Capo Conversion Made Easy

Before you start reading this, I assume that you have little or absolutely zero knowledge about the topic. Well if you are not, you might want to stop right here because you probably have already learned it and perhaps you are very much better than me.

Capo Conversion Made Easy
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Before you start reading this, I assume that you have little or absolutely zero knowledge about the topic. Well if you are not, you might want to stop right here because you probably have already learned it and perhaps you are very much better than me. (Feel free to point out mistakes and leave comments.)

I've been always been in doubt about how the capo works ever since I started playing the guitar, so every time I just follow tab instructions blindly. Then, I started reading articles about it and eventually I figured out how it really works. It's actually not that hard if you figure it out in simpler ways, instead of complicated and sophisticated ways taught in theory lessons. So, I thought about writing this to help fellow guitar players out there whom are still in doubt and unclear about the whole thing.

First of all, you have to know which chords are in which key before you start transposing. Chords are formed according to this pattern: major, minor, minor, major, major, minor and 7th. For example, in the key of C, the diatonic scale consists of notes C, D, E, F, G, A and B. Hence, according to the pattern, the chords in key of C will be: C, Dm, Em, F, G, Am and G7. Below are the chords in various keys:
Key of C: C, Dm,  Em,  F,  G,  Am,  G7 
Key of D: D, Em, F#m, G, A, Bm, A7
Key of E: E, F#m, G#m, A, B, C#m, B7
Key of F: F, Gm, Am, Bb, C, Dm, C7
Key of G: G, Am, Bm, C, D, Em, B7
Key of A: A, Bm, C#m, D, E, F#m, E7
Key of B: B, C#m, D#m, E, F#, G#m, F#7
Then, you have to know what happens when you add a capo on your fretboard. When you add capo, the key rises by one semitone. There are 12 semitones: C, D, E, F, G, A, B, Bb, Db, Eb, Gb and Ab, they are arranged like this (refer to the first string of your guitar):

(1st fret) E - F - Gb - G - Ab - A - Bb - B - C - Db - Eb - E (12th fret)

Now, pluck the first string and you will get an E note. Place your finger on the 1st fret, pluck it, you will get an F note. Place your finger on the 2nd fret, pluck it, you will get a Gb note. Hence we know that as we go down the fret, we increase the tone.

Let's say you are playing in key of C without capo, what will happen when you place capo on the 1st fret? The key increases by one semitone, and now you are playing in key of C#.

If you are playing in key of F without capo, what will happen when you place capo on the 3rd fret? The key increases by three semitones, and now you are playing in the key of G#.

You just have to follow 3 main steps: determine the original key, determine your desired key, and then calculate number of semitones between the desired key and the original key.

Refer to the table below if you still don't understand:
w/oCapo CDEFGAB 
Capo 1 C#D#FF#G#A#C
Capo 2 DEF#GABC#
Capo 3 D#FGG#A#CD
Capo 4 EF#G#ABC#D#
Capo 5 FGAA#CDE
Capo 6 F#G#A#BC#D#F
Capo 7 GABCDEF#
Capo 8 G#A#CC#D#FG
Capo 9 ABC#DEF#G#
Capo 10 A#CDD#FGA
Capo 11 BC#D#EF#G#A#
Capo 12 CDEFGAB
After you know how exactly a capo works, you can now start transposing! How? By applying the two main things I mentioned above.

For example, you are given the tab of this song which is in the key of F and the chord progression is Dm - Bb - F - C. If you want to play this song using C chords, then C key is your desired key. Calculate the semitones between the desired key and the original key to determine the location of the capo. The capo should be placed on the 5th fret (as C - C# - D - D# - E - F). Then, you determine the new chord progression.

According to the key scale, the chord progression Dm - Bb - F - C is (VI) - (IV) - (I) - (V). The progression (VI) - (IV) - (I) - (V) in key of C is Am - F - C - G. Hence, with capo on the 5th fret you play the song using Am - F - C - G. Another example, you want to play a song in D key with chords D - A - Bm - G using C chord. Use C key as your desired key. Calculate the semitones between the desired key and the original key to determine the location of the capo. The capo should be placed on the 2nd fret (as C - C# - D). Then determine the new chord progression. D - A - Bm - G is (I) - (V) - (VI) - (IV), which is also C - G - Am - F in the key of C.

It's pretty simple right? Just keep on practicing and you will face no problem transposing chords in the future. I hope that my explanation is simple yet clear enough for you all to understand. Comments and criticism are more than welcome. Cheers and rock on!!! :)

