“Capos are for wimps.”
“It’s cheating to use a capo.”
“I don’t need a capo. I can actually play guitar.”
I’ve heard all kinds of comments like these over a couple of decades playing guitar. You’d certainly expect that these words come from advanced players trying to keep instrument playing “pure” by discouraging shortcuts. But I’ll let you in on a couple secrets…
- Most of the people I’ve heard say snide things about the capo are intermediate players… at best (not the pros they want us to think they are).
- Some of the most skilled guitarists in the world not only use but embrace capos, and do amazing things with them!
So it’s time to tackle the primary myths keeping so many potential capo users (guitar and otherwise) from adding this invaluable gadget to their toolkits.
Myth #1: Guitar Capos Are for Wimps!
This charge leveled at capos implies that only the weak-fingered, lazy, or lowest of the low (among guitarists) need pick one up at their local music store.
Fact: Lots of guitarists, at all skill levels, use capos.
Lots of banjo, ukulele, mandolin, and other stringed instrument players use them too. Even if you’ve never “seen them in the wild” (and I assure you, they are there), the fact that there are so many for sale (and so many kinds) should give you an idea of the popularity of the capo.
Myth #2: It’s Cheating to Use a Capo!
This is similar to the previous myth, but while the first myth implies that some people use capos because they are weak, this one charges that the capo will actually make you weak.
Fact: Using a capo does not limit or stunt your playing.
For beginners, there are often all kinds of tricks suggested to get people playing quickly: two-finger chords, alternate “no bad note” tunings, and more. These may provide instant gratification, but they can lead to bad habits that will be hard to break later on. Techniques like these have the potential to be very limiting.
However, capos don’t prevent guitarists from playing with advanced techniques. They don’t stop you from forming a barre chord (for example, I often play Bm barre chord shapes when playing in a D key signature while using a capo). They don’t keep you from playing scales or using the same techniques employed without a capo. They just change where you do it.
Myth #3: I Don’t Need a Capo. I Can Actually Play Guitar!
Another variation on the theme of incapability, this myth asserts that capos are for babies: that is, newbie players. Once you actually get some skill, don’t be caught dead with a capo clamped to the headstock, let alone the fretboard!
Fact: Having a capo clamped on the fretboard doesn’t mean you’re suddenly no longer playing guitar.
This idea is just another chorus of the same anti-capo song, but this time based not on a (mistaken) reason, but just an attitude. The truth is that the same skills are required to play with or without a guitar capo: fingering, strumming, technique. In fact, skill and care are involved in successfully using a capo, just like they are in successfully playing guitar without string buzz or detuning.
Myth #4: Once You Learn Barre Chords, There’s No Need for a Capo.
Finger-busting barre chords are often the first monumental hurdle guitarists must get over after developing calluses and mastering the first chords and strumming patterns. When you’re strong enough to literally play in any key by barring the fretboard, why do you need a mechanical device to do exactly the same thing?
Fact: Guitar capos are important for tone.
A capo isn’t just a cheater device to play “easy” chords. In fact, these so-called “easy” chords are also often called “guitar friendly.” Note that I didn’t say “player friendly.” Yes, that may be generally true, but they’re friendly to the guitar because they maximize the tone of the instrument. Especially for acoustic stringed instruments, the best tone is achieved when as many strings ring open as possible. Which sounds better on an acoustic guitar? Playing in a “flat” key (Bb, F, Ab… key signatures pianists tend to like), or playing in “sharp” key (D, E, G… key signatures that makes pianists shudder)? Sharp keys on guitar, because of its tuning, have chord shapes with many open strings and ring out beautifully. Barre chords, needed for flat keys, have a muting effect. The capo alleviates this by holding with a greater grip, so a much fuller sound can be achieved with the capo (say, to play in the key of F with D shapes at the 3rd fret). Does that eliminate barre chords? Certainly not: the aforementioned Bm, plus C#m, F#m, and more, are all over these “sharp” keys. But there are lots of open chords that fill out the sound the majority of the time. So, to use a capo is to be aware of the qualities of your instrument.
Myth #5: Professionals Don’t Use Capos.
This fallacious statement is simple. It’s not just that advancing players shouldn’t use this “cheater” device, but professionals simply don’t. And we all want to be (or emulate) the pros.
Fact: Professionals definitely use capos… and there’s proof.
With the capo being a versatile tool, and so useful for achieving great tone, it’s not surprising that some of the most famous and celebrated guitarists in the world use guitar capos in their performances. Check out these pros in action:
The Edge is an icon from one of the world’s most-loved bands who inspired countless electric guitarists to emulate his distinctive pedal effects and syncopated delays. And yes, he uses capos.
One of contemporary country music’s most skilled guitarists and performers, Keith Urban doesn’t shy from using a capo either.
Fingerstyle legend James Taylor can often be spotted with a capo on his guitar. For more video lessons from James Taylor, visit www.jamestaylor.com/guitar-lessons.
Virtuoso Phil Keaggy often plays with not just one but two capos. In this video he uses partial capos.
Myth #6: Guitar Capos Are One-Trick Ponies.
This final myth states that since capos only clamp all the strings and can be moved up and down the fretboard to accomplish the same thing over and over (only in different keys), then it must not be very valuable. For some, this is simply the cry of “no unitaskers” (à la culinary expert Alton Brown), but for others it’s a follow-up from all the above objections (“we’ve defined the guitar capo this way, and it’s only that, so it’s of no use”).
Fact: Capos come in many different styles, clamp all or only some strings, and can even be “hacked.”
Guitar capos do more than just clamp 6 strings and call it a day. A variety of specialty capos is available to expand your playing options. “Drop-D” capos leave one string open (usually the low E, but they can also be reversed to leave the high E open). Other partial capos clamp 3 middle string (2-3-4 or 3-4-5), yielding a similar effect to an open tuning like DADGAD. These kinds of capos offer lots of new tone options without changing the guitar’s tuning. There are even capos that isolate individual strings. Oh, and if off-the-shelf options aren’t sufficient, you can learn a few tricks from Phil Keaggy’s masterful playing (and capo hacking skills), highlighted in this video!
The myths have been shattered and now you’re free… free to get the best tone, try new tunings, emulate the professionals, and silence the critics. Capos aren’t for wimps. Capos are for the real artists!