When you play your guitar normally, the nut (which is the little black or white plastic thing with slots holding the strings in place) also does another job, it actually frets the strings for you at position zero. Think of it as fret zero. For example
when you play an Em chord you hold down the 4th and 5th strings and the nut holds down the other 4 strings for you. With all open chords, the nut is doing some of the work for you and that’s why open chords are easier to play.
A capo is bascially a ‘moveable nut’. It is a clamp device that fits on the neck to change the overall pitch of the guitar and it allows you to play open chords where normally you couldn’t.
Why Use A Capo?
Here are four reasons why you may want to use a capo, two from a playing perspective and two from a performance perspective.
From a playing perspective
First – To change the key of a song to make it more suitable for your vocal range. Using a capo to change the key of a song to suit the voice of the singer is easy understand. Everyone has a different vocal range so a song originally written to suit one singer will not neccessarily suit another singer. The capo makes it easy to change key without having to learn new chords or having to play tricky chords.
Second – To keep the song in the same key but change the chord shapes you will play. In this case it’s not the key that needs changed but the chord shapes. The key may require you to play some tricky chords or perhaps some you don’t know. Using the capo will allow you to use simple open chords. This may be encountered when you are playing along with another instrument. For example, a saxophone which is pitched to play flat notes normally. So if a song is in the key of Bb it’s ideal for the saxophone, but not for the guitar. The simple solution is for the guitar player to put a capo on the first fret and play in the key of A using all the nice ‘A’ family chords. By fitting the capo, the guitar tuning has been shifted up by one semitone so instead of an A chord, it is now an A# chord which is the same as Bb.
PLUS – To do a combination of both. You may want to change the key AND change to easier chord shapes, so in this case you use the capo to perform both tasks.
From a performance perspective.
First – To create a different voicing for the guitar. If two guitars a playing together, a way to make them sound different is to use a capo on one. This revoices the instrument and will help distinguish it from the other guitar.
Second – To create a musical break. If you’re playing solo and using regular open chords for your songs then there is a chance for your songs to start sounding similar. By using a capo on one song you revoice your guitar. This creates a different feel or mood for the song, provides a break and stops your songs sounding the same.
Types Of Capo
There have been lots of different styles of capo over the years but most capos these days fall into two main types. These are the lever type based on the Shubb design, the other being the spring type based on the Kyser design. Other types you may see are elastic strap capos, webbing strap capos, bar/gate type capos. One other excellent capo worth mentioning is the G7th capo which works on a ratchet mechanism
A Shubb Style Capo
Buying A Capo
It’s probably best sticking a with Shubb or Kyser style capo. Genuine Shubb and Kyser capos are quite expensive, around £15 for a Shubb and £17 for a Kyser, but you can buy similar designs of them quite cheaply now as their patents have expired. If you want a G7th capo you have no choice but to buy the original which will cost you around £25 at time of writing (2010).
I think it’s best to avoid the elastic strap capos as they don’t work very well and also avoid the webbing strap capos as they are bit tricky to fit although work reasonably well. A decent capo for home use should cost around £6 to £10.
A Kyser Style Capo
Fitting A Capo
The general rule for fitting a capo is the same rule you use for fretting the strings with your fingers. To produce the best tone the string should be pressed down as close as possible to the fret. This is how you fit your capo, as close to the fret as possible. Well almost!
The problem is, the capo sometimes gets in the way if it’s too close so you may need to move it back from the fret just a little to give you some room for playing. So fit your capo as close to the fret as possible, but not so close that it messes with your playing. Also, the capo should be fitted so that it’s parallel to the frets, not sitting at an angle across the strings.
A capo can affect the tuning of your guitar especially if you are playing with other musicians so sometimes you may need to fine tune to correct this, but if you are playing solo or just knocking out a few tunes at home you generally don’t need to bother.