What is a capo? If you’re wondering what this handy little accessory actually does, and how best to use it, then you’re in the right place!
In this article, you’ll learn exactly what a capo is and how to use it, 7 reasons you NEED one, the pros and cons of each of the different styles available, and there’s also a free chart showing how a guitar capo affects your tuning. Later on, I’ll even show you how to make your very own DIY capo at home!
This is a fairly lengthy article, so why not use the links below to skip to the section that you’re interested in? Otherwise, settle in and we’ll get down to business!
Table of Contents
- What Exactly IS a Capo?
- How To Use A Capo
- What are the Different Types of Capo?
- Why Use a Capo on Guitar? 7 Amazing Benefits
- Capo Chart for Guitar
- What is the Best Capo?
- How To Make a DIY Capo
- 10 Best Songs That Use a Capo
- Frequently Asked Questions
What Is A Capo?
A capo is a popular accessory for guitar that is used to temporarily shorten the length of the strings, thereby raising the pitch of the open strings. The device does this by clamping down across the fingerboard at a specific fret, essentially acting as a moveable nut.
You can also think of it in terms of a barre chord shape. The capo is a type of guitar clamp that does the job that your index finger would usually do when playing a barre chord.
How To Use A Capo
To use a capo on guitar, simply place it behind the fret that you wish to act as the new nut. The way that the capo clamps on to your guitar will vary depending on the design that you opt for. The most common style (a trigger capo) uses springs to place an even tension across all strings.
So, for example, if you were to place the guitar capo at the third fret (like I have done in the photo below) it would raise the pitch by 3 frets (i.e. 3 half steps). This means that if you were tuned to standard pitch (E,A,D,G,B,E), you would now be in G,C,F,A#,D,G.
The main advantage here is that you are able to easily play songs in different keys using the same open chord shapes that you are already used to. Without using one you may have to resort to using barre chords, or other chord voicings which do not have the same pleasing tone and resonant qualities of an open chord shape.
Plus, playing a barre chord is just not fun for beginners!
When the device is clamped onto your guitar, you will not be able to use any of the frets behind the capo. Unless you are using a partial capo, that is – more on them below!
Keeping with our third fret capo example above, playing an E major chord shape will now produce a G Major chord. Playing an A Minor chord will now give a C Minor.
What Are The Different Types of Capo Designs?
Who knew there were so many different styles of capos available!? In this section, we’ll look at them all and outline their pros and cons.
1. Trigger Capos
These are the type of capo that you will probably see used the most often. They are a very simple design and, as a result, very affordable. This makes them ideal for players looking to try their first capo.
The device is clamped in place by a spring, and is super-easy to use with just one hand.
The downside to this design is that the strength of the spring is not adjustable. So you may end up with a guitar capo that is either too weak or too strong, resulting in tuning issues or string buzz.
2. Adjustable Screw Capos
Unlike the trigger design above, the tension of a screw capo can be adjusted. This is done by rotating the screw to either add or remove clamping strength. This gives a big advantage as you are able to dial in the exact pressure needed to get good clean notes.
The downside to this style is that they are more cumbersome to use than most of the others. It takes longer to put them in place and dial in the perfect pressure.
A great option, but ensure to consider if the additional time required will affect you.
3. Toggle Capos
Featuring another very simple design, a toggle capo utilizes an adjustable strap to clamp itself in place. There are several slots in the device so that the length of the strap can be adjusted incrementally, like a belt. This means that in theory, they should work on any size neck, and in any position.
These are also one of the smallest, and most lightweight capo designs available. An appealing advantage for many.
A downside is that you don’t have the precise control which you get with the screw capo above. You might find that the perfect strap length is situated somewhere between two settings – not ideal!
The strap will also naturally stretch over time, and may even break eventually. Luckily they are very inexpensive to replace.
4. Strap Capos
Strap capos are a similar design to toggle models. They are simply a bar with a slightly elastic strap attached to it.
Tension is adjusted by slotting holes in the strap over a button at the end of the bar.
They are generally less adjustable than toggle capos and also tend to wear out faster, so it’s pretty difficult to recommend them over the other choices in this list!
