Before getting into some applications with the capo, lets get some basics out of the way.
1) Put the capo as close to the forward most fret (bar) as possible without
disturbing your fingering. Put it on and play a bit to make sure it feels
good where you put it, and that you hear no “buzz” from the open strings.
2) Put the capo on “perpendicular”. Make sure it is not angled. Also, make
sure it is on fairly tight. Some capos are adjustable, if so, make sure it is
on tight enough to secure good tuning. A moving capo may put the strings
out of tune.
3) Tune the guitar after you capo! The positioning of the capo will affect the
tuning. Of course this will depend on the guitar you are using and other
things as well. But, I would recommend you make a habit of this.
Kinds of capos:
There are several kinds of capos. I myself have a few. I primarily use the Shubb adjustable made of stainless steel (I use this mostly for recording sessions). I also use the Kyser quick capo (usually for “live” performance).
I also may use 2 capos (or have handy) for live playing if there is a particular key change. There are also “partial” capos, “cut” capos, and probably a whole bunch others!
Now, some applications:
The applications I will present go basically from simple, to more advanced.
So, if a particular application does not apply to you, move on.
If you are a guitarist who plays mostly solo (by yourself), or a beginner, the following may work for you.
For beginners, I might recommend you try a capo if your guitar is physically difficult to play. Often, a beginning guitar (usually a less costly guitar) has strings that are further off the fingerboard, especially in the open, and first positions (the nut of the guitar might be placed too high). Even some good guitars are made this way for better sound. When I taught private guitar (and my wife taught as well) we would recommend this to students (especially young ones) to try this before purchasing another guitar.
For more advanced players, I might recommend the capo for solo guitar pieces, even classical. I realize the classical mentality is to do pieces “as written”, but, much guitar literature is a transcription for guitar, from something else such as a Lute, Harpsichord or other instruments. Knowing music history as I do, I do not think the composers/arrangers would mind, and….well…do they have a choice!
I myself like to do many Bach pieces that are written in “G”, capo’d on the 2nd fret (in “A”). I like the sound there better as it is less muddy (rolls off some low end). Of course this all depends on the guitar you are using, as they are all different, and you just have to experiment a bit to see what works for you. The higher you position the capo (moving forward, towards you), the less bass you will have, and the more the sound moves towards something like a mandolin. I will get more into applying this below.
You need to know this:
The difference from 1 fret to another (on the same string), either up, or down is called a “half step” (or “semitone“). So, if you position your capo on the first fret, all of the open strings will now sound ½ step higher (low “E” becomes “F”). Doing songs in a different key than originally notated become easier with this device, of course,…depending on the song style.
Let’s say you have a song with 3 chords: G / C / D.
Now, if you place the capo on the 2nd fret, you can play the same chords (chord “shapes”) and it will “sound” in the key of “A”: A / D / E.
Keep in mind the chord “shape” (how you finger the chord) remains the same, the chord “sound” changes!
If you wanted to use the same chord shapes but play those chords in the key of “Bb” you would place the capo on the 3rd fret, playing the same G / C / D chord shapes giving you Bb / Eb / F….Make sense?
Let’s take it a step further:
You could also place the capo on the 1st fret and play an “A” chord (standard “A” open chord shape) and it would sound Bb! You can play any open chord you know and do the same. Try it with a “C” chord, a “D”, etc… Fun huh?
This same logic can be also used in learning “Barre Chords” where your first finger in a sense becomes the capo, but with less of the “open string” sound.
One thing I must advise:
If you use a capo primarily to avoid learning other keys and chords, I would recommend you reconsider this. If your goal is to be a better overall guitarist and musician, learning those other keys and chords is a must. For quite a number of styles a capo can be a bit of a chore to use and move around. Certainly musical styles that have key changes and or modulatory type chord progressions (let’s just say “more“ chords, or more “complex“ chords like a G13 (b9), etc.). So, consider learning those chords and keys also!
