How To Use A Capo - Part 1

What is a capo? How do you use it? These are two questions that students often ask me. In short, the capo is an amazing little accessory that allows you to play open chords anywhere on the neck of the guitar. It can virtually eliminate bar chords. It can give the beginner the ability to play many, many more songs then they are currently capable of playing.


Actually, using a capo is very simple. You place it across all the strings of your guitar at any fret like this:

Once the capo is in place, start playing open chords. That's it.


That's how you use a capo. Understanding how to make use of it is a little more involved and requires a bit of music theory. Let's now look at chords, keys and something called chord function. In Western music, there are twelve musical notes and twelve (diatonic) keys. Each key contains a scale of seven notes that generates seven chords. For example, the key of C major contains the notes C, D, E, F, G, A and B (the C major scale). The C major scale generates the C, Dm, Em, F, G, Am and Bdim chords. Each of these chords can be referred to by a roman numeral. See the chart below to view the chords and their corresponding roman numerals in the key of C:

Okay, so how do you use this information? First of all, this chart applies to all twelve major keys. The order of the chords is the same in every key. The I chord is always major, the ii chord is always minor, the iii chord is always minor, etc... This means that if our chord progression is C, Am, F, G, it can also be referred to as I, vi, IV, V in the key of C major. Using this chart of all the major keys, we can then easily figure out what the corresponding chords are in any major key. This is called transposing. For example, if we transpose this chord progression to the key of D, it would give us D, Bm, G and A. It's the same chord progression but in a different key. Understanding this concept is the key to effectively using a capo.


You may have noticed that the above chart is for the key of C major and Am minor. Why is that, you may be wondering. The reason is that every major key has what is called a relative minor key. The relative minor key is based on the sixth note of the major scale. In C, the sixth note of the scale is A. As you can see from the chart, the chord that corresponds to the sixth note is Am and it's chord function is vi (lower case for minor). The keys of C major and A minor share the same exact scale and chords. The only thing that changes however is each chord's chord function:

Using this chart of all of the minor keys, we can do the same thing with any minor key. Here is an example: F#m, Bm, C#m, F#m or i, iv, v, i in the key of F# minor (which would be all bar chords) can be transposed to Am, Dm, Em, Am in the key of A minor ( all open chords).


Here is an exercise to help you practice this concept. These are a few common chord progressions:


Major - a) | I | IV | V | V | b) | I | vi | IV | V |


Minor - c) | i | iv | v | i | d) | i |VII | VI |VII |


Using the charts in the links above, try to figure out what these progressions are in all twelve keys. Try to play them if possible.


In part 2 of How To Use A Capo, we will make use of this theory to learn how to use a capo to play almost any song with only open chords.

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