What is a Guitar Capo Used For? [Explained]

If you do not have a capo, it can be frustrating to learn that a song you want to learn uses one. But why did the guitarist decide to use one for this song and what effect does it have on the sound? I have been using a capo for many years and decided to poll the guitar community on their thoughts on what a guitar capo is used for.

What is a guitar capo used for? A guitar capo is used to change the key of the guitar by increasing the pitch through the barred frets on which the capo is placed. Capos can replace bar chords and give guitarists access to chord forms that lend themselves to different styles of playing.

Continue reading to learn more about what a capo is used for, if they are necessary, if beginners should use them, and how to use them correctly.

What is a Guitar Capo Used For

What is a Guitar Capo Used For?

A guitar capo is used to change the key of a song by shortening the scale length of the neck. Capos allow guitarists to change the key easily without having to learn new chords. Essentially moving the nut up whilst being able to continue playing open position chords.

The capo allows the guitarist to use the same open chord positions further up the neck. Although, now they sound higher. This is both useful for experienced guitarists and especially beginners.

Capos are a great way to replace bar chords. Playing an entire song using bar chords can get tiring. Instead, the capo is used to replace the pointer finger that is barring all of the strings. Once the capo is replacing the pointer fingers bar chord job, you can play the simpler and less tiring open E and A-shaped chords, as well as the other ones.

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The other use of a capo is giving the guitarist access to chord forms that are more attune to a song / genre. An example is blue grass music. Open position A and D chords are not beneficial to blue grass licks. G and C shaped chords are great for blue grass licks, although we still want to play an A and D as the song entails. So now comes the capo to save the song. Moving the capo to the second fret allows the guitarist to use the G and C shapes to play A and D chords. Now we are able to play blue grass music in A whilst using a chord shape (G shape) that lends itself to this style of licks.

What Does Playing With a Capo Do?

As the photo below shows, the nut is right below the headstock. When you place the capo down, you are essentially moving the nut up a half step in pitch. The bottom fretboard is a G chord in an open position (no capo). The top fretboard is a G chord with the capo placed on the first fret. With the capo on, it moves the G chord up a half step as the photo shows.

How to use a guitar capo
Source and great video: YouTube

In its simplest definition, a capo cuts the length of the neck, making it shorter. All of the chord voicings move up however many frets the capo does.

Is a Capo Necessary?

No, a capo is not necessary. Capos are a way to change the key and make chord formations easier but are not required to play guitar or even play a song that uses a capo in most cases. A song that uses a capo will become much more difficult to learn without the capo but is still possible through different chord voicings.

If a song uses a capo but you do not have one, you will need to think through different chord formations to produce the intended sound. The CAGED method is especially helpful in creating these chord formations in the manner that the song is. Although I must say, it will make the song much harder to learn. Which is very dependent on the song.

For a song like Here Comes The Sun, it uses a capo on the 7th fret. The song is faster-paced with intricate picking and chord embellishments. This song would be extremely difficult to play without a capo in the same key as the song intends. Working out the non-capo chords and how to bar the 7th fret while performing chord embellishments is a feat of guitar skill and theory.

I recommend getting a capo for this song and songs alike. They are inexpensive, easy to use, and fun. But just to reiterate, they are not necessary but highly encouraged.

Should Beginners Use a Capo?

Beginners should use a capo because it is a great tool that allows beginners to play more songs without having to always play bar chords. Capos make songs easier to play by reducing the chances of dead strings and fret buzz that often accompanies learning bar chords on an acoustic guitar.

Without a capo, your first finger is a capo for non-open chords. An example is an F# minor chord that you have to bar chord with your first finger pressing down all the strings across the neck. For a beginner, especially on an acoustic guitar, this is not easy and can result in dead strings and fret buzzing. With a capo, for an F3 minor chord, you can place it on the second fret and only have to use two fingers to shape an E minor chord (relative to the capo, E minor in open position).

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For singers, capos are especially useful, particularly with women singing songs that are lower / sung originally by a man. If the desired song is played in open E but that is too low to sing. Then put the capo higher on the neck which changes the key, but no need to worry about the chords changing. This is especially useful for beginners that are learning how to sing and play guitar.

Guitar capos range in price from $10-$15. As you can see, capo’s are extremely inexpensive but provide a great service. If you can afford a guitar, then you likely can afford a capo.

How to Use a Capo

To use the capo, clamp the longer rubber side just before/behind the metal of the fret. As seen below, notice how I placed the capo millimeters behind the metal bar of the fret.

How to use a capo for a guitar
Capo placement on my acoustic guitar

There are two common mistakes that guitarists make when first placing their capo down on the fret:

  1. The first is placing the capo on the metal bar of the fret. This will surely cause dead strings and little to zero sustain on chords. Furthermore, it could damage the fret.
  2. The second mistake is placing the capo too far back on the fret. This mistake will result in dead strings like mistake 1 but also large amounts of fret buzz. When the capo is this far back, the strings are not being pushed down all the way on the further up metal bar, resulting in fret buzz.

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