Capo Basics

Guitar Fretboard with Silver Capo
Guitar Fretboard with Gold Capo
Guitar Fretboard with Black Capo

Why Should I Use a Capo?

A capo (for guitar or other stringed instrument) allows players to raise the pitch of their chord shapes by 1/2 step (semitone) for each fret up the neck. Some guitarists say this is “cheating”… playing easy chords for hard key signatures. But some of the best guitarists in the world use capos. Whether you’re a beginner or seasoned professional, there are a number of reasons the humble capo should be in your toolkit:

  • The capo allows budding guitarists to learn a few chords but play many songs with familiar fingerings, even when the song is in a “hard” key, and add new chord shapes at their own pace.
  • The capo enables the player to get the best sound out of the guitar, even when playing in a non-guitar-friendly key. Guitar strings are meant to ring out; with a capo at the first fret, E chord shapes sound like the key of F. Acoustic guitars, in particular, sound much fuller with open strings in E than with barre chords in F.
  • Unique placements, modifications, and specialty capos allow players to make music in alternate and imaginative tunings not possible (or not easy) in standard (EADGBE) tuning.

How Do I Choose a Capo?

The primary types of capo are:

  • Wraparound, or strap-on
  • Clamp
  • Screw-on

Wraparound capos use an elastic strap to tighten a bar over the strings, and are usually the lowest-cost option. They can be adjusted to the user’s preference, but can stretch and wear over time.

The clamp style (sometimes called “trigger”) is spring loaded and clamps onto the fretboard. These are very popular, easy to use, allow for fast position changing, and easily stow on the headstock when not in use. Some can clamp so tightly that they pull the strings out of tune, but this can be avoided with careful placement or a less-aggressive model. Some models are also adjustable, clamping to the fretboard but employing a thumbscrew to adjust tension.

In addition to clamp-style capos with screw adjustment, screw-on capos are placed over the fretboard and are tightened with a screw on the backside of the neck. The tension is more controllable, but these require two hands and more time to change position. There are other types of capos, including specialty capos that only cover some of the strings (“cut” or “partial”), or that isolate the strings individually, but every player should start with a standard capo.

How Do I Use a Capo?

No matter which type of capo you choose, positioning is critical and the same for all capos: just as with good finger positioning, where the finger is as close to the fret as possible while staying just behind it (that is, toward the nut or headstock), so it is with the capo. It must be positioned just behind the capo (not on top of it) so that:

  • the notes ring clearly,
  • there is no string buzzing, and
  • good intonation is preserved.

Learn more about capo basics in these articles: