Using a capo may seem intimidating if you’ve never played with one, but once you understand its purpose, a whole new set of creative doors may open for you.

In my experience, learning to play the guitar was a battle of wills between myself and my dad’s acoustic. It felt massive compared to my size, and I struggled to pull off anything other than open-string chords. I tried and failed with bar chords—my hands could never make it work, and I hate doing things I’m not good at. I happily resigned myself to the first three frets or so, and from there I tried my best to figure out how to write a song using the catalog of chords I already knew, or how to learn my favorite songs via the internet. 

As I continued learning, I kept seeing the word capo. I wasn’t sure what it meant, and I’d never seen one let alone used one. It wasn’t until a friend bestowed one upon me for my birthday that I realized what it was used for. I jumped right in and all of a sudden the rest of my guitar became accessible to me, and it blew my dang mind.

Owning a capo opened a creative door for me. I didn’t know what a key was or how to write in one (I still don’t, really) but if I placed my capo on different frets to play my songs, they had a tendency to feel totally new. I found keys that felt more comfortable for my voice, and my sad songs actually felt sad too—I was hooked.

Finding the Capo to Match Your Guitar

If you’re interested in playing with a capo, there are some things to consider to make sure you have the right fit. First, what are you playing? Capos are used on many different instruments that are typically fretted, such as ukuleles, mandolins, and guitars. A good next step is to check out your fretboard—is it flat or does it curve? Some capos are shaped to fit curved or flat fretboards so that they exert even pressure across the strings. An incorrectly shaped capo for your guitar could result in some frustration. If there isn’t enough tension on a string, it might not resonate and instead sound more muted or create buzzing. With too much tension, the strings begin to bend out of tune.

You’ll hear everyone swear by the kind of capo they use, such as trigger, strap, or spring (I’ve even used a pencil and a hair tie, it’s up to you). For beginners, a trigger or spring capo are great options. They’re very common, easy to find, and affordable. I’ve found these work great for me. You just need to use one hand to remove or reposition it, and the hardware stays well out of the way of my hand while I play. For this lesson we’re using the Axis Capo from Ernie Ball. The design is genius: it’s capable of being used with either a flat or curved fretboard simply by turning it around, which means you could use it on essentially any guitar you encounter—electric, acoustic, and even seven string guitars. Plus it’s simple and discreet, as opposed to my shiny gold capo, which, while endearing, looks a little dramatic in comparison. 

Ok, but what does the capo do exactly?

A capo acts as a clamp, pressing down every string at your desired fret to change the pitch of the open string. If you play the chords you know as though the capo acted as the end of your guitar, they’ll be in a new key. For every fret you move the capo up from zero, you’re raising the pitch of the string by a half step. Your E string becomes a G when capoed at the third fret, and so on. If  you ever encounter a song that feels just out of your vocal range, adjusting the key with a capo will help pitch the guitar up to a place that feels more comfortable to sing along.

Say you’re playing a song in the key of E on your instrument. If you were to place your capo on the second fret, and play the same chords relative to the capo, you’re now playing that same song a whole step up, in the key of F# (or Gb). Guitars are often played in the keys of C, D, G, A, and E because it’s more easily tuned to do so, and since not all chords are available in an open position, capos are useful to access those other keys for any reason you see fit. 

Now that you know what a capo is, I’m sure you’ll realize you see them everywhere. Loved by every kind of guitar player, it’s a useful tool regardless of your playing ability, and anything that inspires you to keep playing and writing is a very good idea! 

Adding a Capo to Alternate Tunings

Capos aren’t just reserved for songs played with open string chords, either. They also allow for some variety with alternate tunings and voicings. When multiple guitars are played together, using a capo gives different voicings of the same chord and adds a tasteful variety of notes that gives the chord more dimension and resonance. Open tunings (when all six strings are tuned to a note in a certain chord) and alternate tunings (as weird and adventurous as you please) are excellent reasons to use a capo, making it possible to play different songs with the same tuning but in a different key, without having to switch guitars or adjust tuning for the sake of timeliness. 

For example: In the past, I’ve used open D tuning on a guitar, which means that the guitar is tuned to use the three notes to form a D major chord without having to touch a fret (D A D F# A D). Playing in open tuning sounds beautiful and resonant, with every string adding to the fullness and tonality. Open tunings come with their own voicings and shapes to play chords, but most importantly, you can now play every major chord by barring a finger across all six strings on one fret in this open D tuning. By barring the second fret, you have an open E major chord, and the third fret would be an F major. With your capo serving that exact same purpose, you can barre your instrument at the 5th fret and play in open G, which would otherwise be awkward, very tense, or mostly not possible if you had tried to tune up or down to those notes. The same notion can be applied to alternate tunings: having the freedom to adjust the pitch anywhere without the restrictions of string tension (or time for tuning in a live setting) to play your song the way you’d intended.

Capos are an awesome and simple creative tool, and hopefully one you revisit often. As you continue to learn and grow as a player, you may find that you use your capo less when bar chords become easier and voicings enable you to play in other keys without one. After breaking out my Axis Capo recently, I realized I’m pretty overdue for experimenting with a capo and actually very much looking forward to playing with one again as a more confident player and writer.