To Capo or Not to Capo - That is the Question
By Richard Gilewitz
April 2007

I suppose this is an odd way to title an article while offering support for Shubb Capos, one of my favorite sponsors and good friends.  But it's true.  It makes absolute sense not to use a capo when the vocal range of a singer falls within the boundaries of a particular tune that is played without a capo. When I pitch my 12-string guitar down two whole steps to lure out that growl of a freight train roaring down the tracks, I leave my capo in my pocket. On the other hand, there are a plethora of great reasons and specific times when a player and singer can benefit greatly from the proper use of a capo. 

richardHere are just a few reasons that come to my mind. If a singer recognizes that there is a better comfort zone pitched up into a different range, the capo is an ideal solution.  Simply put; if a tune is normally played in the key of E but the singer is more comfortable singing in F, a placement of the capo on the 1st fret would solve the problem without requiring any left hand adjustments from the player.  If a higher pitch in G is preferred, then the capo can be placed at the 3rd fret and so on.  Obviously, some transposing could be done by rearranging the chords, so the tune with no capo being used, is in G.  However, this does not solve the issue in the first place, which was the proper pitch for the singer!

The same idea can be applied to the instrumental player who may prefer the feel of a piece in a different range, which is accomplished by using the capo.  A simple tune played without a capo can present an entirely different impression when the capo is placed at the 4th, 5th or 7th fret.  Much of this involves trial and error and, ultimately the player’s preference.

There are two very nice examples of effective capo use for a 12-string guitar, one of which is when the player wishes to consider pitching the instrument to standard and placing the capo up the neck to create a harpsichord-like effect.  Another is when the instrument is pitched down at least one full step (recommended due to neck tension) and the capo is placed at the 2nd fret.  This allows the singer to maintain a standard pitch for ease of voice range and to keep a level playing field if there are other players accompanying the singer.

For the classical guitarist, a capo can come in handy to simplify some of the incredible reaches that are often required to achieve a wide repertoire.  Also, the capo allows for a lute-like effect when used when playing the Fantasia by Alonso de Mudarra.

A bit of fun can be had when one player might play in a particular key in standard tuning and an accompanying player transposes the piece into another key. With proper capo placement they can play the same chords for more of a unison type of effect.

I save what I feel is the most important for last, since I want to leave you with a possible lifesaver.  I have been fortunate enough during my career to have conducted a multitude of guitar seminars around the world and too often encounter guitars set up with an action that is very difficult to play, even for the experienced player.  The action is the distance from the fret board to the strings and usually a slight neck adjustment is required. In more extreme cases, a guitar luthier can lower it with some nut and bridge saddle work. Using a capo very likely can be an immediate and more than acceptable solution if the player wishes to keep the action as it is for a generally more powerful projection of sound, applying the capo to both lower the action and shorten the fret span for the left hand.  The higher up you go, the less you have to stretch.  This is also utterly ideal for the beginning player who may want to start with the capo at the 5th fret, eventually advancing down the frets as the player progresses.

Hey, your coaches didn't expect you to touch your hands flat on the floor in gym class the first day, did they? Using the capo as a tool and not a crutch, will not only keep the fingers from injury, but will open the door to all kinds of exercises. So consider the capo – or not – the next time you pick up the guitar.

Richard Gilewitz uses the Deluxe S1, Original C1, and the Capo Noir C1K for his 6-string guitars, the Deluxe S2 for his nylon-string guitar, and the Deluxe S3 for his 12-string guitars. He includes capo use during his GillaCamp sessions and demonstrates the techniques of  “to capo or not to capo” at his guitar seminars worldwide.

visit Richard's page at our Shubb Artists site