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If the sound of the music is in the key of Eb and I want to play using chord shapes in the key of C, what fret do I put the capo on?

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The question and the title now disagree, I think. –  neilfein Aug 19 at 1:55
    
Right, let's see if this title is better... –  Bob Broadley Aug 19 at 2:07
    
@BobBroadley Well-put. –  neilfein Aug 19 at 2:07
    
@slim, I think you've edited the question to match the meaning behind the question, but I thought it better not edit it too much, just in case the OP meant something else... +1 for your answer BTW. –  Bob Broadley Aug 19 at 10:18
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@BobBroadley I think it's better to have an unambiguous question, even if it's not what the OP meant! All the answers are general enough to still apply if OP wants to transpose in the other direction. And thanks for the +1 –  slim Aug 19 at 10:20

6 Answers 6

This depends upon what you mean by "music is in the key of…" and "I want to play it in the key of…".

If you mean that you want to play chords written in the key of C and have them sound in the key of Eb, put the capo on fret 3. Eb is three semitones higher than C (C-C#-D-Eb). (This seems likely.)

If you want to play chords written in the key of Eb and have them sound in the key of C, put the capo on fret 9. C is nine semitones higher than Eb (Eb-E-F-F#-G-G#-A-Bb-B-C). (This seems less likely.)

(Reading between the lines, I'm guessing that you actually want to change chords written in Eb, to be played in C, but still sounding in Eb - in which case, there is more about this in the third and fifth bullet points below.)

Each fret on a guitar is a semitone higher than the one below it (or one semitone higher than the open string, for fret 1). To find out where to position a capo for any particular transposition, work out how many semitones higher the key you want the music to sound in is from the key you want to play chords written in.

Here's an example: suppose you are playing chords in D Major, but you want the music to sound in B Major; you have to go up nine frets and so place the capo at fret 9 (D-D#-E-F-F#-G-G#-A-A#-B).

A few things to note:

  • the key you are wanting to transpose to may actually be closer to the key you want to play in by moving downwards. For instance, you can transpose D Major to B Major by moving down three frets. But you can't actually use a capo to transpose in this way, as you can't put a capo lower than an open string!
  • You can easily work out any required transposition by using this sequence of chromatic pitches:
    C - C#/Db - D - D#/Eb - E - F - F#/Gb - G - G#/Ab - A - A#/Bb - B - C (Note that here I have given both the flat and sharp name for each of the notes between the natural notes; e.g. F# is the same as Gb.) If you need to move "further" than the end of the sequence (eg. A Major to D Major), you simply continue counting up from the low C once you get to the high C. As you can see, it is quite easy to remember the pattern of chromatic pitches, without even seeing a list such as this: every pair of natural notes has a note with a sharp and flat name between them except E-F and B-C (e.g. the note between D and E is called either D# or Eb).
  • if the music is already written down in the key you want the music to sound in, but you want to change the chords to be played in an easier key, you have to "reverse" the direction of semitone counting, to write down the chords you will actually play. For instance, if your music is written in Eb Major and you want it to sound in Eb Major, but you want to play chords in C Major (which is much easier!), you need to count down three semitones from each chord in your music, to work out which chords you'll be playing once the capo is on fret 3. It's much easier in this case to actually write the transposed chords next to (or above) the original chords in your music, as it can be really tricky to count semitones for the transposition while trying to read music too! So, an Eb chord would be rewritten and played as a C chord if the capo is on fret 3; an F chord would be rewritten and played as a D chord if the capo is on fret 3 etc.

The reason these two approaches are needed when using a capo (counting up and counting down), is because there are two main reasons for transposing using a capo:

  • you may already know how to play a song on the guitar in a particular key, probably using "easy" chords. A singer may want you to transpose to another key to make the music fit their range better (or you may be playing with a transposing instrument, for instance). This requires you to count up the semitone distance from the key you want to play in to the new key. You then put your capo at this fret and carry on playing the same chords, which now sound in a different key.
  • on the other hand, you may want to simplify a written chord part to play it in an easier key, but without changing the sounding pitch of the music. In this case, you need to count down the semitone distance from the key the music is originally written in, to the key you want to play in, put the capo at this fret, and then rewrite the chords by similarly counting down from each of the original chords by the same number of semitones.
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3rd fret capo wouldn't give you access to chords that would normally be on Eb as the chords would probably be barre chords anyway. Unless there is already a capo position that isn't mentioned yet. Eg Eb would be a barre chord without a capo so putting a capo on third fret would still require a barre chord, but not in the same position –  scrowler Aug 19 at 0:00
    
@scrowler - Putting a capo on the third fret means playing a C chord form yields an Eb chord. D minor form yields Fm, Em form gives you Gm, Ab form gives you Cm, and so on. You can also put a capo on the 6th fret, but that's less optimal for some players. –  neilfein Aug 19 at 0:08
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I realised that this is a bit of an ambiguous question, so I've heavily edited my answer, and tried to approach this from several angles... –  Bob Broadley Aug 19 at 0:47
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@scrowler, I think the OP wants to play chords in C, but keep them sounding in the original written key of Eb, so you would put the capo on fret 3. Like I say, this is an ambiguous question. So much so, I'm answering it again, to try to get a clearer answer… (Watch this space…) –  Bob Broadley Aug 19 at 1:38
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@scrowler - for a song using Eb, I would happily use a C shape barre chord on the 3rd fret for it. Where's the problem in substituting the barre finger with a capo ? However, then an F chord would inevitably appear, and probably need to be barred... –  Tim Aug 19 at 6:19

Although your question is a little ambiguous, I'm guessing that you want to play music written in Eb, using chords in C, but keeping the music sounding in Eb. So, you put the capo on fret 3 and rewrite all your chords three semitones lower. However, just giving you this answer won't help you understand how to work out where to put a capo should you need to work out a different transposition, so what follows is a description of how to work out which fret to place a capo on for any particular transposition.

