How to use a guitar capo properly

One guitarist friend, Ted from local band The Lonely, refers to the guitar capo as the “Devil’s Clamp”. We all know what he means, it’s a necessary evil sometimes if the singer needs to be up a tone or two to match their range but the guitarist really doesn’t want to re-learn the song with all those altered chord positions and inversions. Moreover, using a capo keeps the sound of the song similar. After all, playing the basic CAGED chords with open strings is very different in terms of timbre and sustain etc than playing them at second positions.

There is a caveat, of course, a capo on the first three or four frets doesn’t alter the overall sound of the guitar very much, but once you get past fret five and you’re capoing at fret 7 say you’ve lost most of the bottom end and are getting an almost mandolin sound now with very little sustain when compared to those open strings without the capo. Compare two fairly similar, folky songs – James Taylor’s Fire and Rain (capo 3) versus The Beatles’ Here Comes the Sun (capo 7).

Anyway, whatever your reasons for using or not using a capo and there are many, there are a few tips and tricks that can help you get the best out of it without causing problems for your guitar. I did a rough-and-ready video tutorial just to show you what I’m talking about, in the vid I’m using a spring-loaded Kyser capo.

  1. Don’t use a capo! Learn your chord inversions all the way up and down the neck, you’ll very, very rarely ever see a classical or jazz guitarist playing with a capo, they just learn how to play properly!
  2. If you really must use a capo, then use it but take it off as soon as you’re finished with it otherwise your strings will continue to bite into your frets all the while the guitar is on its stand or leaning against a wall and you’ll have to have those worn frets replaced or refinished as they become prematurely indented and damaged.
  3. Before putting on a capo, tune your guitar properly. Then once the capo is in place. Gently depress all the strings with the palm of your hand over the sound hole (or over your pickups if you’re capoing an electric). This should correct any disturbance caused by applying the capo as the strings will adjust under the clamp. Neverthelss, you may need to fine tune to the pitch the capo is giving you. Open strings are normally tuned to EADGBe, capo 3 means the strings will be tuned to GCFBbDg, for instance.
  4. Put your capo on carefully and clamp it at a slight angle so that the grip is slightly further back from the fret for the bottom, lower strings and closer to the fret for the higher strings. Ideally, about 1/3 of the way back from the fret for the low E string and about 1/5th of the way back from the high e string. This precludes harsh bending of the string over the fret.
  5. If you get string buzz, move the capo towards the fret a little. It might be that you have to clamp very close to the fret to avoid buzzing. If this is the case, try another type of capo and clamp normally. If there’s always buzzing, then it might be time to give your guitar new strings, a proper setup to adjust action and intonation, and perhaps even a fret redressing if they’re worn or indented.
  6. Make sure the capo only protrudes from the high e-string side of your fretboard enough to ensure the high e-string is properly capoed and no further otherwise the end of the capo can get in the way of your index finger fingering.
  7. Choose a decent quality capo whatever style you opt for. Quick release ones are the obvious choice for live performance when you might have to move it around and take it on and off through a set. But, the more robust clamp-type capos might be better in
    a recording session allowing more precise and stable tuning.

  8. One final tip repeats the one above! Take off the capo as soon as you’re finished using it and retune to pitch to avoid fret damage.

      You can hear my original songs via the Dave Bradley Music Bandcamp page and elsewhere. If you’re a guitarist, you might also like to check out the Sciencebase Classic Chords series, covering everything from Pink Floyd to The Rolling Stones by way of James Taylor and Nile Rodgers.