- Kassen

18 comments sorted by best / new / date

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    Haynus_aynus
    Here is the secret of a capo.... it lets you play any key in an open position, that's all it's for. Put a capo on the second fret and play C F G, and instead you get D G A. That's all the capo is, it's there so that you can play in flat and sharp keys without having to wreck your hand with barre chords.
    iaceu
    And now that I've had the time to look at the second example, that's not right either. By placing a capo at 2, and playing the chord progression with the shapes of C-G-Am-F, you are still playing the chords D-A-Bm-G, so the song is still in the key of D. If you want to play that one in the key of C, you'd have to change the chord shapes with the capo at 2, or change the chords if playing open. The progressions for each would be: Open: C-G-Am-F (as you listed for the chords with the capo) Capo at 2: Bb-F-Gm-Eb It's important to remember that if the song is being changed from the key of D to the key of C, all the chords have to come down by 2 steps, or 1 interval. By saying that you are changing the key to C, you are confusing things, because you are using the shapes starting with the C shape chord to play the same chords you originally played, not to change the chords, which is necessary to change the key. That is one advantage of a capo. You can change the key upward but still play the same shapes, especially using the open chords, which is usually easier. Additionally, you can give the song a much higher, more flighty sound by playing much higher notes in a chord format without all the stretching necessary to make G-shape, C-shape, and D-shape chords at higher frets. Take "Here Comes the Sun" by the Beatles. George Harrison played that with a capo at 7, but then played a D-shape chord, a G-shape chord, and an A7-shape chord. That puts the song in the key of A, because the root of the I chord (D-shape), is A (4th string 7th fret). It also gives the song that very high, spring-like feeling that is so suitable for the lyrics. Another one I like to play with a capo at 7 is "Hey Soul Sister" by Train. It allows me to play much higher-pitched chords, creating a sound similar to the ukulele used in the recording by Train, but using relatively simple chord shapes. That said, you can actually change the key of a song by simply figuring out the new chords, as you have sone, but just playing the open with no capo at all.
    guitardudeguy00
    There are 2 methods to work with capos. The one you described above is valid (working with semitones). My favourite approach however is using neck memorization: Say you want to play a song to sound like... DMajor but you want to play the chords of CMajor. If you play a CM chord, the root is on: the B string 1st fret or the A string 3rd fret. Knowing that, make a C chord, and slide it up until one of the roots hits a D note. Stick your capo behind your C chord and you are good to go. Another example, like the one above: you want to play what sounds like F#M with CM chords. the root of a C chord is on the B string, 1st fret. so slide up until that note becomes an F#. Stick your capo behind the chord shape you've made with your left hand, and you are in F#.
    iaceu
    Chords are formed according to this pattern: major, minor, minor, major, major, minor and 7th.
    This is not true. The pattern is: major, minor, minor, major, major, minor, diminished.
    Hence, according to the pattern, the chords in key of C will be: C, Dm, Em, F, G, Am and G7.
    This is wrong for two reasons: first, because the last chord in the sequence is not a 7th but a diminished; and second, because the last chord in the C major scale is based on B, not G. The chord sequence for the key of C Major is: C, Dm, Em, F, G, Am, Bdim.
    Key of C: C, Dm, Em, F, G, Am, G7 Key of D: D, Em, F#m, G, A, Bm, A7 Key of E: E, F#m, G#m, A, B, C#m, B7 Key of F: F, Gm, Am, Bb, C, Dm, C7 Key of G: G, Am, Bm, C, D, Em, B7 Key of A: A, Bm, C#m, D, E, F#m, E7 Key of B: B, C#m, D#m, E, F#, G#m, F#7
    Hence, this table is all wrong on the last chord. They should be Bdim, C#dim, D#dim, Edim, F#dim, G#dim, A#dim. Your first example does not change the key of the song. If played in the key of F such that it uses Dm-Bb-F-C (VI-IV-I-V), when you place the capo at the 5th fret, you will play it in the key of A# using precisely the same shapes, but instead playing the chord sequence Gm-D#-A#-F due to the capo. If you transpose as you have done, you are using the shapes of Am-F-C-G, but you are actually playing Dm-A#-F-C, which is still in the key of F (just in different positions). It is not in the key of C. If you want to actually change the song to the key of C, then the progression has to be as you said, Am-F-C-G, but played open without a capo. Of course, it could be played at another position using a capo and different shapes. For example, with the capo at 5, if I want to play Am-F-C-G, I have to use the shapes for Em-C-G-D. That will change the key.
    iaceu
    That last sentence should have been: That said, you can actually change the key of a song by simply figuring out the new chords, as you have done, but just playing them open with no capo at all.
    trevnz
    Thanks for interesting discussions using a capo and having two guitars playing the same chords but using different positions can add a depth of sound that is awesome (depth and colour maybe like a 12 string effect}. Your simple table at the top will be an easy reference for figuring that out. Thanks
    Jkudjo
    I still dont get it. What if the capo is on the 4th fret (thus F). And i want to play G major chord shapes ,taking G as my tonic , in that fret,what What key im i in. Cuz most pple capo but dnt play C shaped chords(open strings)
    bcarley4
    i am playing a song with a Capo on 3rd Fret (Standard Tuning), the chords are: Em C G D, what is that without a Capo, Standard Tuning? please help as i need to know for my exam. this is my last hope of finding out the answer to this.
    Lomedae
    I guess noone answered bcarley4 in time for his/her exams. In any case, people above have needlessly complicated the capo. Open position, standard tuning is playing in capo 0 (none). Adding a capo to each fret adds a half tone to your normal open shapes. You can mentally substitue the capo for your barre finger if it helps. So Em C G D in the 3rd fret would be Gm Eb Bb F in open position without capo.
    jessica.d.lefeb
    So when I transpose a song down 1 step (-1) in ultimate guitar, I place my capo on the first fret?
    Docschip
    So if I have the capo on 3rd fret, I'm playing in E miner, what key is this in if I wasn't using a capo
    Docschip
    I fully understand how the capo works with GCDEF, etc, but not sure about miners
    elsie.radburn.9
    I Have to play a song in E.(Begins with G#M) then E. What is an easier key I can play it with capo and still have the original key.??
    camenoj
    That makes no sense. The very act of adding the capo will change the key. That's it's entire purpose. To allow familiar chord shapes to be played in different keys.