Learning to play guitar can be frustrating if you only know a few chords. But what if there was a way to play more songs with the chords you already know?
That’s what makes the capo an ideal accessory for beginners. It’s a clamp that fastens across the strings at a particular fret, allowing a guitarist to play in any key while using familiar chord shapes.
It might seem like cheating, and it absolutely can become a crutch if you’re trying to avoid learning barre chords. But sometimes you just want to play a song. Other times those folky-sounding chords are exactly what a song needs.
And not every song is meant to be played in C major or G major.
This article will explain how to use the capo, how to figure out which chords you’re playing at at each capo position up to the 8th fret, and how to prevent the capo from damaging your guitar.
- How Do I Use a Capo?
- How Do You Know Where to Capo?
- A final Word About Capos
How Do I Use a Capo?
The capo might seem pretty self explanatory: Just clamp it at the desired fret. That’s mostly true. But let’s cover a few ground rules:
- Place the capo as close to the fret as possible without muffling the strings.
- Don’t place the capo in the middle of two frets. This can pull the strings into the fretboard. It’s not only bad for the wood, it can also pull the tuning sharp.
- Keep the capo parallel to the fret. This ensures even pressure across all six strings. Angling the capo can cause some of the strings to buzz, as well as pulling the tuning a little sharp.
How Do You Know Where to Capo?
A capo moves familiar “open” chords up by one half-step for each fret. If we capo the 1st fret, an E major chord shape becomes an F major. If we capo the 2nd fret, a C major chord shape becomes a D major (D is two half-steps up from C).
As long as you know the 12 notes of the chromatic scale (see my article on memorizing the fretboard), you can figure out each chord when you capo a particular fret.
Unfortunately that can be time consuming and frustrating. Especially if you just want to play a new song without doing a bunch of mental gymnastics.
That’s why I’ve taken 10 of the most common chords and grouped them together based on which keys they allow you to play.
C Major Shape
The chord shapes above probably look familiar. Maybe you already know how to play them. In that case, playing them with a capo will be super easy.
These six chords are all in the key of C major (and A minor). All that’s missing is B diminished, which is fine since there are no diminished chords in most of the music you will play as a beginner.
This group of chord shapes will remain in a single key as you move the capo up the neck. Capo on the 2nd fret? Now you can use these same shapes to play in D major. Up to the 5th fret? Now you’re in F major. It’s really that easy.
The following chart shows what chords you can play with these shapes at each capo position up to the 8th fret. While I could extend the chart to the 11th fret, you will almost never go that high. Plus, it would be harder to read the chart.
The chart is organized to put the major key name in the first row and the minor key name in the last row. The first column features the chords without a capo. Moving from left to right, we see the chords that result from each capo position.
G Major Shape
This set of chords fit into the key of G major (E minor). Now we only have five chords, but there is a ton of music that uses these exact shapes.
Once again, the table shows the un-capoed chords in the first column. The major key is in the top row. The minor key is in the bottom row. From left to right, we see the resulting chords when these shapes are played at capo positions up to the 8th fret.
D Major Shape
As we work down to the D major chord group, the number of chords drops again to four. We’re left with three major chords and one minor chord.
Fun fact: These are actually the chords for the classic song “Love is All Around” by The Troggs. They’re even in the right order! Proof that four chords is all you need.
The table is arranged like before, except the last row does not include the minor key. The relative minor key for D major is B minor. Since we don’t have that chord in this grouping, the equivalent chord will be missing at each capo position.
A Major Shape
Now we’re down to three chords. This is rock ‘n’ roll territory. These three chords all fit into the key of A major. They’re all major chords.
Countless songs have used these three chord shapes. Check the table to see which capo position will place them in the key you’re looking for.
E Major Shape
The final grouping is based around the key of E major. You’ll notice we finally have a B chord in the un-capoed position. While there are no easy ways to play B major or B minor in the open position, the guitar does offer a B7.
If you’re not familiar, B7 (also known as B Dominant 7) is like a B major chord with an extra note. This is the only group of open chords where B7 actually fits.
These three chords are commonly found in folk music, country, and early rock ‘n’ roll. A 1950s songwriter named Harlan Howard once said a great country song is “three chords and the truth.” He was likely talking about these three chords.
These five chord groupings are only guidelines. While each group fits firmly into a single key that can be changed with a capo, there is no rule prohibiting the use of chords from two or more groups.
Have fun. Experiment. Make music.
A final Word About Capos
Capos have a bad reputation for causing dings and dents in guitar necks. You might wonder if all the pressure of a capo can damage your guitar.
The answer is yes. If you leave it on your guitar all the time, or if used improperly, a cap can absolutely damage your guitar.
First, the part of the capo that cradles the neck can dent the wood or chip the finish. Guitar necks are not built to withstand this kind of pressure. They’re made for your hands (and some guitars can barely tolerate that).
This is the same reason it’s a bad idea to leave your capo on the guitar’s headstock in between songs. It may be convenient, but it can dent or chip the headstock.
The other threat a capo poses to your guitar is the fret damage. Prolonged downward force on a single fret, combined with string movement (re-tuning the guitar, bending notes, and temperature-related expanding and contracting of the strings) is like six little files scraping away at the fret surface.
How do you prevent damage caused by using a capo? Here are a few tips:
- Avoid leaving a capo on your guitar when you’re not playing. This includes leaving it clamped on the headstock. It can dent the headstock, too.
- Remove the capo before tuning the guitar. This keeps the strings from rubbing over the tops of your frets, which can cause ugly dents in the fretwire.
- Buy a capo with a thumbscrew to adjust the amount of tension applied to the neck. Use just enough tension so the stings don’t buzz.
- Consider learning more chords to minimize how often you need a capo.
And if you’re really worried about dents and dings on a particular guitar, don’t use a capo. It’s not worth the risk on a rare or vintage instrument, or a guitar with lots of sentimental value. Music should be fun, not stressful.