What is the benefit of using a Capo versus just playing in a different key without one? In other words, why not just transpose the song and play it in the desired key without the capo?
Many guitar purist eschew the use of a capo and frown on it as a device similar to training wheels for beginning cyclists. While you can in fact play any song in any key on a guitar without a capo (by transposing) there are several ways that a capo can make any guitarist life much easier.
First what is a capo?
A capo can be used on just about any stringed fretted instrument such as a guitar, mandolin, banjo, bass guitar, and others and is simply a device that clamps over the neck of the instrument and holds the strings down on the fret you place it behind - thereby shortening the scale and changing the pitch of the instrument.
It has the effect of raising the pitch by one semitone times the number of the fret the capo is placed behind. Thus if placed behind the first fret (capo 1) it raises all the notes and chords one semitone. All notes would be sharpened by one semitone if fingered using the assumption that the capo is now the nut and the second fret (first fret past the capo) is now the first fret. Placing the capo behind the 2nd fret (capo 2) would raise the pitch by two semitones – and so on.
But why use a capo?
There are actually many different reasons a guitarist might choose to use a capo. The most obvious reason to use a capo is to easily transpose a song to a different key without having to use different chords or go through the process of transposing the music. So let’s say the guitarist has music showing the guitar chords for playing the song in the key of G but wants to play it in the key of A instead because that key fits the singers voice better. The guitarist has two options. Transpose the song to the key of A and play the corresponding chords with no capo. Or, put a capo behind the second fret and play the same chords indicated on the sheet music for the key of G.
Most folks think that a capo is only useful if the singer wants to sing the song higher than the original key. That’s not always the case. As a good example, I cover the song written by Steve Poltz and Jewel, called “You Were Meant For Me” using Jewell’s arrangement. Since I am basically a baritone, obviously I am not going to sing as high as Jewell. On the record, Jewell sings the song in the key of G. I “capo up” to the second fret and play the same chords as Jewell (as if in key of G). And I do that so I can sing it almost an octave lower than Jewell. If I played the song in G, I would have to sing a full octave lower than Jewell and that is too low. So I capo behind second fret and sing “almost” an octave lower than Jewell.
Another good reason to use a capo is if you want to play a song using chords that are easier to play. Suppose for example you have sheet music showing the chords for the song in Eb. And you want to perform the song in Eb because it matches the recording (probably because the artist tuned their instruments a half step flat and played as if in E).
Most guitarist prefer not to play in Eb because some (or most) of the chord shapes that Eb demands, are rather challenging to say the least. But with a capo - instead of having to try to play all those difficult Eb chord shapes - you just put a capo behind the 1st fret and play the chord shapes that you would play if the song were transposed to D (you will have to transpose to D). With a capo on the 1st fret, the chords you play will sound as if you are playing in Eb (also known as D#). So you will be using a much easier set of chords but the music will manifest in the key of Eb.
So in this case, the capo could be used to make the song easier to play in the original key – as opposed to transposing to a different key. Of course you could also do both at the same time. So in the above example, if you put the capo on the second fret and played the chords as if in the key of D, you have now both transposed from Eb to E AND made the arrangement easier to play by avoiding all the barre chords required to play the chords notated for Eb.
Another thing the capo can do, that can not be done as easily as simply transposing the song to the new key - is allow you to use the same picking pattern that is heard on the recording while playing the song in a different key.
To illustrate, let’s go back to the example above where I transpose the Jewell song from G to A by putting a capo behind the second fret. You might ask, why don’t I just transpose the song to the key of A since those cords are just as easy to play as the chords for G? There is actually a very good reason.
If you listen to the song, one of the musical hooks that identify the song, (“You Were Meant For Me”) is the picking pattern which alternates from the bass strings to the treble strings on each chord. If played using the chords for the key of A, the bass and treble notes would be completely different notes and it would not sound at all like the record. So transposing instead of using a capo, would render an arrangement that did not sound as authentic.
