Using a guitar capo is not complicated.
But there are some common mistakes to avoid.
We’ll go over those below.
But it’s not just the “how” that is important, but also the “when” and the “why.”
There are times to use one, and times when many guitarists use them, but they probably shouldn’t.
We’ll go over all of that below too.
Keep reading to learn how to use a capo on your guitar and, just as importantly, when and why to use one. We will cover everything you need to know.
Table of Contents
How To Use A Guitar Capo
To use a guitar capo, you need to press its handle to open the clamp, evenly place it on the desired fret on the fingerboard, and release the handle to affix the capo.
This is usually done by gigging musicians who change tunings multiple times during one set. A capo can raise the key of your current tuning, so it’s easier to use a capo than to bring several guitars along.
However, as mentioned above, in addition to the “how” of using a guitar capo, we also need to discuss the “when” and the “why”.
It is important to understand that the capo is not a miracle tool that will make your chords sound better instantly or your new tuning pitch-perfect. But it is extremely helpful in certain situations. And due to its flexibility, both beginners and pros use it.
I must admit that I started using a capo a bit late in my guitar-playing career, mainly because I had already found workarounds and didn’t really need one. It would have made my life easier, but there was also a bit of a stigma in using one. At least for non-beginners.
As soon as the stigma of non-beginners using one was broken, I saw more and more people using a capo. I started using them a bit myself, too. And from my experience, I know there are several matters to discuss regarding capos, beyond just how to use one.
I’ve noticed that some players don’t know how to affix the capo properly, ultimately detuning the instrument. I have also noticed that guitarists who struggle with more advanced chords use a capo as a crutch to simplify the process of chord play.
In the following sections, I want to explain in great detail both how to use a guitar capo, and when and why to use it. Let’s start from the top.
How To Put A Capo On A Guitar Correctly
First of all, the way you use a capo is largely determined by the type of guitar capo you have. You can use a capo on electric guitar and on acoustic guitar.
In most cases, you simply need to hold the handle (or equivalent part) to unlock the capo, and then place it on the desired fret so that all six strings are covered.
The so-called “clip-on” capos are arguably the easiest to use, especially if you already know how to use clip-on accessories like tuners or card tabs.
Certain types do need to be manually unlocked via tapping or unscrewing before placing, and then locking, them on the fretboard. These types of capos tend to provide superior tuning stability. But they still serve the same function as any other guitar capo.
Regardless of which kind of guitar capo you have, the only thing you need to do to use it is to lock it in place. And the “place” is the desired fret on the fretboard.
The capo will then apply enough pressure to emulate a bar over all the strings, effectively raising the key by as many semitones as there are between the pressed fret and the open notes.
Of course, there’s a bit more than “lock and play” to a guitar capo, since proper positioning is extremely important. Positioning the capo incorrectly is perhaps the biggest mistake people make.
Common Mistakes When Using A Capo
The only correct way to place a guitar capo on the fretboard is to ensure that it is within the bounds of only one fret. It doesn’t necessarily need to be parallel to the adjacent fret bars, but it shouldn’t clamp the parts of the string of other frets at all.
You can slightly tweak its position once the capo is locked in place, but bear in mind that it’s supposed to be locked in. Don’t use unnecessary force to try to move it to a different position, since this can damage the neck, the frets, or the strings.
It only takes a moment to unlock the capo and find a new, better position. Take the time to do that, instead of forcing it to slide while clamped down.
Finally, everything I described until this point refers to standard guitar capos. More modern versions have special features that allow you to choose how many strings the capo will affect. But no matter how complex this tool is, its purpose will always be the same.
When To Use A Guitar Capo
As I mentioned, the main reason you should at least try using a guitar capo is to save yourself the time and effort of tuning your guitar to a different key.
Instead of turning each peg and ensuring all six strings are perfectly tuned, you can achieve the same result by simply attaching a little clamp to your fretboard.
This is especially important for gigging musicians. Most people aren’t thrilled about paying a $10 ticket only to be left waiting for the band to retune.
Even if your tuning skills are the fastest in the world, a capo will still come in handy, since you don’t have to worry about tuning accuracy.
Another situation where a capo can come in handy is for playing intricate chords. I’m mainly talking about unique chord voicings that are supposed to be performed further down the fretboard where the root note is stuck at the lower section of the board, or F chord variations that naturally rely on bar chords (e.g. F7, Fm, and Fm7).
Think of a guitar capo as one extra finger that you can place across an entire fret and never worry about it again. It gives you the flexibility to choose finger positioning styles of virtually any chord that would otherwise be difficult or impossible to fret.
When Not To Use A Guitar Capo
Since a guitar capo will shift your tuning up by the desired number of semitones, it will lock you out of lower notes, as long as it remains on the fretboard.
That means that, for example, if you placed the capo on the second fret, you won’t be able to pull off natural voicings for chords like Dm7, Bmaj7, or E7.
Tuning your guitar down two steps and then placing a capo on the second fret would defeat the purpose, since you would “break even” in terms of tonality.
I also have to emphasize that you shouldn’t use guitar capos as shortcuts to easier chords. They’re great helpers, but don’t get lulled into a comfort zone that will be difficult to escape later.
There is great merit in learning all those hard chord voicings. Trust me, I struggled with them myself, many years ago. And I am happy I did and learned to play them naturally. Start with basic guitar exercises to strengthen your fingers, and then move on to harder chords.
How To Use A Capo On A Guitar: Final Thoughts
Using a guitar capo is not hard, as long as you take care to position it correctly. But you should also think about why you are using a capo.
If you are using it to quickly change to a different key, or to play intricate chords, using one makes a lot of sense. However, if you find yourself using a capo a lot to simplify difficult chords, I would suggest you power through and learn to play those chords.
The more you use a crutch, the more you end up depending on it, and the harder it will be to stop using it in the future. You will be grateful down the road that you suffered through and learned to finger those difficult chords.