Their main selling point is that they are super cheap to buy. They are also available in a ton of different colors.
5. Roller Capos
A roller capo is a fairly niche design, but has some awesome functions that set them apart from the rest of the crowd.
Firstly, you can roll it around the fretboard on the fly, allowing you to move the nut while still playing. This can create some really interesting and unusual sounds to help invigorate your songwriting.
Secondly, you can leave it on your guitar all of the time. When not in use, simply roll it on top of the nut to go back to open string playing.
The main downside is the same as a trigger design – the tension is not adjustable. A fun and unique style to try out regardless!
6. Yoke-Style Capos
A yoke-style capo is similar to the screw design above in that it uses a screw to precisely dial in the clamping pressure. However, unlike a screw capo, this design wraps completely around the neck.
The benefit here is that the screw is located dead-center in the middle of the neck, allowing for a very even pressure to be applied.
Disadvantages are that they tend to be more expensive, and are also a little more fiddly to use than others.
7. Shubb Capos
The Shubb capo gives you the speed and ease of use of a trigger style model, and combines that with the precise adjustability of a screw capo. The best of both worlds!
It quickly clamps onto the guitar neck, and the pressure can be precisely dialed in using a screw on the back of the device.
There aren’t many downsides to a Shubb capo, but they do cost roughly twice the price of most of the other designs above.
8. G7th Capos
The G7th is kind of like the Tesla of the guitar capo world; a premium, engineering marvel, chock full of innovative features.
Like the Shubbs, the G7ths are both easy to use, and precisely adjustable.
Their unique tension control system eliminates the need for an awkward screw entirely. Simply place the device on the fretboard and squeeze it closed at the exact tension needed. The G7th will automatically stay clamped at whatever pressure your hand dictates.
A simple lever at the back releases the device again. It’s super easy to use with just one hand and works flawlessly.
There are two downsides. Firstly, as you’d expect of a premium product, they do cost a lot more than your average model. And secondly (if this is even a con!), because they’re built like a tank, they do also weigh a little more.
9. Partial Capo
A partial capo is exactly as the name suggests, i.e. they do not clamp every string. They allow players to create some really unique sounds that would normally be impossible on a regular guitar.
They can also be useful for beginners trying to learn different chord shapes for the first time, allowing many chords to be played with just one finger. In addition, a partial capo allows alternate tunings to be used without retuning.
Various styles of partial capos are available, from designs that clamp all but the low E, to others that cover only a single string.
10. Spider Capo
What list of capos would be complete without mentioning the spider capo? This insane design lets you clamp each string individually, and on the fly whilst still playing, opening up a whole new world of tuning possibilities.
Use it as a regular capo, or go mad and clamp whichever guitar strings you please.
Definitely only for advanced players who really want to get experimental with their playing!
Now that you know what a guitar capo does, let’s look at 7 reasons why you need one of these little guitar clamp things in your toolbox!
Why Use a Capo on Guitar? 7 Amazing Benefits
1. Play MORE Songs Using LESS Chords
That’s right, if you use one of these guitar clamps you can massively increase your repertoire without the hassle of needing to learn a ton of different chord shapes and chord voicings!
As I’ve already mentioned above, the guitar capo will allow you to play open chord shapes and notes from whatever fret you have barred the neck. This means that even if you only know a few basic open chords, you can use these same shapes with a capo to instantly play in a different key. No pesky barre chords needed!
To give an example, say you’re new to guitar and only know 3 basic chord names so far – G, C, and D. You’re limited to being able to play songs that use only those 3 chords, right? Well, not if you have a guitar capo!
Use the device at the 2nd fret and you can suddenly play songs which consist of A, D, and E! Clamp it at the 5th fret and you can now play songs using C, F, and G. And so on, and so forth.
Check out my handy diagram below which illustrates how the chords will change depending on where you place the device.
2. Easily Change the Key of a Song
In a similar vein to advantage number one above, we can also use one of these little clamps to change the key of a song, for example, to match a specific singer’s vocal range.
Let’s say you already know how to play a song where the original singer has a deep, baritone range. Your band wants to cover that song, but your vocalist is more of a tenor and struggles to sing it in the original, lower key.