Also sometimes certain musical riffs or embellishments or fills that are recognizable in an arrangement are easier to play when they arise out of the fingerings for chord shapes in a particular key and are more difficult to play if other chord shapes are used. In a case like this - a capo might be used to change the chord shapes to ones that better lend themselves to the filler notes you want to add while playing the chords. Again, you could keep the key the same as the original music, but use a capo to change the chord selection to those used in a key whose chords better lend themselves to the fills and licks you wish to add.
Another reason to use a capo would be to give a different flavor to the chord voicing for the instrument.
If the composer or arranger wishes to have a guitar sound more trebely or jangley as part of the overall instrumentation for a musical piece, the guitarist (instead of all barre chords) may choose to play their part with the capo on one of the higher frets (maybe 7 or 8) thereby emphasizing the treble end of the aural spectrum for that particular guitar. Some song writers like to use those higher capo positions in some of their music to convey a particular feel or vibe to the music and they prefer open chords instead of barre chords – so they use a capo.
One of the limitations of the capo is that once you get past the 8th fret, not only do the voicings sound higher (whether desired or not) but the frets are closer and closer together as you move up the fret board and your fingers have a harder time squishing into some of the chord shapes. A cutaway will allow you to capo a few frets closer to the body of the instrument before the body of the instrument itself preventsbyou from reaching certain chords.
One other lesser known use of a capo to make a guitar easier to play is to tune the guitar a half step flat and leave a capo on the first fret to bring it back to standard tuning.
This makes barre chords such as the dreaded F barre chord, much easier to play. The reason the F barre chord takes so much grip strength to play cleanly is that the nut of the guitar is higher than the frets (otherwise the frets would all buzz) and to barre the first fret it is necessary to push the strings down a good distance at an extreme angle between the nut and the first fret. However with a capo on the first fret (and now the second fret is the first fret) the first fret now serves as a new nut that is now only slightly elevated above the next fret – making the F barre chord much easier to fret.
For many of the reasons outlined above, even experienced professional guitarist will often use a capo on certain songs. I keep mine handy whenever I perform or write music on guitar. Not a day goes by where I fail to say a silent thank you to whoever invented this ingenious device.
If you don’t have a capo yet, I would encourage you to get one soon. It will open up a whole new world of possibilities for playing your guitar, or other stringed fretted instrument.
There are a variety of situations when a using a capo is beneficial
In can also be helpful on cheap guitars with poor action to lower the strings toward the fretboard and make the guitar easier on th fingers to play.
It is common for 12-string players to tune down and capo up to reduce tension on the neck. Beyond that, acoustic guitars benefit from open, ringing strings more than electrics, so you might capo up to maximize the number of open strings ringing at one time.
Capos can also be used to replace tough chords with easier ones for beginners. For example, the song With or Without You by U2 contains the progression D A Bm G. With a capo on the second fret the progression becomes C G Am F which may be easier for a newbie to play.
Another good example to know the use of capo would be, "Wonderwall" by Oasis (Key F#m). Here, the voicing of open string chords is achieved by a full tone capo from E to F#. Sometimes, not all 6 strings are capo'ed. Watch Andy Mckee's "Rylyn". Good usage of capo could really make difference in beauty of compositions.
If you are playing with a singer who can only sing in a certain key range, then capos can become invaluable. They essentially let you shift the key of a song up or down (depending on the singer's range) without having to relearn the actual chords of the song that you play.
An example of this would be in 'The Smiths.' Johnny Marr would regularly capo his guitar up a full tone from E to F# to accommodate Morrissey's vocal range.
Charts such as the one below are also useful, because capos can also be used to provide different voicings to chords, giving the progression a different sound when played, which in some situations is exactly what is needed in a song.
The capo allows you to play open chords/notes from wherever you have barred the neck. And gives you access to certain voicing not easily achievable in a particular key otherwise.
And thats about it really.