This lesson provides details of the uses of capos and I hope that it will be useful to all readers. It is not essential to understand music theory to use a capo, although a basic knowledge of theory is required for the "advanced" part of the lesson. For those that wish to learn theory, there will be a lesson on this in a future newsletter.
What is a capo?
A capo is a mechanical device that attaches to the neck of a guitar and acts as a "moveable nut" - the same effect as playing a barre with one finger. It is derived from the Italian "capo tasto" or "capodastro" which literally means "head of fingerboard". Capos have been in use since the earliest fretted instruments - carvings show that Egyptians used capos probably made of twine or sinew tied around the necks of their instruments.
Why use a capo?
1) Have you ever noticed that some songs are a little too high or a little too low for you to sing?
2) Do you struggle to play songs with chords like Eb Ab and Bb?
3) Are you tired of playing the same licks and chords all the time and want a "fresh" new sound but still play exactly those same chords and licks?
Whilst a capo will not solve all of your problems, it certainly can help you with those outlined above. Even if you answer no to the above questions, a capo is still worth experimenting with - you never know, it may provide the inspiration you've been looking for.
How a capo works.
The actual mechanics vary between the different makes of capo. For instance, I use a Shubb capo which consists of a curved metal bar with one "hinged" arm and one pivot arm in a curved "E" shape. The capo is placed just behind the fret. The main bar is fitted with a rubber sleeve which covers the strings, and the hinged arm fits behind the neck. The pivot arm has an adjustable screw which pivots on the hinged arm locking the capo in place. The adjustable tension screw can therefore be adjusted to fix the capo at different positions on the neck without using excessive force which could cause damage.
If we place the capo behind the first fret, all the strings have been raised by a semi-tone. If we play a G chord shape, you are really playing a G#/Ab chord.
If we place the capo behind the second fret, all the strings have been raised by a tone. If we play a G chord shape, we are really playing an A chord. If we place the capo behind the third fret, all the strings have been raised by three semi-tones. If we play a G chord shape, we are really playing a A#/Bb chord and so on.
Can you spot the pattern? If we place the capo at fret "x", whatever chord we play will be "x" semi-tones higher. This principle also applies in reverse, so that if we place the capo at fret "x", we play a chord "x" semi-tones lower than the one written.
For instance, suppose a song has Eb, Ab and Bb chords in it. We could; Place the capo at the first fret and play E, A and B chords respectively, Place the capo at the third fret and play C, F and G chords respectively, Place the capo at the sixth fret and play A, D and E chords respectively etc etc.
It is important to remember that any chords and tablature are played relative to the position of the capo - for instance, if the capo is placed behind the fifth fret, a G chord will written as 320003, even though the actual frets are 875558. If you visualise the capo as the nut, this approach makes sense, and allows you to think in terms of more familiar keys, chord shapes and patterns.
Advanced Use of Capo - Transposing to Other Keys.
Although this is the advanced part of the lesson, it is actually an easier and quicker way to use a capo. The only reason this is advanced is because it considers the use of keys rather than individual chords. It is not appropriate to explain this here, hence there is a separate lesson called "introduction to music theory" which will follow in a subsequent edition of COWPIE.
As stated above, we can see that a capo allows us to use familiar chord shapes in unfamiliar keys. Whilst these can be worked out by subtracting semi-tones on a chord by chord basis, it is much easier to think in terms of the key and chord position. For instance, if we take the key of Bb:
1 2 3 4 5 6 7
Bb Cm Dm Eb F Gm Adim Bb
Thinking in terms of chord positions rather than names, if the song contained Bb Eb F and Gm minor chords, we consider these as 1, 4, 5 and 6 position chords. We can now decide which key we want to play in. If we want to play in the key of G, for instance, this is three semi-tones lower, therefore we place the capo behind the third fret. If we want to play in the key of E, this is 6 semi-tones lower and we therefore place the capo behind the sixth fret. We now play 1, 4, 5 and 6 position chords in the key that we have transposed to. Similarly, any scales should be also be played in the key that we have transposed to.
It is important to remember that when we say we are transposing to a new key, although we are thinking and playing in terms of more familiar chords and keys, we are still really playing those original chords in the original key.
I hope you have found the lesson useful and are keen to start experimenting with a capo.