More applications (recording and performing):
The capo is an invaluable tool in recording. Many “unplugged”, New Acoustic styles do not incorporate drum kits, electric bass and other instruments that can tend to eat up a lot of the sonic “area” for acoustic guitar(s). This situation allows for some very creative usage of the capo as a
“guitar orchestrating” tool.
For example, I may use 3+ recording tracks of acoustic guitar combining nylon and steel string guitars. Each track will contain the same basic chords but played in different positions and/or inversions, even different tunings using the capo to create different voicings. There are many combinations that can be used, and in doing this you can create Harp type effects, and other instruments such as Mandolin. The combined harmonies create a Pandiatonic harmonic effect (don’t worry about knowing this term for now), yet still staying in spec with the original harmonies.
If you have 2-3 tracks to record on try this simple experiment:
1) Play a regular, open “G” chord, (or G5) with just quarter notes (1 strum
per beat - keep the tempo fairly slow for now), and just do a few
measures. Keep/save that track.
2) For the 2nd track place your capo on the 5th fret and play a “D” (or D2)
chord with the same rhythm and tempo, avoiding hitting the low “E“ (6th
String), and the 5th string (“A). Keep/save the 2 tracks.
Now, you could stop here and it and it should sound kinda cool!
Or you can…
3) Place your capo on the 10th fret and play an “A” (or A2) chord
combined with the first 2 tracks.
Now, if you can “pan” (space) your tracks on your recording unit, I would recommend putting the 1st “center”, the second all the way to the left (hard left as they say), the 3rd guitar hard right. Check it out.
With different guitars (steel string, nylon, etc,) you can get some great sounds!
If you used the “2”chords technically you are doing a little more than a straight “G” chord (triad). You are doing a “G2” or “G add 9” but do not worry about this for now, the combined sound will work in most cases where a basic “G” chord is asked for. If you want or need a “term” for this combined sound, you may call it “Pandiatonic”. Some theorist also use the term “Plurality” chords/harmony. For now, don’t worry about that.
If you have a simple recording unit you can do some very pleasant sounds this way.
Now, the arranger in me wants to add: If you do this for recording projects, keep in mind you do not have to do this all the way through a song.
You may opt. for starting with this as an “Intro“ (just using the chords, say from the Verse, or even the chords from the Chorus as a kind of “hint”), but when the actual first verse starts you have just the melody with 1 guitar accompanying. The combinations are near endless, and “arranging” this way will be for another discussion.
“But I don’t record” you say!…Another (“live”) application:
I have also done this technique in church worship bands where there are 2 guitars, especially 2 acoustics. If there are several instruments playing chords (harmonic drivers), I may opt for capoing (especially on higher frets), and playing high chords, somewhat mandolin like. This is one of my favorite things in a folk, alternative worship band setting. Not only do I do this because it sounds cool, BUT, it can also help the overall sound, and especially help with the vocals because you (and hopefully others) are NOT playing all the chords in the same register. You are helping to create some “harmonic space” (a cool term to throw on em!). Everyone playing in the same harmonic space is a rather large problem in many church bands (and again, for another discussion). Non-the-less, try this…
Let’s say your song again uses G / C / D, and let’s throw in an Emi.
Let your other guitarist (assuming there are 2) play the chords as is.
You place the capo on the 7th fret and play these chord shapes: C / F / G / Ami.
Be sure and practice this BEFORE rehearsal.
For me, I like to use the capo for “sonic” reasons, less than for convenience. Not that convenience is wrong, often it is the best, and faster solution.
The sonic reasons may be somewhat obvious - taking advantage of the “open” strings which on a good acoustic guitar can be heavenly!
If you do use a capo frequently, I would also highly recommend learning “transpositions“. I know some printed music charts tell you where to capo. But I have found misprints on those charts, especially the lyric/chord symbol types. So, knowing transpositions is a very good thing, and not that difficult to learn! Some companies sell “transposing guides”, such as Shubb:
A free guide is available here: http://www.bigcitystrings.com/capo.htm