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Acoustic Nation with Dale Turner: Harnessing a Capo’s Unique, Sparkling Magic

A “capo”—short for capotasto, which means “principal fret” in Italian—is a device used to shorten the vibrating lengths of a guitar’s strings; when fitted behind a given fret, it stops the strings at that point, as if you were barring a finger across them, while creating a new “nut,” or “zero fret,” in the process freeing up all four fingers.

While there are different reasons guitarists use capos—for key transposition: playing easily fingered open-chord shapes in higher positions without having to physically alter the way a passage is played; for upper-register, “sparkly,” mandolin-like sounds: using chords that could be played in open position but just sound better and more chime-like voiced at higher frets, as in the Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun”—one of the most musically effective capo applications involves having one guitar playing a part without a capo one while another uses a capo to play a different, complimentary part higher up the fretboard, as if the song were in a different key, but sounding in the same key as the non-capo guitar. (Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle” is one such example.)

A great way to begin cultivating capo magic is to learn how to manipulate the five “CAGED” shapes, which refer to the open “cowboy” chord voicings of C, A, G, E and D major that most guitarists learn early on. FIGURE 1 shows these five shapes moved around the neck to various positions to form various voicings of C major, some with index-finger barres, which can be arduous to play cleanly.

In this lesson, I’ll show you how to use a capo as a convenient substitute for a barre, so that you can play much more finger-friendly shapes in any key you like, simply by placing a capo behind any given fret. For example, an alternative way to play the F–G–C progression shown in FIGURE 2a would be to place a capo at the third fret and play the D, E and A shapes shown in FIGURE 2b, which, thanks to the capo transposition, give you concert-pitch F, G and C chords, respectively. Get two guitarists to play both figures together, and you get a big, stereophonic bed of harmony.

Let’s apply this layered-guitars concept to a contemporary pop/rock context. FIGURE 3a depicts a modern-sounding arpeggiated chord progression in the key of C, played without a capo and spiced up with some common tones on strings 1–3. In FIGURE 3b, a part with the same rhythmic phrasing is played with a capo at the fifth fret, using an entirely different set of chord shapes. Here we’re playing as if we’re in the key of G, but the capo transposes everything up a fourth to the key of C.

Having both guitars playing the two parts together yields beautifully shimmering results—especially when panned hard left and right in a stereo mix, as can be heard in FIGURE 3c online. FIGURES 4a and 4b offer a different example of this complimentary-voicings approach, in this case applied to some fingerstyle arpeggiation. Here we have a non-capo part in C layered with a part capo-ed way up at the 10th fret that sounds in the same key, thanks to the capo. (The two parts can be heard together in FIGURE 4c online).

For other inventive capo usage, in addition to all the partial capos (capos covering only a few strings) and artists using multiple capos (Adrian Legg comes to mind), check out James Taylor’s hit, “Your Smiling Face,” for which he actually moves his capo at the beginning of each verse (yes, while playing!) to modulate to a higher key while using the same chord shapes!

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Musicians Institute instructor and author/transcriber Dale Turner played all the instruments/voices on his latest CD, Mannerisms Magnified.

Dale Turner

A singer-songwriter/multi-instrumentalist/film composer, Musician's Institute instructor, and author of 50+ transcription/instructional books, Dale Turner is also Guitar World's "Hole Notes"/"Acoustic Nation" columnist, and the former West Coast Editor of Guitar One magazine. Some of Dale’s old, weird, rare, and/or exotic instruments are featured in his score for WEEDS, the first animated short completed within the Filmmakers Co-op at Disney Feature Animation. His most recent CD, Mannerisms Magnified, was praised by Guitar Player magazine for its "Smart pop tunes that are crammed with interesting guitar parts and tones ... Like what the Beach Boys might do if they were on an acid trip that was on the verge of getting out of control. Yeah!"