A Beginner’s Guide on How to play Guitar with a Capo – Play without the barre chords

When I was just a beginner, one of my struggles is playing the barre chords like the F and Bm chord. My fingers are in pain and I have to push down the string. It is really stressful for me, as a beginner, who is still struggling to play the simple chords.

After some time, I saw someone playing the guitar with something clipped on its guitar fret board and I was wondering what is that thing. I asked the guy and he told me that it was a “guitar capo”. That aroused my curiosity and I began searching what it is all about.

A guitar capo which is clipped on an acoustic guitar with nylon strings

A guitar with a capo

Many people find it hard to use the guitar capo. They are confused where to put it and how to play guitar with a Capo on it. I experienced one time in a band, we played a song in key of G and he put the capo on 2nd fret thinking that he is still in the same key like us (He’s in key of A).

This guide will surely help you understand how to play guitar with a capo which will lead you to an alternative way of playing a song.

What is a Guitar Capo?

In simple terms, it is something you used to clip on the neck of the guitar to raise the pitch.

If you want a more practical, but easy to understand, meaning here is a little experiment you can do to your guitar:

Try pressing all the strings by putting your finger on the 2nd fret of your guitar. Strum it. What did you noticed? The pitch was higher than open strings, right? Then try putting the capo on the 2nd fret and strum it. It will sound the same I believe. So in a nutshell, you can think that a guitar capo is like a FINGER PRESSING ALL THE STRINGS.

Another definition of capo is it is like a movable guitar nut and the basic chords will also move depending on where your capo is located. For example, an A chord is located on the 2nd fret. When you put the guitar capo on 3rd fret, the A chord will also be moved 3 frets and in this case it will be on the 5th fret.

It all comes down to a Basic Music Theory

Musical Notes of Western Music

I know a lot of people hates this kind of stuff but I swear, you need this. The table above represents the Music Alphabet. As you can see, the B and E has no sharp (#) and after G# it will just go back to A. When you pluck the guitar strings without any finger on the fret board or also known as open strings, you will have these notes from top to bottom:

E – 6th
A – 5th
D – 4th
G – 3rd
B – 2nd
E – 1st

When you press the 1st fret with your finger or the capo, the notes will also increase by a SEMITONE, or half-step. So the notes of the string from top to bottom became: (refer to the table to understand it better)

E —> F
A —> A#
D —> D#
G —> G#
B —> C
E —> F

The bottom line is this, you increase the notes depending on where you place the capo. If it is on the 5th fret, you increase the notes by 5 semitones. If you place it on 8th fret, you increase the notes by 8 semitones.

This rule apply to the chords. If you do an E chord when the capo is in the 3rd fret, you are really doing a G chord. Try doing a normal G chord without a capo and the E chord with a capo on 3rd fret and it will sound the same.

E + 3 steps = G

Musical Notes of Western Music

How to use a Guitar Capo?

A. To raise the key of a song

Let’s say that you have a chord progression G – D – Em – C. If you put the capo on the 2nd fret and do the same chord progression, it will be A – E – F#m – D. Sounds confusing? I know it’s a little hard to get it at first but stay with me until the end.

Let’s put it this way, imagine you a have a keyboard player. When you decide to raise the key 2 semitones higher, you can use the same chord progression by putting the capo on the 2nd fret and the keyboard will now do A – E – F#m – D

Another application of capo is if you are having a hard time singing a song because its key is low, you can put the capo from 1st fret and do the same chords. Its key is now raised. Move the capo one at a time until you find the sweet spot. Just use the same chords when doing this.

The challenge in doing this is how to know what chords are you really using or what key are you in now. Let’s say your capo is in the 5th Fret now and your chords is G – Em – C – D. The question is the equivalent chords of this progression if you remove the capo. This is where you apply the music theory that I shared in you above. Your capo is in 5th fret, meaning the chords have moved 5 semitones higher.

G —> C
Em —> Am
C —> F
D —> G

So if your sweet spot is in that place. You can just remove the capo and play C – Am – F – G and you’ll achieve the same key for you to sing.

B. To avoid barre chords

This is useful especially for those who play acoustic guitar or those who are just starting. Playing acoustic guitar for a long time makes your hand hurt and doing barre chords can be a little hard. So how can I avoid that situation? It’s by using a capo.

Many songs that’s in Sharp (#) keys – A#, C#, D#, F#, G# – uses barre chords almost every chord progression that I know. But by proper application of the music theory you can avoid those barre chords. For example, you are in the key of A# and the chord progression is A# – Gm – D# – F. All of that are barre chords. Choose any key you’re comfortable with. Let’s say in the key of G. From the A# to G, you’ll go down 3 semitones. So all chords will go down 3 semitones. If you are wondering if it should be major or a minor chord, imitate the original chord. Major will be major, minor will be minor.

