How to Use a Capo (with Chart)

Julian Acosta
Written by
Julian Acosta
Fact-checked by
Tom Grupa

Learn to Use a Capo in 3 Easy Steps

"What's that weird-looking clamp that came with my guitar?" This is a question asked by many a beginner player, and the answer is a fairly straightforward one. That clamp is called a capo, a shortening of the Italian term "capotasto." Understanding how it works will open up a whole new world of possibilities when it comes to your playing.

So, in the interest of helping you improve your skills and learn all things guitar, today's lesson will be filling you in on what a capo is, how it works, the different varieties, and how you can get the most out of yours when you're practicing and performing.

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What is a Capo? {definition}

capo is a small clamp that fits across the neck of a stringed instrument and alters its sound. Slap one across the strings of your guitar, and you'll raise their pitch according to whichever fret you've affixed the capo.

If that sounds confusing, think about the nut of your guitar (that's the piece that divides the headstock and fretboard). Without getting too deep into the weeds here, the nut marks the end of the strings vibrational length, so when you play your strings open (from string six to string one) you get the scale tones E, A, D, G, B, and E.

Guitar capo on neck of guitar
Guitar capo on neck of guitar

The capo moves that nut up the fretboard, raising the pitch of your open position notes (and only your open position notes). Place the capo on the first fret, and you'll get F, A#, D#, G#, C, and F. Move that capo to the second fret, and you'll get F#, B, E, A, C#, and F#. It's like having a permanent barre in place along whatever fret you put it on, and you can place it wherever you need for the song that you're playing.

Now, why would this little tool come in handy for a guitarist? We mentioned that the capo raises the pitch of your guitar's open position; with your capo on, you can change the key of a song but use the easy-to-play open position chords you've already memorized instead of having to fool around with a bunch of weird chord shapes further up the guitar neck.

So, if you had your capo on fret two, that standard C Major chord shape becomes a D Major chord, your A Minor chord becomes a B minor chord, your G Major chord becomes an A Major chord, etc. This is a powerful "shortcut" for beginner players, as it enables you to play songs in varied keys, even with a limited chord memory.

How to Use a Capo

Now that you have an idea of what the capo is and how it works, you might be wondering what situations call for its use. First and foremost, you can use your capo to play songs whose original key might be giving you some difficulty. Let's face it -- some of the more advanced chord shapes are difficult to pull off, especially when you're just starting out. With your capo, you can use a greater number of your open position chords to play songs with difficult chords more fluidly (albeit, in a different key).

The ability to change keys with a capo is a gift unto itself, though, if you're playing with a group and need to play a song in a specific key. There will doubtless come a time when one of your bandmates declares, "let's try it in this key," with "that key" inevitably being one with chord shapes you haven't prepared for yet. With your capo in place, you can stay in sync with your group, even when you're messing around with playing your songs in keys you haven't had the chance to study.

There might come a time where you just want a song to sound different. Using your capo will allow you to try out new chord voicings, so if a tune is sounding stale, playing it with a capo will allow for a fresh interpretation that you might find more appealing.

If you like to play and sing, the capo will come in handy, as you can quickly experiment with a song in different keys and see which suits your voice the best -- no complicated transposition necessary. Lastly, you can throw your capo on the guitar to make playing certain melodies an easier task.

Make no mistake -- this is a tool you'll be calling upon a lot in the future. You just need to make sure you get the right one to suit your style of playing and you learn how to use it effectively.

Guitar Capo Chart

If you're still struggling with the capo concept, take a look at a capo chart and everything will start to make a bit more sense. The capo chart shows how your normal, open position chords change when you have your capo affixed to a particular fret. Notice how the A Major shape becomes B Major when you place the capo on the second fret, or D Major when you move the capo up to the fifth fret?

Capo chart
Capo chart
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This is the "magic" of the capo, and you can use charts like these to help you determine what fret you should place your capo on in order to move to a different key or get the unique sounds you want out of your guitar.

Capo Styles

There are several types of capos available, but regardless of the style, they'll usually have a rubber-covered bar to avoid damaging your strings. We recommend sticking with capos that incorporate rubber in most cases, but beyond that, you're free to experiment with different capos to determine what you like the best.

Spring-clamp capos (also called quick releases) are easy to put on and take off of your guitar, as you need only squeeze the levers to open them, then release the levers to close them. Unfortunately, though, the pressure they apply is not adjustable, which might throw your tuning off if you don't attach it to the guitar neck properly.

Guitar capo
Guitar capo

Some lever-style capos have a screw, which you'll need to tighten in order to have the capo clamp the strings snugly. Since it's adjustable, you can apply only the minimal amount of pressure you need for the capo to work its magic. This style will keep from interfering with your guitar's tuning, but also takes a bit longer to put in place since you need to operate it with both of your hands.

Then there are elastic capos that consist of a stretchy cloth and rubber-coated pole piece. You can alter the tension on these capos with minor adjustments, and they can slide up and down the guitar neck without a need for unfastening (a definite benefit if you need to change on the fly). The catch with these, though, is that the elastic band can fatigue over time, providing uneven pressure deeper into the lifespan of the capo.

Finally, you might find a partial capo to be the most useful. These capos let you cover only a few strings at a time, or target specific strings to create new pitch variations without having to retune your instrument. With the right combinations, you'll be able to play some of your most commonly used chords with just a finger, and come up with some unique tunings that will add a bit of flair to the songs you're playing.

Which Capo is Right for Me?

Regardless of which style of capo fits your fancy, there are a few considerations you'll want to bear in mind before purchasing one:

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  1. What size is right for me?

  2. Will the capo interfere with my playing in any way?

  3. Is the capo adjustable?

  4. How easy is the capo to use/adjust?

  5. Can the capo hold down the guitar strings evenly?

If you're the kind who values aesthetics, you might also want to take into consideration the look of your capo. You might find that certain styles more visually appealing than others, and there are even "vanity capos" with decorative elements that make them look even classier. Just remember, you'll be paying a premium for looking stylish, and those enhanced aesthetics won't have any sway over how well the capo works!

Tips to Using a Capo

As we touched on above, the manner in which you affix your capo to the guitar neck will depend on what type you have. There is, however, one golden rule you should observe, regardless of the particular style of capo: keep it even.

If your capo goes on in an unbalanced manner, it's liable to apply uneven pressure across the strings. The result? You might have some of your strings muted, and won't be able to play them open position (defeating the purpose of using your capo). Alternatively, you might also bend a string or two inadvertently, which will affect their tuning and make your notes sound dissonant while you're playing.

To ensure an even fit, take care when you're putting your capo on your guitar, and practice frequently to ensure you can engage and remove your capo without hassle.

Easy Guitar Songs with a Capo

Do you have your capo nearby? Good. Try some of these songs on for size to get used to playing with your capo in different positions on the fretboard:

  • The Doobie Brothers, "What a Fool Believes." Capo on 1st fret

  • Everlast, "Stone in My Hand." Capo on 2nd fret

  • The Beatles, "Norwegian Wood." Capo on 2nd fret

In time, using a capo will become second nature. Remember to choose the right capo for you, and take the time to place it on properly before you begin. As always, happy practicing!