The simple fix is to use a capo to raise the pitch of the song. This way you can play the song exactly as before without having to relearn it in a whole different key. Easy!
Famously, Don Felder of the Eagles originally wrote ‘Hotel California’ in the key of E Minor. This turned out to be way too high for Don Henley to sing, and as a result, he ended up capoing the 7th fret. So, the song is now in B Minor but is played as if it were still in E Minor.
3. It Makes It Easier To Play!
Unless you have shovels for hands, playing chords using a capo can make them more comfortable and easier to play. This is because the distance between the frets is now smaller and more easily manageable for most.
Furthermore, because they are easier to play, it is also generally easier to move between different chords as well.
You can essentially achieve the same playing ergonomics as a shorter-scale instrument. Learn more about how scale length affects playability.
4. Helps Reduce Finger Pain
An additional benefit to the device making chords easier to play is also felt in the fingers. This is because playing higher on the neck puts less pressure on the fingers and fingertips.
Because the stretches required for chords and melodies are less, it also means that you won’t have to press down quite as hard to properly sound each note. Playing the dreaded barre chord becomes easier, for example.
This also makes practicing with a guitar capo ideal for newer players who haven’t yet developed the finger calluses to play things like barre chords without discomfort.
5. Reduced Muscle Fatigue
As we’ve already touched on above, one of the major benefits of using a capo is that we can use open chord shapes further up the fingerboard.
If we weren’t using one, we would be forced to use more barre chords and other tricky shapes. For beginners especially, barre chords are far more tiring to play versus open chords.
For a newer player where hand strength is less developed, this could go a long way towards helping practice sessions last longer and become more productive. You’ll still need to learn those barre chords at some point though!
6. Gives A Brighter Sound
Placing a capo on the fingerboard will also affect the color of the notes produced. The higher you clamp the device, the thinner and brighter the chord voicings will sound. Place it high enough and you can end up with a sound similar to that of a much shorter scale length instrument, such as a mandolin!
An awesome effect can be created if you have two guitarists playing the same parts. One can play the song without using a capo, and the other plays the same chords, but with a capo higher up on the fretboard. This offers up a really cool texture to your sound!
7. Some Things Are IMPOSSIBLE Without One!
An example song that is often bandied around is the introduction to the James Taylor song ‘Fire and Rain‘. The song is in the key of A, but in order to suit his vocal range, Taylor plays it with a capo, raising it to C.
It would not be possible to play this song without a guitar capo as the open strings needed for the song simply do not exist in C! They’re only available in A.
Capo Chart For Guitar
Use my handy capo chart for guitar below to figure out how the different keys will change depending on which fret you place the device. A little ‘cheat sheet’ for you!
For example, let’s say that you know a song in A, but you need to now play it in D. Following the chart, you can see that to go from A to D you will need to use the device at the 5th fret.
A further use of the guitar capo chart is to figure out what chords you’re actually playing. For example, imagine you clamp the device at the third fret and you’re playing an E Major chord shape. Using the chart we can see that you’re actually playing a G Major chord!
What Is The Best Capo?
You’ll need to weigh up the pros and cons of each style above, but my personal favorite is the G7th Performance model. I say favorite, but it’s actually the only capo I’ve ever owned. Although working in a guitar store, I have tried them all!
It’s not cheap as far as capos go, but it’s definitely a case of ‘you get what you pay for’. It’s a flawless product and I really have no idea how they can further improve it – although I’m sure they will!
To use, it could not be any simpler. Apply the required tension by squeezing with your hand, and hit the lever to release.
The latest model (the G7th Performance 3) is actually even better than my original model. It now offers further improved tuning stability by mechanically adapting to match the radius of your guitar. Wizardry!
It’s a phenomenal piece of engineering that will almost certainly last you a lifetime. Check out the review video below for what I believe is the best capo overall.
Homemade DIY Capo
If you don’t fancy dropping some fat stacks on a G7th, or you’re in a pinch and need something quick and dirty, here’s the classic, tried and tested homemade capo solution!
How to make a capo? All you’ll need is a pen or pencil and some rubber bands.
- Grab your pen or pencil and position it at the fret you want to clamp.
