Happy Thanksgiving, musicians!
I’ll be spending the holiday with my family in California. I’m excited to try a bluegrass song with them this trip, called “Devil’s Dream.” We never played music together when I was a kid, but as my sisters and I have gotten older the family’s been able to find some common ground in our skills and tastes.
Bluegrass is a real stretch, though. My mom plays violin, but never “fiddle” (a violin becomes a fiddle when your spouse is in jail and the car’s on the front lawn). And my younger sister is just getting good enough at guitar to make quick chord changes.
I’ll consider the song a success if my polka-loving dad wakes up in his rocking chair and says, “Hey, you could two-step to that!”
One thing I’ve done to make the song easier for my sister is to show her how to use a capo to avoid barre chords, which is the topic of today’s newsletter.
But first, I want to dispel two illusions about capos:
1) Using a capo to avoid difficult chord shapes is lazy
I wonder if this attitude stems from America’s puritanical work ethic. Wherever it comes from, understand that musicianship is all about efficiency–getting the best results with the least effort. Even when playing difficult passages, good musicians do whatever they can to minimize strain. This approach not only helps them avoid injury, but it also improves the music.
So if playing a song in Bb using all barre chords gets you the best sound (like when playing reggae or funk, styles that require a lot of left-hand muting), then go for it. But if you’re crooning a tender love ballad that needs smooth chord changes, save your fingers–and schnookum’s ears–and play open chords with a capo!
2) You should play songs in the capo position of the original song
Sometimes this is a good idea. Capoing some songs, like The Beatles’ “Blackbird,” is impossible without dramatically altering the guitar part (put a capo on the 5th fret, and you run out of real estate as soon as you hit the second measure). But most songs can be played equally well in a variety of capo positions.
Which key is best? If you’re singing with the guitar, choose the key that’s best for your voice. The voice is usually the most important instrument, and everything else defers to the voice’s requirements. Playing “Closer to Fine” with Capo 2 just because that’s how the Indigo Girls did it is like buying shoes in your friend’s size because you liked the way they looked on her.
Enough with the dispelling. Here’s how to avoid difficult chord shapes by using a capo. Let’s use my sister Margaret’s predicament as an example.
“Devil’s Dream” is usually played in the key of A. The chords are A, D, E, and the ever-despised Bm, a barre chord. Why it’s played in the key of A, I don’t know, but that’s how I learned the melody, and there’s no way I’m learning that fingertip-flayer using a whole new scale shape. On the other hand, you could float the Macy’s Day Parade through the pauses in Margie’s barre chord changes. Time to bust out the capo.
First, we need to choose a key that Margie can play in. Let’s use the key of G. If we transpose “Devil’s Dream” to the key of G, we get the finger-friendly chords G, C, D, and Am. For more explanation of transposing, read my three newsletter issues on chord families, starting here.
Now we need to figure out where to put the capo so that Margie will be playing those chord shapes (G, C, D, and Am), but because of the capo, will actually be playing in the key of A.
To do this, you need to know the musical alphabet. If you don’t know it, here it is, but you should memorize it. Notice that some notes (called accidentals) have two different names (divided by a “/”). Also, keep in mind the pattern starts over at the beginning once you get to G#/Ab.
A A#/Bb B C C#/Db D D#/Eb E F F#/Gb G G#/Ab
You really should memorize this. Really. There are some tricks to it, but that’s for another newsletter.
OK, so where do we put Margie’s capo? Let’s try inching up the fretboard fret-by-fret until her G chord (the I chord in the desired key) becomes an A chord (the I chord in the despised key). Well, if you put the capo on the first fret, and play a G chord shape (It’s just a chord SHAPE now, right? We’ve entered Capoland!), the chord is now a G# (or Ab) chord–one note higher in the musical alphabet.
And if you move the capo up to the second fret, now you’re playing an A chord (A is the next note in the musical alphabet after G#/Ab). So to play in the key of A using G chord shapes, capo 2.
Think of it this way: When we changed from the key of A to the key of G, we lowered the key of the song a whole step (two notes of the musical alphabet). To compensate, we need to capo 2 to raise the key back up to A.
In short, to figure out how to play a hard song using easier chord shapes but keeping the key the same, follow these four steps:
1) Choose a new key that’s easier to play in. G’s usually the easiest.
2) Fret the I chord of the new key (the I chord is the chord the key is named after).
3) Inch up the fretboard with your capo, raising the name of your chord by one note in the musical alphabet, until you reach the I chord of the original (despised) key.
4) Transpose the other chords in the song from the despised key into the desired key. You’re done!
Once you get good at this, you can do it in your head. There are other shortcuts too (experts, have at it in the comments section of the blog!), but this will get you started.
Also, note that this process might land you on Capo 10 or 11. Yow! You’d need surgical instruments to play up there. Go back to step 1 and choose a different easy key.
Incidentally, if you’d like to hear “Devil’s Dream,” there’s a cool video of some young women playing it on YouTube.