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Six String Theory // The Capo

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Editor’s Note:  This tutorial assumes that the reader has at least a general understanding of a guitar and basic fretboard theory, including key signatures, note names and guitar-centered terminology.  If you are unfamiliar with these concepts, please refer to this post for a great introductory lesson about basic fretboard theory.

A capo (short for the Italian word “capotasto”, which means head of the fretboard) is device that allows you to raise the pitch and natural key of a stringed instrument. If you put a Capo on the 1st Fret then the key of E becomes the key of F. Throw a capo on at the 4th Fret and the key of G become the key of B.

There is the stereotype that worship leaders tend to use them so they can play “in G” no matter what key they are really playing in, and while there is some truth to that, let’s take a look at why capos are used, and what are the Pros and Cons of using them.

Why Use a Capo?

There are many reasons someone would use a capo in a worship setting. Let’s take a look at a few of them:

Piano: The piano and the guitar are the Ying and Yang of worship music. Both are very versatile and both are very common, but both are in opposition to each other as far as rhythm, range and timbre, to name a few. Have you ever had a piano player lead a song in G-flat minor? What about C# Major?  Those aren’t really common keys for guitar players, but throw a Capo on at the 1st fret and you’re able to play chord shapes from the key of C in the key of C#, and everything gets a whole lot easier.

Vocals: I have found that the key of F works well for my vocal range. However, my fingers are not fond of B-flat, which is the IV chord in that key, so I will often use a Capo on 3rd fret and play in D instead. I recently read an interview with a session guitar player who didn’t like B-flat either but found a lot of lady singers did well with it so he would use a capo on 1st fret and play in A.

2nd Guitar: Generally speaking, unless you are going for a “chorused” or “overdubbed” sound, you don’t want or need two guitars doing the exact same thing. When I’m playing 2nd or “lead” guitar, I will often use a capo. If the song is in G, then I’ll put the capo on 5th fret and do lead work in G with chords shapes from the key of D. If the song is in the key of D, then I’ll go with 2nd fret.  I’m playing the same chords, just with different voicings in the key of C.  This can help clear up the sound and give it a little more flavor.

Alternate Tuning: I’ve done this in the past and have seen others do it as well, but tune your guitar either half a step, or a full step down (E would become D, etc). You could then play in a lower tuning (works great for men’s meetings) and put the capo on 2nd fret to be in the normal tuning when playing with a band. I’ve also heard some guitarists say they like how the strings sound a little looser with the capo on, but that’s a matter of opinion. Also, you can get a “drop D” capo that doesn’t cover the low E string, and use two capos to create the “drop D” tuning but in the key of A# or E-flat. Plus, if you’re playing in an open tuning, a capo can be a big help during a set list.

What Are The Pros?

On top of all the reasons listed above to use a capo, flexibility and versatility are the major pros.  But, they don’t come without their challenges!  As an example, it can be very difficult to use a capo in a worship setting without being able to transpose chord charts in your head. Being able to see a chart for a song in E, G or F and then play it in D, C, etc without having to write down corrections takes time, practice, and effort.  The rookie mistake is for a worship leader to use a capo but not update the charts. If you are playing D but the Song is in E, the bass player, piano and other guitar players all need the right chords and it’s honestly rude to expect them to write in the changes on the fly or to have the ability to transpose in their head.

What Are The Cons?

When it comes to using a capo, there are three main cons.  Firstly, the long term loss. In the short term a capo can cover for chords and keys you aren’t familiar with or don’t like. But what about the long term? Will you allow this to limit your growth as a guitar player? Another thing to be mindful of us the thinner sound: If you put a capo higher up you get a higher, “thinner” sound.  Using a capo on high frets causes loss of body and low-end to your guitar, so you’ll be playing with a much brighter, thin sound.  The third con to using a capo is the possible impedance of the flow of the worship set.  One of the biggest killers of “flow” in a worship set is the over use of capo, where the leaders (awkwardly) changed capo settings four times in a 5-song set.  When putting a set together, try to keep the changes down by grouping songs with or without a capo together, so the first two songs are without a capo and the last three are with one, for example.

Give It A Try

A capo is a great tool and something worthy of being explored.  Worship leaders and casual guitarist can benefit greatly from using one. It can really help you out when looking for the right key to sing a song in, or if you’re working with different vocalists who have different ranges.

We’ve got another great post to help you take your capo skills to the next level here.

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3 Responses to “Six String Theory // The Capo”

  1. One more con: unless your guitar is perfectly intonated at every fret, you’ll need to make small tuning adjustments between capo changes. That’s possible if you’re just the guitarist but super awkward if you’re the worship leader.

    I use a capo frequently, but usually only when the original voicing calls for it.

    • Hi Phil,

      I hear what you’re saying. Which is a good argument for finding a great guitar teach and having your guitars set up well.

      I’ve found that that tuning changes on my guitars are so small it hasn’t mattered. But it’s something to be aware of.

    • An adjustable tension capo lets you get make minor adjustments and helps to get those tuning issue closer to pitch. However, you’re right, you can only be so precise when playing live. Knowing your gear and it’s tendencies is a must.

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