- Going around the back of the neck, hook the rubber band over the ends of the pen or pencil.
- Pick each string to make sure that they are all ringing clearly.
- If more tension is needed, double it up, or add more rubber bands. If less tension is needed, find a weaker band.
Here’s one I made earlier. An Ikea pencil is the ideal size for a regular 6-string guitar!
Simple! It’s a bit of a janky solution but should get you by in a pinch.
10 Best Songs That Use A Capo
Here’s a list of a few well-known songs that are played with a capo. I have linked to the chords so that you can easily try them out.
- Hotel California – The Eagles – Capo 7 – chords link
- Oasis – Wonderwall – Capo 2 – chords link
- The Beatles – Here Comes The Sun – Capo 7 – chords link
- Fleetwood Mac – The Chain – Capo 2 – chords link
- Dolly Parton – Jolene – Capo 2 – chords link
- Jeff Buckley – Hallelujah – Capo 5 – chords link
- James Blunt – You’re Beautiful – Capo 8 – chords link
- Tom Petty – Free Fallin’ – Capo 3 – chords link
- Tracy Chapman – Fast Car – Capo 2 – chords link
- Jason Mraz – I’m Yours – Capo 4 – chords link
Find more songs that use a capo in my guide to easy tunes to play on guitar.
Frequently Asked Questions
Where Do You Place A Capo?
The capo should be placed just behind the fret wire. The space between the device and fret wire should be small, but be careful not to place it directly on top of the fret. Placing the capo too far back will cause your guitar to sound sharp.
Why Does My Guitar Sound Out Of Tune When Using A Capo?
If your guitar sounds out of tune while using a capo it is likely because it is using too much pressure, causing the pitch of the notes to raise slightly. If your capo allows it, reduce the clamping pressure until the chords sound correct.
If you have placed the device too far back from the fret wire this can also bend the strings slightly out of tune. In addition, old and worn strings can cause issues when using a capo – remember to change your strings regularly!
Alternatively, you should also check the intonation of your guitar. If your guitar is not properly intonated, notes will sound more and more out of tune the further up the fingerboard you go. This issue will only be highlighted through the use of a capo. Consider a guitar setup if you think this might be your issue.
Finally, it could just be that you have a bad/cheap capo! I’d recommend investing in a quality option like the G7th capo I spoke about above if you are going to be regularly using one.
Why Is My Guitar Buzzing With A Capo?
If your guitar strings are buzzing when using a capo then it is likely not exerting enough pressure to allow the notes to clearly ring out. If your capo allows for it, increase the clamping pressure until each note can clearly be heard.
Also, make sure that the device is close to the fret wire itself.
Is A Capo Cheating?
Although some people refer to capos as ‘cheaters’, this is a rather small-minded viewpoint. These devices are just another tool in a guitarist’s toolbox, and can be used to great effect to play in different keys, or spice up your playing.
Do I Need A Capo As a Beginner?
Absolutely not! However, a capo can be used to make the learning process a little easier on beginner’s fingers. Putting a capo on the fretboard brings the frets closer together, making chords and notes require less effort to correctly finger.
If you have small hands it might be worth utilizing a capo until you develop better dexterity, as playing with too much tension can really harm your playing in the long run!
Where Do You Put A Capo When Not In Use?
When playing live, you can simply clamp your device onto the headstock when not in use. Most modern designs will allow you to easily do this. Other, smaller capos, such as strap or toggle capos can easily be stored in a pocket.
What Does Capo Mean?
Capo comes from the Latin word ‘caput‘, which means ‘head‘. It is still occasionally used in modern-day Italian and is also translated most commonly as ‘head’.
It is pronounced Kaa-Po, although I’d say that probably 90% of guitarists say Kay-Po!
Find out what else you might be mispronouncing in my article
21 Guitar Brand Names That You’re Probably Pronouncing Wrong!
Do Capos Ruin Guitars?
If you’re not careful, a capo could damage your guitar. The constant contact of strings can put extra wear and tear on your frets, plus you can also damage the finish on the neck. To minimize this risk, make sure to utilize the minimum amount of tension required to correctly use your device.