When two guitarists get together to play, it’s natural for them to play the same chord voicings in same places on their guitars. A more interesting approach is utilizing a capo on one guitar while the other player (usually) stays in 1st position. This can be confusing to many beginners but the pay-off is a wider range of sound, which always sounds more interesting. So how is it done? Where should the capo go?
To understand this you must have at least a basic understanding of the intervals (musical “spaces”) used in music. In Western music, i.e., not music from other cultures such as far eastern and near eastern music, we define intervals in terms of whole steps and half steps. If you don’t have knowledge of this concept I would urge you to do some research – there are plenty of web sites and of course books that explain the basics of music theory. In a nutshell:
We give a letter name to each note (and the chords that are built with them), A – G.
The musical space or interval between those notes is as follows:
A – B: whole step (the note between is thought of as A# or Bb, depending on the key)
B – C: half step (nothing between)
C – D: whole step
D – E: whole step
E – F: half step
F – G: whole step
G – A: whole step
On the guitar, the distance from one fret to the next is a HALF STEP. So, for every fret you go up the neck with a capo, you are RAISING the sound of the guitar by ½ step. Now, here’s the take-away regarding capo placement:
If you want your capoed guitar to sound the same as the one playing un-capoed, you must think BACK ½ step for every fret you go up with the capo.
If that sounds confusing, here are some examples. I will refer to the un-capoed guitar as Guitar 1, and the one using a capo as Guitar 2. We’ll start with Guitar 2 placing the capo on the 2nd fret (or more accurately, just behind it):
Guitar 1 plays E Major = Guitar 2 plays D Major
Guitar 1 plays A Major = Guitar 2 plays G Major
Guitar 1 plays F# minor = Guitar 2 plays E minor
(you notice it is the “first name of the chord” that is affected, not the family of chords, i.e., Major or minor. The same thing goes for altered chords such as 7ths, 6ths, etc.)
I use capoing at the second fret as an example because you just need to think back 1 step to find the matching chord. Many players prefer a wider, more interesting range of sound and will capo farther up the neck. Capoing at the 5th or even 7th fret while playing with an uncapoed guitar really opens up some interesting sounds. Here are some examples – we’ll assume Guitar 2 has a capo at the 5th fret, in other words, that guitar is now 2 ½ steps higher in pitch than the un-capoed Guitar 1, so the player of Guitar 2 must now think BACK 2 ½ steps:
Guitar 1 plays G Major = Guitar 2 plays D Major
Guitar 1 plays C Major = Guitar 2 plays G Major
Guitar 1 plays E minor = Guitar 2 plays B minor
Guitar 1 plays A minor = Guitar 2 plays E minor
Guitar 1 plays D7 = Guitar 2 plays A7
Give it a try! Even if you don’t play with anyone else on a regular basis, record a song and then capo up and play along. If you’ve never done it, I promise you will love the bigger, more interesting music you’re making.
Peace & good music,