The Heartwood Beat, Issue 8: Capo Land

It's a different key, after all.Hi Musicians,

First of all, I’d like to welcome all the people who signed up for the newsletter recently. We’re coming up on one thousand subscribers! Holy cow!

I’ve been traveling a lot this past month, and The Heartwood Beat went into cardiac arrest as a result. Thanks for your patience.

To my amazement, several readers have been clamoring for some more music theory, so I’ve decided to dedicate this newsletter to celebrating the weird and wonderful Land of Capo. For you total beginners, the capo is a clamp you put on your fretboard that enables you to, among other things, change keys without changing chord shapes. Speaking of which, this newsletter is geared toward beginners, so the rest of you can go back to working on your fingerstyle interpretation of Van Halen’s “Eruption.”

In particular, I hope to teach you how to use a capo without getting your butt whooped. This topic occurred to me last week when one of my students recounted a conversation she had with her singing teacher. It went something like this:


Professionally-Trained Singing Teacher, Who’s Unaccustomed To Dealing With Guitarists (PTSTWUTDWG): Oh, I love “Dark as a Dungeon!” What key do you usually sing it in?

My Poor, Unsuspecting Guitar Student (MPUGS): Um…well, I do capo 4, but I play it in G.

PTSTWUTDWG: So you play it in G?

MPUGS: Yeah, but capo 4.

PTSTWUTDWG (sweat forming on her brow): So is it in G or not?

MPUGS: Well, see, I play it in G like this (puts the capo on 4th fret and strums a chord), but the capo’s on the 4th fret.

PTSTWUTDWG: That’s not a G chord (plays a G chord on the piano). THAT’s a G chord

MPUGS: Yeah, this G’s different ‘cause it’s capo 4.

Long Silence…


The problem? MPUGS was in Capo Land, where the grass is blue, the sky is green, international disputes are solved by games of checkers, and Angus Young plays french horn for the Danville Community Orchestra.

To put it more simply, the capo creates an illusion that you’re playing a certain chord, or that you’re in a certain key, but you’re not. And in order to bridge the cultural gap between the Capolese people and the Notguitaristians, you must do this simple thing:

Understand the difference between CHORDS and CHORD SHAPES.

Take the C chord. If you’re a beginning guitarist, you probably know just one way to play that chord. But this isn’t the only way to play a C chord—you could play it in dozens of different places up and down the neck. C chords, like most chords beginners learn, just require three notes—C, E, and G in this case—and combinations of these notes are found all over the place on the fretboard.

The problem is, beginners don’t think of a C chord in terms of “C, E, and G.” Instead, they picture the shape of the chord on the fretboard.

So when my poor guitar student (it was all my fault, so let’s call her My Poorly-Educated Guitar Student (MPEGS)) tried to explain to her singing teacher what key she was playing in, what she should have said was…


MPEGS: Um…well, I play it in Capo 4 using G chord shapes.

PTSTWUTDWG: So what key is it in?


And the answer to that question will be the topic of the next newsletter.

Until then, my Capolese comrades,

May all your B-flat chords have G shapes.


Comments 23

    1. i thought the same in my early days of learnin the gutar.. but nw girls are flattered when i play a love song on the guitar.. in ur case a guy would surely gt flattered … 😛 jst try nuthing is imposible… 🙂


  1. Heh, a similar thing happened to me this week. I keep my guitar tuned to E-flat, and most of my band’s songs are written that way, so they’re in A-flat or E-flat or whatever.

    I was at a jam and trying to show the changes for one of our songs to a couple of other musicians and I blanked on how to transpose it. I play the song as if it’s in they key of G, and I started telling them it was in A-flat…

    Fortunately a tenor sax player knew his stuff better than me, and cottoned to the fact the song is in G-flat.

    I started tuning my guitar to E-flat when I wasn’t playing with others very often. Now that I am, I’m considering going back to regular tuning, it might be more hassle than it’s worth.

  2. Dear Rob,
    I just wanted to write & thank you for having
    something this time to help us ( Beginners)
    Seems like everything is for the more advanced players & we get left strugling trying to figure out what to do. This Capo things is really interesting to me to learn.
    Thank You Again

  3. My friends who play other stringed instruments say, “You guitar players with your capos are very frustrating to us!” In a group, I’ve found it’s easier just to decide first in what key we’re going to play a song and then surreptitiously transpose the song to an easy fingering + capo.

  4. Oh, I need this next newsletter! Please, please hurry, Rob! My guitar jamming partner (aka my neighbour across the hall) does not own a capo and is still deciding if he wants one (’cause he’s 21 and he’s not sure if it will wreck his “cool,” I think). So we can only play about half the songs I want to sing…

  5. Hi Rob

    Just dropped in from australia.
    Good to see an article on capos. I love them these days, I worked as jazz player for years and never used them. As I play across styles now, I reckon they are fantastic. Learn a song in two keys and within a half a dozen frets you can accompany anyone.

