Category Archives: Guitar Lessons

The Capo. Use it, it’s good.

There are some differing opinions on the capo within the guitarist universe. Some like it, some despise it. Others refuse to even acknowledge that they exist. Granted, the capo has kind of gotten a bad wrap. It’s what everybody associates with YouTube covers of songs that need the keys changed and the only chords the artist knows are the 4 in the song, but not in that key cause they can’t sing it. So, you know, capo and still play those 4 chords and be able to sing. Don’t learn to play those chords without a capo somewhere else on the neck. You need to know all of those chords. All of them. Everywhere. First of all: I don’t disagree. Secondly, for those of you out there that are just starting out, don’t worry. There are only 5 chord shapes on the guitar. C-A-G-E-D. Every other chord you come across is a derivative of these shapes. Whether it’s major, minor, diminished, min9, Dom7(b9) they’re all derived from those 5 shapes anywhere on the neck.

Thirdly: I have to think that if the capo, which has been around almost as long as the guitar (check it), was meant to be used and used well. Why? Science. And some other stuff, but mostly science.

The guitar is a chordophone. This is a way of categorizing instruments into groups for the use of study. It basically means that there are strings that are stretched over a resonating chamber (the guitar’s body) that are either struck, plucked or bowed in order to make sound. The guitar is ideally at it’s best when played in keys that incorporate it’s own natural resonance. If you’ll notice in the above paragraph, the 5 chord shapes that I mentioned are also, not coincidentally, the keys that the guitar works the best in, in relationship to the open sound of the guitar. Granted there are some flat key tonal centers that can use an open string here or there. Eb, Bb, Ab for example, but the more that you close the guitar off from it’s natural tendencies the more difficult it becomes to produce that sympathetic sound and thus the brilliance of the capo.

Stylistically there are some musics that don’t really lend themselves to a capo. Jazz is one of them, but I have to wonder, out loud, if that is because nobody’s really tried? As an instrument that carries a 3-fold responsibility in a Jazz combo or big-band setting (solo instrument, rhythm, chords), the guitar’s openness is often subdued in order to accent the percussive elements of its nature. Though modern Jazz composers and guitarists are often substituting the open string sound by incorporating it into their chordal alterations which creates a generous and wonderful sound and clash of overtones. Try it sometime. But, in terms of the capo, the Jazz medium is one that doesn’t really work well that I’ve seen. Yet. Where it shines is in the pop, country, bluegrass, and rock settings. This is because that most of these genres incorporate only slight variations on the CAGED system, which makes for very easy transposition to an alternate key while maintaining the guitar’s idosyncratic nature. A song played in the key of Bb will sound better capoed at the 1st fret and played in A or the 3rd fret and played in G in order keep those resonant qualities. This in NO way diminishes the artists’ ability on the instrument. And if you’ve been told that you’re not a “guitar” player because you use a capo, that’s just not true. In fact, point them to the fact that the capo has been around for at least 320 years and that all that history has to count for something.

We’re all at different places when it comes to our craft. The guitar has been made competitive by those that have something to prove. Art doesn’t have anything to prove and neither does a craft specifically. You are at your own pace. Nobody is racing you. They’re racing them selves. Take your time and learn it at your tempo and if that includes a capo, trust me, you’ll actually be a better musician for it.

-JTV