Use a capo to turn your guitar into a transposing isntrument

A guitar capo helps with instument transposition and can ultimately help you create better fingerstyle arrangements. By using a capo, you can avoid playing in awkward keys on the guitar. However there are some disadvantages to this approach, which we will discuss in this article.

What A Capo Does

The capo shortens the length of the guitar neck, raising the pitch of the guitar. You can lower the pitch of the guitar by loosening the strings, or you can do the opposite and raise the pitch of the guitar by using a capo.

Since the strings are tighter, the timbre of the instrument is changed slightly: the guitar will sound brighter.  You will also enjoy the added response of slightly tighter strings when the capo is used in higher positions.

What Is A Guitar Capo Used For?

Placing a guitar capo on a higher numbered fret will raise the pitch of the guitar. You can turn your guitar into a transposing instrument by using a guitar capo.

This means that the chord C major will sound in a higher key when fretted on a guitar with a capo.

How does a Capo work?

When a capo is placed on a fret of the guitar, it effectively shortens the length of the strings, raising their pitch. The specific interval that the capo transposes the strings depends on the fret that it is placed on.

Look at the following transposition chart to determine how the capo affects the pitch of the guitar.

Fret Number Transposition Interval C Chord Sounds
1st fret up ½ step (minor second) D♭
2nd fret up a whole step (major second) D
3rd fret up 1½ steps (minor third) E♭
4th fret up 2 steps (major third) E
5th fret up 2½ steps (perfect fourth) F
6th fret up 3 steps (augmented fourth/diminished fifth) F♯/G♭
7th fret up 3½ steps (perfect fifth) G
8th fret up 4 steps (minor sixth) A♭
9th fret up 4½ steps (major sixth) A

Capo Transposition Example: The B Minor Chord

For example, if I place my capo on the second fret and play a B minor chord, the resulting sound will be C sharp minor.

Fig. 1 This is a B minor chord which produces the pitches of the chord C Sharp Minor.

The advantage of using a different key

Transposition means  you can create an arrangement of a song in a ‘difficult’ key (i.e. a key that requires a lot of barre chords) and transpose into an easier key on the guitar.  The easy keys are those which use lots of open strings, such as C Major, G Major and D Major.

The Guitar Becomes a Transposing Instrument with a Capo

Remember that when reading tablatures intended for a guitar with a capo, the capo takes the place of the nut or fret number 0.

If you place the capo on the fifth fret, the sixth fret now becomes the first fret, the seventh fret is now the second fret; etc.  

Playing In Higher Positions Makes the Fretting Hand Easier

There are other advantages to using a capo on the guitar beyond changing the timbre and the pitch. By placing a capo in a higher fret (beyond the fourth fret), means that you will be playing in higher positions.

Fig. 2 The Capo makes playing in higher positions easier.

Stretches are smaller in higher positions on the guitar.

Therefore, stretches are now available to you which normally cannot be done in the lower positions.

It’s much easier to stretch from the first fret on the sixth string to the fifth fret on the first string when the capo is on the fourth fret, for example.

Some of the disadvantages of the capo

By using a capo, you will lose access to the low pitches on your guitar. Some guitarists have preferred to retain access to the low open strings by using “half capos” but this presents other fingering challenges.

I prefer to avoid using half capos for reasons that I will outline below. 

The Capo Requires Extra Care when Playing Harmonics

The capo also creates challenges when using guitar harmonics. Since the frets are displaced by the capo, the nodes for your harmonics are now found in different frets.

For example, by placing the capo on the third fret, the node to touch in order to sound the harmonic which is one octave higher than the open string is now three frets past the twelfth fret, i.e. the fifteenth (seen with respect to the guitar without a capo).

Transcribing a Melody That's In a Different Key

Let's say a song you want to learn is in F sharp major, and you've decided to transpose it to C Major.

FIrst, you will need to work out what the melody of the song is. You can either place the capo on your guitar immediately, and suss around by ear until you work out an arrangement.

My method: Transcribe in a Familiar Key

Or, you can transpose a melody down to C Major with a media player and work out the melody in a familiar key with fewer sharps and flats. This is my preferred method.

Figure out first which key the melody is in. Then use a capo to transpose if need be.

I’d much rather do a transcription of a song transposed to C Major rather than a song in D flat major.

Using a Media Player to Transpose Your Arrangements

You can use the transposition or pitch modification functions of the media player to bring your arrangement into a key of your choice.

For instance, if the arrangement is in E flat major and you want to bring it into C Major, transpose the arrangement down  1½ steps. Then, use a capo on the 3rd fret to bring your song arrangement back up to the original pitch.

Deciding Whether Or Not to Use A Capo

Some keys are challenging to play on the guitar but sound beautiful, such as E Major. Having access to the low E bass note is a huge advantage in this key.

An Example in E Major Without a Capo: Love Yourself

There is a tutorial available on my channel for “Love Yourself” arranged by Sungha Jung. This song is in E Major and the arrangement is without a capo. 

In Love Yourself, the chords used in the verse are E Major, B Major, C# Minor and F# minor.  Outside of the first chord in the list, the rest are barre chords.  This can be challenging and somewhat tiring to play.

An Example With a Capo: What Makes You Beautiful

Contrast this to an arrangement that I made of the song “What makes you beautiful” by One Direction. This song is also in E Major, but by placing a capo on the fourth fret I can now transpose the song to C major.

The verse chords which originally were E Major, A Major and B Major are now transposed down to C major, F major, and G major respectively.

Since it’s possible to play the F chord without barring the strings, I’ve eliminated all the barre chords. 

However, by using a capo, I no longer have access to the low open ‘E’ string.

I could try a workaround involving either tuning down the sixth string to Low C before placing the capo, or using a half capo and not stopping the sixth string. In both these cases I create fingering problems which all but negate the original advantage of using a capo in the first place!

There's No Easy Solution

There’s no right or wrong answer when it comes to using a capo in your guitar arrangements. It comes down to a question of ease of playing or timbre.

My suggestion when in doubt is to attempt a new arrangement both with and without the capo to see the relative advantages or disadvantages of each, and choose which suits your tastes.

If you would like more help in creating your very own fingerstyle guitar arrangement, check out my mini-course on how to create a Fingerstyle Guitar arrangement.