A capo on an acoustic guitar at the second fret
Use a capo to turn your guitar into a transposing isntrument

Are you interested in transcribing music for the guitar?  Here is how to transcribe and arrange songs for fingerstyle guitar and when you should use a capo.

If you are looking to transcribe music that is written in a key that is difficult to play on the guitar, you can use a transpose this arrangement into an easier key to play on the guitar. Then you can use a guitar capo to bring the instrument into a different key.

For example, if your arrangement is in E flat major, you can place a capo on the third fret and play in C major, which is an easier key to play on the guitar. I define difficult keys as those which have lots of barre chords or lots of accidentals in the key signature. 

Here are the steps to transcribe fingerstyle guitar music with a capo:

  1. Determine which fret the capo is placed on
  2. Use a media player to transpose the music down the appropriate number of semitones
  3. Create your guitar transcription in normal tuning

By following these steps, you will be able to quickly create or transcribe fingerstyle guitar arrangements with a guitar capo.

What Does a Guitar Capo Do?

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.

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.

What Is A Guitar Capo Used For?

You can transpose music into a different key just 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.

For 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.  

Guitar Capo Transposition Chart For a C Major Chord

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

To transpose a guitar chord with a capo, determine which fret the capo is placed, and raise the fundamental note of the chord by that number of semitones.

If I place a capo on the first fret and play a C chord, that chord will now sound like D flat. If I place my capo on the second fret and play a B minor chord, the resulting chord sound will be C sharp minor. 

B minor chord with capo on 2nd fret
This is a B minor chord which produces the pitches of the chord C Sharp Minor when the capo is on the second fret.

How To Transpose A Fingerstyle Song Using an App

You may be looking to play a fingerstyle arrangement that already uses a guitar capo. In this case, I'll show you how you can transpose this arrangement to C major for easier transcription.

Once you know on which fret the capo is placed, you can use the transposition or pitch modification functions of the media player to bring your arrangement down into normal tuning.

In MPV video player, you can use the "rubber band" to transpose the music by a certain number of units called cents. This chart will show you the relationship between cents and semitones for transposing music with a capo.

Transposition Chart For MPV Media Player

Semitones Down Cents value
1 0.9438743126816935
2 0.8908987181403393
3 0.8396078054371148
4 0.7900137734439613
5 0.7420635105153656
6 0.6957222550505588
7 0.6510075918168027
8 0.6079194109207544
9 0.5663978323691282
10 0.5264045494833026
11 0.4879095812018027
12 0.4508845152426485

For instance, let's say our guitarist is playing music with the capo on the third fret. I want to bring the music down so that the guitarist is playing with no capo.

I need to bring the music down 1½ steps, or three semitones, to hear it as if there were no capo. After locating the corresponding cents value in the table above, I call the media player with this command:

mpv.exe --af=rubberband=pitch-scale=0.8396078054371148 my_media_file

Let's say a song you want to learn is in F sharp major. I prefer to transpose a melody down to C Major with a media player and work out the melody in a key that has no sharps or flats. 

A woman holding a score with a guitar
I’d much rather do a transcription of a song transposed to C Major rather than transcribe a song in D flat major.

Pros and Cons of Using A Guitar Capo

Let's look at the advantages and disadvantages of using a guitar capo in your arrangement.

Pro: Brighter Sound

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.

Con: No Bass Notes

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.

Girl with a guitar capo on 4th fret
If your song is in E Major and you use a capo, you will lose the ability to play the low open ‘E’ note.

You can attempt a workaround where you tune down the largest string to a lower note before using a capo, but be aware that this may present other difficulties with your fretting hand.

Pro: Easier Fretting Hand Position

By placing a capo in a higher fret (beyond the fourth fret), means that you will be playing in higher positions. Therefore, stretches are now available to you which normally cannot be done in the lower positions.

A fingerstyle guitarist playing in a high position with a capo
Stretches are smaller in higher positions on the guitar.

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.

Con: Difficulty With 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).

Can You Play Any Song On Guitar Without Using A Capo?

Yes, you can play any fingerstyle song in any key that you like on the guitar, in standard tuning. However you will lose the advantage of the capo which lets you play in an easier key.

In my fingerstyle arrangement of What makes you beautiful by One Direction, by placing a capo on the fourth fret I play in C major but the guitar sounds in E Major. By transposing the song into an easier key, I’ve eliminated all the barre chords. 

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. I have gotten rid of all of the barre chords.

On the other hand, Love Yourself arranged by Sungha Jung 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 sharp Minor and F sharp minor: all are barre chords except for E.  It's a beautiful arrangement that you can learn to play, but it contains a lot of barre chords.

If you have trouble playing barre chords, my online fingerstyle guitar course Play Fingerstyle Guitar Now! has an in-depth module showing you my best tips on getting barre chords to sound good.

Is using a capo cheating?

No, not at all. It's perfectly OK to use a capo with your guitar arrangement. My rule of thumb is to use a capo if the song is in a key other than C, G, D or A major. Or, in the case of minor keys, I won't use a capo if the song is in D, A, or E minor.

Try playing 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, there is an entire section in my course Play Fingerstyle Guitar Now! which shows you how to create a fingerstyle guitar arrangement.

Read More of My Best Fingerstyle Guitar Tips