The Heartwood Beat, Issue 9: Where To Put That Capo

Yep, that's a capo alright.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.

Happy Thanksgiving,


Comments 19

  1. Pingback: Is there a right time to use a guitar capo? « IG BLOG

  2. Rob,
    Great article! Some of my friends that are guitarist tell me to use the Capo, but understanding where to put it or how to use it has always been questions that they could not answer. You answered the questions that I thought couldn’t be answered.

  3. Thanks Rob for the newsletter. Love your humour. I too am but a novice at the age of 62 (dont laugh)been at it now for about 5 months. Playing my guitar and singing relaxes me after a hard day at work. Chord changes a bit slow, so I just sing slow (now you can laugh). Bought a capo so I’ll be trying it out. Printed the letter..too much to memorize at this point in time.

  4. thats one great explanation, i want to buy myself a capo since a time ago because some songs that i want to play use it, but now i could use it in a much more usefull way.

    thanks for this realy great information!


  5. Thanks for this article, Rob. I don’t mind barre chords so much but when it comes to playing songs (like some of my own) that only use barre chords I always go with a capo instead of straining my fretting hand. I think there are some things to be learned from playing in awkward key signatures but when it comes to performance and recording it’s always better to simplify a difficult passage.

  6. Surprised to note that you never discussed, in a post called “where to put that capo,” the proper placement of your capo ON the fret of choice… nice to see that you used a photo example which shows proper placement: closer to the fret above than the one below, to help max the down pressure on the strings and avoid that god-awful buzz you hear a lot when someone just slaps the capo down anywhere, or worse–way back low in the fret. Anyway, I really enjoy your stuff… keep it coming!

  7. Hey Ken,

    Good point. I find that getting the capo closer to the fret wire makes the strings more in tune (though I often have to retune anyway), but putting it farther away from the fret gives me more room to fret open chords. I usually comprimise and put it about 1/3 of the way back from the fret wire.

    And Olly–by using a capo to play awkward chords, I mean using a capo to turn what would OTHERWISE be an awkward chord into an easy-to-fret chord. Like playing Bb by putting a capo on the 1st fret and fretting an A chord shape.

  8. Wow, ok so i play the keyboard but i just ordered me a new acoustic guitar.. this is way easier than what i thought it would be.. i kinda figgered it out neways bc when i play with my guitar playing friends i have to do the conversions in my head while we are playing, (unless I have a keyboard that will transpose itself) i have what i think is a gud question that u could consider answering, how does the cut and low capo work? now i figure that it just changes the pitch of the chords it is on.. but how do u play with it like that? say u had a partial capo that capoed 3 or 4 wires i cant remember which it is, but u put it on the 2nd fret how would u know what what to play? thnx

  9. Thanks Rob,
    Im 12 years old an im about to enter my 3rd year of guitar and I have been told to try to teach my little sis guitar so this article will be useful(started a couple days ago)in trying to avoid getting her to try barr chords.Also check out my blog at pretty new) im new to blogging so mabye you could give me tips on blogging and some guitar.

  10. Thanks a lot for the comment about where to put the capo! Everytime i put the capo on it kept buzzing and it was getting very annoying! Thanks for telling me where to put it. I had been putting it in the middle of the fret and thats why the strings were buzzing!!

  11. I have also seen guitar players use capos as a way of quickly modifying the guitar’s relative tuning by leaving one or more strings unaffected by the capo. An example follows.

    E-B-E-A-C-F resultant notes
    ----------- Fret 1
    O-C-C-C-C-C Fret 2

    The capo is upside down, and leaves off the top string. This makes for an easy drop D tuning, but up a whole step.

  12. Hi… I so very much appreciate your website. My dad played any instrument that had strings, but he played by ear. He could not/would not teach me and my brother, but sent us to a “local” for lessons. That lasted about 3 months…when I was about 10. I played around with the guitar, learning songs, but never understanding. Then, I took piano lessons. I learned about music theory, and how to read music…etc. I gave up the guitar in 1997 after a car wreck left me with short term memory loss (impossible to remember how to play anything then!) and an injured left arm/shoulder. Now, at the wonderful age of 50, I recommitted to my love affair with the guitar. I practice 5-6 hours a day. I study theory, muscle training, picking/strumming, etc. Like you said on your site, “back then” we didn’t have Google…what a gift it is to be able to learn from people such as yourself, in the comfort of my home…at whatever hour! Thank you for the commitment you have made to providing good, solid, FUN, opportunities. I’m going to introduce my grand kids to your site too! Thank you, Thank you, Thank you!

  13. If a song states use capo on barre 2 and you tune the guitar after u put the capo on does that mean you have altered the intended key the song was to be played in?

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