to enhance your playing
As soon as I write the word capo, I hear the piano players and other instrumentalists complain and grumble about guitarists “cheating.” While it can be a crutch, if we understand the theory and musical reasoning for using our capo, it can be an amazing tool that allows us to play and lead at the same time or to create voicings that add to the sound of the song.
As young guitarists, we learn the root positions of our chords. As we progress into playing with a worship team, we see that there are groupings of chords within key signatures.
For example, when we are playing in the Key of G we have used the chords G, C, D and E-minor a lot. These chords make up the 1, 4, 5, and minor 6 of the Key of G. For a long time now, a lot of music has been written with these chords at the heart of their theoretical construction.
As guitarists, we should commit ourselves to learning the chords 1,4, 5, and minor 6 in all major keys. This is a skill that will allow us to position our capo and create alternate voicings to root position chords. It also allows us to experiment with range so we don’t muddy the mid-range of our sound when playing with other guitarists. As well, it creates a larger sound when playing with just a pianist but spreading out the phonic range that the listener hears.
These are just some of the reasons why we use a capo. How can we do it well?
1. Don’t reprint chord charts in root position keys
Remember how I said that the capo can be a crutch? Well this is it. Everyone gets confused when the guitarist tries to talk to the other band members about the G chord that is really a B-flat chord to everyone else. This is letting the capo do the work for us and doesn’t encourage us to think musically. I know that initially, you will need to do this when you are learning to play with a capo but try not to do it for too long.
We must strive to develop the skill of transposing root position chords when we are playing with our capo on. When the capo is on the second fret, don’t think of the root position of a G chord but think of it as an A chord.
Again, knowing the 1, 4, 5, and minor 6 structures will help you so much. If you look at a song in the Key of A, you know that these chords are: A, D, E and F-sharp minor. If you put the capo on the second fret, you can play these chords in an open G formation and play G, C, D and E-minor. This will simplify the F-sharp minor chord that would most likely be a bar chord when using open positions. It just gives us a different voicing option.
Part of this is examining the key and identifying these important chord combinations in the song. Then think in that way when you transpose. If we want to play a song in B-flat with our capo on the third fret using an open G formation, try not to start comparing chords by thinking B-flat is now G, E-flat is now C, F is now D etc… Try to think in numeral notation (I, IV, V, vi) or take the chords out altogether. We refer to this as the Nashville Numbers System. This allows you to take the key of the song and assign numbers to the notation. Once you unlock the
structure of the 1, 4, 5, and minor 6 chords, you can put the capo on wherever you like and play functionally from the knowledge you have developed of that particular key. This takes some time to develop but it is worth it.
Take the root position G above and when you use your capo don’t think of it as a G chord anymore. Memorize the transpositions for the root G chord as you move the capo up the neck. This is the one chord of this key when using the G shape. Using C, D and E minor root positions you can also play the 4(IV), 5(V) and 6(vi) chords of the keys below.
Capo Fret 2 - A (I) Capo Fret 3 - B flat (I)
Capo Fret 4 - B (I) Capo Fret 5 - C (I)
2. The capo can unlock finger picking options
Some embellishments (like hammer-ons and pull-offs) can be easily played in certain open chords but aren’t as easy when you have to play in keys that are dominated by bar chords.
Using your capo allows you to find some of the 7th, 9th or suspended notes more easily within these keys. It unlocks another depth of sound intended by the writer that can be difficult for you hand to maintain during a song in a challenging key.
3. Learn how different open key combinations are voiced
This is especially important when you are playing and leading worship by yourself. Using all six strings gives the guitar a chance to show off the beautiful full range and colour of the instrument. Paul Baloche has a method called the “Train Tracks Method” which is essentially based around a root position E and power chords, leaving the top two strings open. This method can then be used in conjunction with a capo to play in different keys. I have used this method when playing in G. Instead of using the root position G chords, I put a capo on the third fret and use this open E style to get a punchier sound during a song.
4. Play in worship-friendly keys
Being able to transpose a song can help us put songs in keys that are better for the congregation. No one wants to come to church on a Sunday morning and hurt themselves while singing. We need to remember that most congregations are going to be comfortable between an A below middle C and 4th line D on the treble staff. This means we can’t always play songs in the key they are recorded. If a song recorded by a super tenor recording artist is best translated to an awkward key on the guitar (but that key works best for the congregation), then the use of a capo will make that song much easier to play.