    I use a schubb, but I got myself a 12 string one, it suits my guitars better and also I put it on upside down. This enables me to have better intonation, I don’t have to screw it on so tight. When I use capos with a band I’ve always been very careful how tight the tension is, if not, you put everyone out of tune. I used to work with a singer guitarist that used a kayser (good capo) but he never got the tension right. The master of capos is David Wilcox, the fantastic open tuner (not the Canadian blues guy, he’s also good.

    Thanks for another good article.

    Keep music live

    Tony Hogan

  6. Is there any reason *not* to use a Capo – I mean it makes life easier doesn’t it and if you can figure out what key to tell eveyone else to play then they shouldn’t care what you’re actually playing that much! 🙂

    Nice blog btw – v. helpful to a fool like me…

  7. Wait, if you capo on the 4th and play a G chord, isn’t it a B major, now?
    I’m still learning, but:
    Write a song in G Major.
    Capo the first fret and move down, now it’s G#
    Capo the second fret, now it’s an A.
    Capo the third fret, now it’s A#/Bb
    Capo the fourth, now it’s a B, right?
    Or was your last statement a red herring? 🙂

  8. Hey Mike,

    Shhhh! Keep it down or everyone’s going to start emailing YOU their music theory questions.

    You’re right–MPEGS shouldn’t have been calling her chord a G chord. It was a B chord using a G shape.

    Full explanation coming soon…


  9. All I know about my capo is that I use it whenever the song I’m playing calls for it. I have another question re: the capo… lets say I’m playing a song a guy sings, but I want to sing it higher. Is it just a matter of taking the capo down a couple frets? How do I know where to place the capo to go with the key that I can sing in? Does that make sense?

  10. Hi August,

    I think you mean move the capo UP a couple frets (toward the body of the guitar). If so, then yes, just keep scooting the capo up until you find a key that sounds good with your voice. Use trial and error.

    You can change the key in other ways, too–by transposing the song–but that takes some more advanced knowledge. Check out my newsletters on chord families for a little lesson on that. Using this technique will help you avoid situations where otherwise you’d be capoing waaaay up the neck–the guitar usually doesn’t sound good, and is practically unplayable, at capo 10!

    Hope this helps,


  11. Hey Tony,

    Not moderated out–just left in a pile of unmoderated comments by this loser webmaster!

    Thanks for your insight–I’ve found that putting the capo as close to the fret wire as possible helps some of those tuning problems. The Kaisers do clamp down a little too hard, but they’re so handy–you can use them with just one hand, and stick them on your headstock.


  12. Hey Rob, interesting website, i have learnt an awful lot from you and other users comments.

    just something which is really puzzling me and im one of those nerds who has to get something straight in his head before he can settle,

    if like you say, cappos help you change key without changing chord shapes, then why was your student attempting a b chord in the “g shapes” in the first place, shouldnt the cappo let her play b in the desired key without changing to g ?

    its proabably a real straight forward anwser but its annoying me!

  13. Hey Liam,

    After reading your comment, I went back to look at the script and realized that I hadn’t been clear about what the chord LOOKED like when my student played it. It was a G-shaped chord—that’s why she was saying (she was wrong) that she was playing in the key of G.

    She was, in fact, playing in the key of B, using G chord shapes (which, if you need to play in the key of B, is usually a much better option than playing barre chords in the key of B).

    Does that answer your question? I didn’t understand what you meant by “shouldn’t the capo let her play b in the desired key,” so I’m taking a stab in the dark. Specifying whether you mean a shape or a chord whenever you mention either would help.


  14. Thanks for the reply Rob, because i am a novice at the guitar and im only just really starting out to learn to read and understand music, i am a bit confused about what your student was attempting to play in the first place.

    you say that a cappo lets you change key without changing chord shapes, right?

    so my itnerpretation was that she wanted to play a b chord in the key of b right?

    so if thats true , using a cappo would mean she could play her b chord in the normal b chrod shapes but further up the neck.

    so i didnt get why she used g shapes, but your answer suggests that this case was different in that it was actually easier to change chord shapes . Thats what i think i was confused about, do you understand where im at with this?

    you just dont need us thicko’s complicating things do you! lol.

  15. Hey thanks for this, i am just starting to learn guitar and still pretty clueless about these things but this helped quite alot in my learnafiying of Jason Mraz’s song I’m Yours, really helped me to figure out how the capos work. Thanks!

Leave a Reply