t become reliant on them and use them as a way of replacing more complex bar and open chords higher up the fretboard. They should be used in the right places and as a tool to help you achieve your goals and understand how the songs creator wrote the song and not as an excuse to get out of learning to play properly.
Types of Capo
The word capo comes from the Latin word ‘caput’ – meaning ‘head’, and is used in the phrases ‘capo tasto’ – meaning ‘head stop’ or ‘capo di tastiera’ – meaning ‘head of the fingerboard’.
There are many different types of capo on the market and the cost varies from a couple of pounds to round about £20
Basically you get what you pay for. My first experience with a cheap elastic capo many years ago did not go down very well. It didn’t work well and caused problems with muffled strings and fret buzz when playing.
Toggle capos are a little better and for a beginner who just wants to try one out they are not too bad. Very cheap and cheerful and will do the job for occasional use.
Some players like these, not my cup of tea.
Rolling capos can be moved up and down the fretboard without removing them. A good idea but I imagine these are a bit of a hassle if you need to keep attaching and removing them from your guitar. I expect if you play most of your songs with a capo then they are pretty handy.
Spring loaded, quick change capos are one of the best types of capo available. Very easy to apply to the guitar and can be moved up and down the fretboard very quickly.
The only slight issue I have with these types of capo is that they tend to be quite large, some brands are somewhat ornate and their size and shape means they can stick out a mile when they are on your guitar and look a bit odd. Then again, if it suits the look of your guitar and your style of playing then that’s exactly what you need.
Another minor issue I have with them is you might have trouble carrying these around in your pocket all day, but aside from that these quick change capos are a firm favorite of many experienced guitar players.
My personal favourite are the Shubb capos. These things are rock solid, built well and fit nicely in your pocket. They cost around £15 and have a quick locking clamp that will fit nicely on your guitar and can be moved and removed quickly. The tension can be adjusted easily via the screw on the back of the clamp and they don’t stick out like a sore thumb when you are playing.
Also, if you get any grief when you are out playing they fit nicely over your fingers and can be used as a substitute knuckleduster. What more could you want.
I’ve used these for years and would highly recommend them to any acoustic guitarist.
Check out Amazon for capos if you want to get one cheap or visit your local music shop.
Buy a Good Capo
If you are thinking of getting a capo, I suggest you buy a decent one. These cheap elastic ones that cost a couple of pounds aren’t much good for serious players and you need one that is going to last a long time and be able to take a hammering at the same time. I’m always dropping mine, kicking it around and stepping on my Shubb and it’s still as good as the day I bought it.
The only slight disadvantage of these is that vary rarely, with extensive use, you may find the little black rubber/plastic point unscrews itself over many months and just needs to be tightened up again with your fingers. If this happens and one day you find you’ve lost the thing you can order replacements for mere pennies, but be careful, when the shop sends your replacement you may find the pointed gromit works it’s way out of the postal envelope and you receive a package with nothing in it. This has happened to me before so make sure you get your supplier to wrap it well.
On a last note, classical guitar capos are slightly different than normal capos due to the different sizes of the neck and curvature of the fretboard. If you need a capo for your classical, make sure you buy a dedicated classical guitar capo otherwise it won’t fit. This could result in major fret buzz, muffled strings and might strain or even damage the neck of your guitar.
So go out and get yourself a capo and you’ll soon be playing loads of great songs with loads of easy chords.
By the way, if you are a thrash or metal head and play the electric, don’t bother, you’ll never need one.