There are three things to consider when using a capo to transpose guitar music: the key the original music is written in; the key you want to play chords in; the key you want the music to sound in.

Usually you will only need to consider two of these, for instance: 1. using a capo to play written chords so that they sound at a different pitch; 2. using a capo to play chords in an easier, different key to the original music, but staying at the same pitch as the original music. However, it is possible to change both the chords played and the sounding pitch of the original music.

  • If you want to change the chords played (usually to make them easier), but keep the music sounding at the same pitch, count down by semitones from the original key to the key you want play in, place the capo at this fret, then rewrite all the chords by counting down by the same number of semitones. For instance, to play music written in Eb, using chords in C, but keeping the music sounding in Eb, place the capo at fret 3, as C is three semitones lower than Eb (C-C#-D-Eb). Then, rewrite all chords three semitones lower, for example: Eb becomes C; Fm becomes Dm; Bb becomes G.
  • If you want to change the sounding pitch without changing the chords you play (to accommodate the range of a singer, perhaps), count up by semitones from the original key to the new sounding key. For instance to play chords written in A, but so that they sound in D, you place the capo at fret 5, as D is five semitones higher than A (A-Bb-B-C-C#-D). You then continue to play the same chords, but they now sound in a different key.

As I say, these are the most likely ways to use a capo. You could, though, change the chords played and the sounding pitch from the original key. This is a little more complicated. Firstly, count down by semitones from your original, written key to the key you want to play in and rewrite all chords this number of semitones lower; secondly, count up by semitones from the key you want to play in to the key you want the music to sound in and place the capo at this fret.

Here's an example: the music is written in Eb, you want to play in A and have the music sound in F. Firstly, count down from Eb to A, that's six semitones, rewrite all chords six semitones lower. Secondly, count up from A to F, that's eight semitones, so place the capo on fret 8. Voila, chords originally written in Eb, played in A, sounding in F…

Finally, a couple of things to note:

I only mention transposing chords here, to transpose single notes you wouldn't usually need a capo, instead you would simply move up or down the required number of frets.

Here is the list of chromatic pitches, to help you count up or down by semitones (notes between natural notes are listed with both their flat and sharp names):

C - C#/Db - D - D#/Eb - E - F - F#/Gb - G - G#/Ab - A - A#/Bb - B - C

If you need to count "further" than the beginning or end of the sequence, you simply continue counting from the opposite end.

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E♭ is three semitones above C. So you should put the capo on the third fret.

Some of the other answers are quite thorough, but it is really a simple answer!

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Lol, three! Very simple! –  Ben Kushigian Aug 26 at 0:06

Simple, completely effective answer:

For Eb, don't use a capo. Rather, lower the tuning of each string. Re-tune the strings, low to high, Eb, Ab, Db, Gb, Bb, Eb. Then play the regular chord shapes that you already know.

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Question states (we think!) that she wants to play C shapes. Downtuning by one requires using E shapes. If arbitrary (but easy) shapes are OK, then I'd say capo 1st fret and play D shapes. –  slim Aug 19 at 10:09
    
I agree with you and Slim! I would suggest tuning a half step down, but the OP does ask to play with C shapes. –  MrTheBard Aug 19 at 12:43

I think the other answers are good, but wanted to condense the most important bit into one answer. You just have to count the semitones.

Here are all the notes, and the number of semitones they are away from A.

0  1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10 11 12
A  A# B  C  C# D  D# E  F  F# G  G# A 
A  Bb B  C  Db D  Eb E  F  Gb G  Ab A 

D is five semitones up from A -- so if you want to play an A shape and have it sound like a D, put a capo on the 5th fret.

Eb is three semitones up from C -- so if you want to play a C shape and have it sound like an Eb, put a capo on the 3rd fret.

This formula works for any pair of keys. Note that to play an A shape and get a G sound, you have to capo the 10th fret, which turns your guitar into a soprano instrument with a very short fretboard. It can sound nice, but may not be what you want -- in which case you have to choose a different set of chord shapes, or tune down (see below)


You can do the same thing at the instrument by making the chord shape and shifting it up.

  • Play an open C chord. Say "This is a C".
  • Move it up a fret. "This is a C#". (if you want to play this now, you can only pluck the fretted strings -- or, if you can, change the fingering and barre it)
  • Move it up again, "This is a D"
  • Keep moving up until you reach the target chord.
  • Put the capo on the fret below your new chord, to make the open strings play the right notes (if you were barreing, the capo goes where your barre is)

A capo can only shift the tuning up, not down. If you want to go down, you can change the tuning on your guitar. For example, to play E shapes and hear Eb shapes, just tune every string down by one semitone.

Doing this will reduce the tension of your strings. Playing will feel different. The timbre of the guitar will change. Intonation might be affected. Lower than 2 semitones down and these effects become quite pronounced. Keep going lower and the guitar will become unplayable -- of course there will come the point where the strings are completely slack.

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I think I know exactly what you mean, so I will just give a simple answer in case you are confused by the others (but I highly recommend studying them, anyway).

The answer is to place the capo over the 3rd fret. This makes your "C Chord shape" (what you would play to get a C chord should there be no capo at all) be an Eb chord. Thus, you can easily access the key of Eb now.

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