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What is the benefit of using a Capo versus just playing in a different key without one?

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7 Answers 7

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.

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Keeps you from having to learn more chord shapes. But really, ringing open strings is reason enough. –  VarLogRant Feb 7 '13 at 17:48

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.

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Sorry if it sounds silly but I am learning. What does it mean by, "singer who can only sing in a certain key range"? –  iamcreasy Dec 1 '11 at 18:19
    
@iamcreasy - belated answer but, imagine you're playing guitar and singing, and find yourself saying "wow, I can't sing that low". So you try singing an octave higher, but then hit a different note and think "wow, I can't sing that high". You need to sing the song somewhere between those two pitches, so the guitar is going to have to transpose to suite you. –  slim Feb 7 '13 at 17:37

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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There are a variety of situations when a using a capo is beneficial

Musical

  • To allow the use of open chords, and thus ringing open strings, in keys where they wouldn't normally be available, this could be motivated by a singer's preferred key. This also affects the timbre of the open strings, which can be a desirable musical effect.
  • As a way to get to alternate chord voicings, especially in multi-guitar scenarios. Suppose that the first guitarist plays open chords in E, say E, A and B7. A second guitarist may want to play Capo II; he/she'd be using D, G, A7 "shaped" chords. The notes in these fingerings overlap and extend those provided by the first guitarist, providing a richer overall sound than you would get if they both played the exact same chords. (another example would Open G,C,D7 and Capo V D,G,A7 (shapes))

Mechanical

  • On some 12-string (and even some weaker 6-stringed) guitars, it is desirable to reduce the string tension by down tuning. This is done (primarily) to relieve the stress on the bridge to improve its lifetime. Thus a sensible approach is to tune the strings down by a semitone, and then capo at the first fret so that the guitar is, effectively, in standard tuning.
  • On some poorly setup guitars where the action is too high, using a capo can improve the action; clamping the strings down onto the fretboard will lower the action across the neck.

Compensation

  • Some players know only a limited set of chords; using a capo allows these players to play in alternate keys where they wouldn't know the appropriate chords.
  • Some players may have sensitivity and/or weakness in their hands. Down-tuning the strings may allow these players to more easily fret the guitar. After tuning-down, the capo can be used so that the guitar is, effectively, in standard tuning.
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