A capo is simple device that allows us to change keys on guitar quickly and easily. There are several types of capos around but in the essence, they all work in the same way – by pressing down the strings across the fret. It replaces the barre grip with your index finger, leaving all fingers free. In order to start using a capo to change keys you need to be familiar with several concepts which I’m going to explain here in detail.
- First you need to be able to find notes on E, A and D strings relatively quickly.
This is essential because the lowest root notes of the basic chord shapes (including maj, min, maj7, min7, dom7, sus2/4, min7b5, diminished and others) are found on those strings.
- You need to know all the basic chords in open position
Like Am, D, C, E, G, Em, A… etc
- You need to be familiar with the concept of root note.
A root note is note from which the chord starts and gets its name from. For example, G chord – root note is G and it’s on the 3rd fret E string, or Am – root note is A, on the open A string, D chord – root note on the open D string... Same with other chords.
- You need to know the major scale formula, and which chords are in which key
Formula for the major scale is T T S T T T S. T – tone; S – Semitone. Semitone corresponds to one fret distance on guitar between notes, and tone is a two fret distance. For example G to A on 6th string is one tone. G – G# or Ab (same notes) is one semitone. So in order to form a major scale you would start on any of the 12 notes in music, and apply that formula.
Lets form the G major scale as an example.
Notes would G (T) A (T) B (S) C (T) D (T) E (T) F# (s) G.
Now we have notes of the G major scale, but how do we know which chords belong to this scale?
There’s formula for that too. First let’s give those notes numbers, 1-7.
(1) G (2) A (3) B (4) C (5) D (6) E (7) F#
The formula is:
1. Maj 2. min 3. min 4. Maj 5. Maj 6. min 7. diminished
So going by that formula chords in the key of G would be:
G maj (I) A min (ii) B min (iii) C maj (IV) D maj (V) E min (vi) F# dim (vii)
The same principle can be applied to any other note. Btw, this is really powerful knowledge ;)
- You need to be familiar with the CAGED system (the most important)
CAGED system is the way guitar works, the way in which the notes are organized on guitar neck. It directly comes from guitar tuning. It is the key thing to learn if you want to understand how guitar harmony works, and really “unlock” your playing.
You probably know how to play E chord and A chord, as well as Em and Am, right? Well, if you put a barre with your index finger on the first fret and form the E chord shape with the rest of your fingers, then you would hold an F chord. Why? Because of the root note which is now F on the first fret of the 6th (low E) string. You can also put a barre with your index finger on the 5th fret, and with the rest of your fingers you would form the E chord shape. That would be the A chord, because the note on the 5th fret E string is A - which is the root note.
Let’s try with A shape. If you use a barre with your index finger and put it for example on 3rd fret, and with the rest of your fingers you form the A chord shape, you would play a C chord, because the root note for the A shape is on the A string, and the note on the 3rd fret A string is C.
Those are the E and A chord shapes, and they’re one of the five shapes on guitar. Other shapes are D shape, C shape, and G shape. EDCAG or CAGED (because it has a catchy name). They are the basic shapes from which all other chords are formed.
With those five shapes you can move chords across the guitar neck, and play any chord in any position that you want. :)
E and A shapes are mostly used shapes as they’re the easiest of the five to learn and move around the neck (although they do require that you build some finger strength).
Using a capo to change keys…
What the guitar capo does is, as I said, it works as a barre and leaves your fingers free. That allows you to easily change keys on guitar, without changing the chord shapes.
Let’s try with some examples
We’re in the key of G, and our chord progression goes I – vi – IV - V, which is G – Em – C – D.
If we want to switch our key to A and keep the chord progression the chords would be different.
But if we use capo, and put it on the 2nd fret, we can form a G chord shape, but that would now be the A chord, because of the root note remember? Now we can form the same chord shapes (G shape, Em shape, C shape, D shape), but we would be in the key of A and the chords we would actually play would be A (G shape) - F#m (Em shape) – D (C shape) – E (D shape).
That is how capo allows us to easily change keys on guitar. :)
We can also use capo to stay in key but change the position on guitar neck. For example, we’re in the key of G with the same chord progression, and we want to change position (or shape of the chords) but stay in that key. We can put the capo on the 2nd fret and our G chord would now have the F chord shape but it would still be G of course. If put it on the 3rd fret and we want to play our G chord we would form an E shape chord. If we put the capo on the 5th fret, our G chord would have a D shape. Capo on the 7th and our G would have a C shape, on the 9th fret G chord would be played with an A shape.
That’s the beauty of knowing the CAGED system, and all other stuff that I mentioned here.
Try this with other chords, and you’ll see how easy it is to move them around. :)
Learning to use a capo can really make a big difference in your playing. Sometimes when the melody of the song is too high or too low to sing, you can use a capo and try to sing it in a different key. That’s the main use of capo.
I covered a lot of stuff in this article, if you have any questions feel free to ask them in the comments below and I will answer them.
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