Gear Wisdom: What is a Capo anyway?
Such a little thing with such huge potential
As part of our Gear Wisdom series, we’re going to take a closer look at accessories and gear that’s often overlooked or underappreciated. Our first article kicks things off with the humble Capo, an unassuming piece of kit that opens up a wealth of potential both in the studio and on the stage. As we’ll see it isn’t just for acoustic folk troubadours, and you’ll be able to find the best guitar capo for you.
What is a Capo?
Before we go any further, it might be best if we define what a Capo is.
A Capo is a simple device that allows the pitch of an instrument’s open strings to be changed. If we use the guitar as our example and use the nut of the guitar as the zero fret, the open strings played at this zero fret will usually be tuned to standard, i.e. E, A , D , G , B and E, starting from the sixth string.
A capo uses a spring, lever or piece of elastic to hold a hard-covered band over the guitar neck, essentially acting in the same way as your index finger if you are playing a barre chord. This band can be placed behind any of the frets, thus creating a new position for the zero fret, or open string. If the capo is placed just before the first fret, the guitar will be raised in tuning to a perfect 4th. The new tuning of the open string will therefore be A, D, G, C, E and A.
In reference to our note earlier about troubadours, the capo is typically used to help vocalists sing in a key that may be more suitable to their vocal range. Singer-songwriters from Bob Dylan and James Taylor through to modern day performers like Damien Rice and Ed Sheeran* all put the capo to good use.
*For more info on the gear that Ed Sheeran uses, check out our blog article here.
Types of Capo
The adjustable clamp style capo relies on a lever-operated clamp with a rubber bar that holds down the strings against the fingerboard, whilst a rubber bed sits against the back of the neck. The capo is tightened by adjusting a screw until the capo sits firmly. Thanks to the screw system, you can dictate exactly how much pressure you wish for the capo to exert over the strings. The only disadvantage is that the capo requires two hands for adjustment. However, removal can be done with ease by simply releasing the lever.
The strap-on capo features a rubber-covered bar to fret the strings whilst an adjustable elastic or fabric strap clamps to a ratchet system to lock it into place. A benefit of the fabric capo is that is ensures even pressure of the capo bar across all of the strings. Not only that but they are generally considerably cheaper than their alternatives, making them ideal for beginners or budget conscious players.
Spring or trigger-style
Though it is a more expensive than other capos, the spring or trigger-style capo is arguably the most popular. Two bars join together at a pivot point at one end of the capo, and a spring presses the bars together. The clamping system is operated by pulling back the trigger to open the capo, then you can adjust or place the capo into position and simply release the trigger. The beauty of this design is that is provides a firm hold across the strings and can be operated using one hand. Another bonus is that you can choose not to bar all of the strings, giving you the option to play with alternate tunings more easily.
Innovative capo design with interchangeable fret pads to match the radius of the instrument’s fingerboard for minimal pressure across the strings.
For those with a bit of know-how, making your own “adjustments” to capos isn’t unheard of. Over the years we have seen some interesting “hacks” – literally in some cases – made to capos with wedges cut out of the rubber to prevent certain strings from being fretted. We’ve also heard tell of pencils/pens and elastic bands being put to use as capos. At the end of the day you have to go with what feels right to you and if you fancy channelling your inner MacGyver then by all means go for it.
Capos for other instruments
Not just the reserve of guitars, capos exist for a plethora of other stringed instruments too such as the mandolin, violin, ukulele, etc. A fine example would be the FZone Ukulele Capo, which can be used as a trigger-style capo to afford alternative tunings for experimental uke players.
Creative Capo use
As noted above, if you’re using a trigger-style capo you don’t necessarily need to barre all the strings, which allows you to take advantage of drop-style and open-tuning tuning options.
For example, if you’re in standard tuning, you can barre strings 1 to 5 on the second fret and leave the low E string open. This gives you dropped-tuning but utilising the open E, offering an alternate tuning without having to tune down the low E string.
Another example would be to keep the low E open still and shift the capo from the 2nd to the 4th fret. Using this method, you can use the low E string as an open root note whilst utilising open chord shapes that you’re already familiar with (A, C, D, G, etc.). Whether you just want to fill out your sound or fancy getting into some fingerpicking, it is a very easy way to beef up your tonal arsenal with having to retune your guitar.
Here’s thinking outside the box, what about using more than one capo at the same time? I know right! It might sound crazy but if that’s where your musical creativity takes you then run with it. You could barre the strings using a trigger capo and then utilise a partial capo to fret just a couple or a few strings, depending on where the mood takes you. Shift the capo around mid-song even, just go with the flow.
Not just for the acoustic players
It’s true. The likes of Johnny Marr and Ryan Adams are just a couple of pros who endorse the use of capos on electrics too. Not only that, but with the ever-increasing number of YouTube and Instagram guitarists too, there’re plenty of players advocating the use of capos when playing elaborate two-hand tapping with a capo placed anywhere from the 5th fret and higher across a wide array of tunings. Check it out for yourself and you’ll wonder how you ever got by without giving it a bash.
Although this should go with saying, when you use a capo always remember to recheck and retune where necessary. Due to the clamping system the pitch of your strings will always shift a little. Plus, it is never a bad idea to check your tuning before you play as a general rule. Also, don’t forget to retune when you remove the capo too!
Tom Quayle drops some knowledge
The legend himself shows us how to make the most of the capo in this frankly excellent tutorial.
Hopefully, we’ve given you some insight into the potential of Capos and you’re getting to put one to the test. As with everything music-related, it is all about experimentation so don’t be afraid to think outside the box and come up with your own thing.
If you need any help or advice, then our Customer Service Team are more than happy to help over the phone on 01925 582420. Our in-store specialists will guide you through the wonderful world of Guitars, just pop into your nearest Dawsons store.