A# —> G
Gm —> Em
D# —> C
F —> D

This is the Major Scale chords of every key

Since you went down 3 semitones, you put the capo on the 3rd fret. And your chord progression now will be G – Em – C – D

Still confused? Where do I really put my Capo now?

So maybe you got confused because the notes are supposed to go higher then now you are going lower?

Here’s a summary to avoid confusion:

If you want to know what chord you are playing without the capo, you will move higher depending on where the Capo is placed. Example, if you are playing a G chord and the Capo is at 2nd Fret, then add two notes to G to determine the real chord. It’s an A chord.

If you want to know where to place the Capo to avoid barre chords or to produce different sounds, you will move lower depending on the target chord you want. Example, if the chord is A and you want to play G, determine how many semitones to get from A to G. It is two right? Then place the capo on the 2nd fret and do the G chord now.

How to play guitar with a capo

You might heard of this or may not, but this is the keys you need to memorize in order to use the capo. This 5 keys (C, A, G, E, D) are the only keys suitable for capo as they use less barre chords.

Chords of the Key of C, A, G, E, and D

The table is the family chords of C, A, G, E, D. It means it is the group of chords that when played together or in succession will sound good. Some of it, if you play normally, are barre chords but there are certain ways that many guitarist do to make it a little easy chord.

These 5 keys should be your target keys if you want to use capo. For example, if you are in key of C. That key is already good if you ask, but let’s say that you want to add a different color to your playing. Your target keys are A, G, E, and D.
If you want to use the key of A, you need to move 3 semitones lower from C to A. That means you place the capo on the 3rd fret. If you want G, you need to move 5 semitones lower from C to G. In summary:

C —> A = 3 semitones lower (3rd Fret)
C —> G = 5 semitones lower (5th Fret)
C —> E = 8 semitones lower (8th Fret)
C —> D = 10 semitones lower (10th Fret)

In this scenario, Key of E and D are not really advisable for acoustic player as the sound will not be that good. That’s how you use the CAGED System. Master the music theory above and using capo will be easy. You may apply it to some songs and not play it on a conventional way, you will be amazed at how a capo can change the feel of the song. And it makes it easier to play too

Conclusion

Capo is easy to use if you understand some basic theory. It also makes some songs easier to play and add some variations to song. Some say its cheating to use this, but it all comes down on how good is the music that comes out of your guitar. Capo is relatively cheap too if you want to do some experimenting. By using capo, you can use various chord voicings that are not accessible in normal way especially when you are in the keys of sharps and flats

Do you have some question regarding the capo? Please leave a comment below and I would like to know what you think about this article

8 comments on “A Beginner’s Guide on How to play Guitar with a Capo – Play without the barre chords

  1. Peace

    Hi Vincent, 

    Your article on A Beginner’s Guide on How to use a Guitar Capo is very helpful to me and I am grateful for the time you took to help me out with my guitar learning struggles. 

    Learning how to play a guitar on a normal day a hard, I mean really hard. You get back aches, aching necks and raw fingers. 

    You get passed that and then you have to learn how to play the guitar with a capo too, it has been tough. 

    Reply
  2. jaykaynigltd

    I always love to play musical instruments especially guitar. I will have to confess that I have not been able to play guitar yet despite many years of learning and practice. I am happy to learn about this Guitar Capo. How to use a Guitar Capo will give me extra chance to get better thank you for sharing. I will love to read about drums too if possible.

    Reply
  3. Nuttanee

    Thank you for such an informative post on how to use capo. Honestly, I have my acoustic guitar for years and  never really get in to it because after practicing it my finger hurts terribly. After reading your post, I got curious and wanted to see the sound difference, and boy it was so much different when using a capo. It has this nice and higher pitch. It is quite cheap as well. Thanks for the post, I will get a capo and practicing on guitar again 🙂

    Reply
    1. Vincent Post author

      Capo is really useful especially when you are singing as you play. Hopefully this will help you achieve greater satisfaction in guitar.

      Reply
  4. smshakil

    Hi Vincent,

    Thank you so much for sharing such an informative article with all the necessary information about “A Beginner’s Guide on How to use a Guitar Capo – Play without the barre chords”

    Really this is an amazing article.I like this article very much.For a long time I’ve been trying to learn how to play the guitar and for that I was looking for a proper guideline and an easy way.Then I found your article about Guitar Capo.But I didn’t have any idea about this Guitar Capo.After reading your article I understand that it will very much helpful for me.I hope it is the perfect guideline for me in this purpose.I have gained all the thorough details of this.I will follow your guideline.I will share this great article with my friends and relatives so that they can benefited from this.

    Reply

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