Using a Capo

A capo can be clamped on the neck of a fretted instrument to effectively shorten the strings. As the capo is moved up and down the neck, the relative pitch of each string changes in half-step (semitone) increments. There are 12 semitones in an octave.

When discussing capo usage, it is helpful to use the terms actual key and chord-forms key. The actual key represents the actual sound frequencies the instrument is creating; it is the key that an accompanying pianist would use. The chord-forms key is the key that would emanate from the fretted instrument if a capo were not being used. Thus, when a capo is not used, the actual key and the chord-forms key are the same.

When a capo is used, the fret it is placed behind effectively becomes the nut (the neck end of the strings). When considering chord forms, the first fret below the capo fret becomes fret one, the next one is fret two, etc.

A capo can be used alone to change the actual key without changing the chord-forms key, or it can be used in conjunction with a transposition to maintain the actual key but change the chord-forms key.

It is sometimes desirable to change the actual key of a song because, for example, it doesn't match the voice range of the singer. This can be accomplished by transposing to a different key, or the actual key can be changed by using a capo and retaining the original key chord forms. This Change Key Capo Chart shows how to do this. Note that while a capo always raises the pitch of the instrument, it can actually lower the pitch of the voice if the singer shifts down to the next lower octave.

Transposing and capos both change the relative pitch in half step increments. It is possible to choose a capo position and transpose to a different chord-forms key such that they cancel each other, and the original actual key is maintained. This Keep Key Capo Chart shows how. This is useful, for example, when you want to play along with a recorded song, but it is in a key that includes chords that are hard to play.

On most guitars, it is difficult to capo much beyond the seventh fret, so those cases are shown in red in the charts. We suggest you print these charts in landscape orientation for best results. If your browser has a Print Preview option, it can be used to adjust the size, etc.

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