“Hold on, I’ve got to put my guitar capo on for this next one,” says your favorite singer before he launches into your favorite song. Ever wonder what that strange little device he’s clamping to his guitar neck is used for? You wouldn’t be the first.
Guitar capos, in their simplest definition, are used to raise the pitch of guitars and other stringed instruments, such as banjos and mandolins. Most guitar capos consist of a rubber-covered bar clamped tightly to the strings on the fretboard via an elastic band, a spring-loaded clamp or a screw clamp. For a practical example, the following is a photo of a spring-loaded Kyser guitar capo placed on the second fret:
While a guitar in standard tuning would be tuned (from low to high) E-A-D-G-B-E, the capo at the second fret raises each string one whole pitch to leave the guitar tuned F#-B-E-A-C#-F#. Guitar capos allow you to raise the pitch of the strings without actually tuning the guitar higher, which would apply dangerous added stress to the neck.
But how can guitar capos really help you?
Here’s an example: Say you want to cover a song originally in the key of G that uses the chords G, C and D through the entire song. However, when you try to sing it in the key of G, you discover that the range of singing is too low for your voice. You also find that you sing best when the song is in the key of Bb, meaning you need to play Bb, Eb and F to match the original song. Playing those barre chords, however, just doesn’t sound as good as when you played the open forms of G, C and D. The solution? Slap a guitar capo on the third fret, which will raise the pitch of all the strings one-and-a-half steps, meaning that when you use the fingerings for G, C and D at the capo, the guitar sounds like you’re playing Bb, Eb and F. Voila! Problem solved (and it’s much easier to play!)
In recent times, the guitar capo has increasingly been used more creatively. Here’s another example: You really enjoy playing in “Drop D” style (where the low E is tuned down to D), but the song you want to use this playing style for is in the key of E. Have you reached an impasse? Not with a capo! Simply put a spring loaded capo on the second fret covering all the stings except the low E like this:
Now, you’ve created your own “Drop E” style, without even having to adjust the tuning of the guitar. Other players have developed other styles by placing capos on some strings but not all to come up with new sounds you just can’t get out of a guitar in standard tuning.
But which is the best guitar capo for you? It really depends which one best fits your playing style. Many players prefer the ease of use of a trigger guitar capo, as it’s easy to move from fret to fret and only has one enclosed side, making it easy to use for special styles like the aforementioned “Drop E.” Others choose capos with elastic bands, especially as their acoustic guitar capo, to provide a little more stability. The best advice is to go to the music store and try a few different kinds and see which one best fits your style and is most comfortable for you. Then take it home and see what kind of new sounds you can get out of your old guitar.
The Guitar capo chord chart below shows how a capo changes a chord when placed behind various frets on a guitar fretboard.
Guitar capos will change a lot of the rules we have come to learn about the fingerboard.