So you have been playing guitar for a while and learned a stack of basic open chords. Maybe you use the 50 Essential Chords Pack and have memorized all 50. That’s great. You’ve been using these chords to write your own songs and have come up with some good progressions you like. But eventually you feel a little stuck – after a while you get a bit bored of the sound of hearing the basic Am, C, G etc. and struggle to come up with fresh sounding chord progressions for your songs. There’s only so many different ways you can play those same chords. Well the good news is there is light at the end of the tunnel. After you learn the basic open chords you have a few options. If you are ready you can start learning barre chords which are chords that you can move up and down the fretboard. These can be a little tricky for beginners and hard on the fingers. So if you aren’t quite ready for barre chords you have another option – using a capo. This brief lesson will explain how you can use a capo to come up with fresh sounding chord progressions using the open chords you already know. In other words – you can turn the 50 chord shapes you already know into hundreds of new chords.
A capo is a small metal or plastic clamp or strap that is placed over the neck of the guitar. There are plenty of different types but they all do the same thing. You can place a capo across any fret up the neck and it will block off everything below that fret. For example: If we place a capo on the third fret on the guitar – the lowest notes we will be able to play are the third fret by plucking the string. So instead of having ‘open strings’ at the nut, we will have new ‘open strings’ at the third fret. This sounds more complicated until you try it and realise it’s quite simple.
Playing chords with a capo
So what’s the point of blocking off part of the guitar with a capo? Well if we have a capo on the third fret on the guitar and formed a simple Em chord shape pretending the capo is the nut, when we strum the strings it will play a Gm chord. If you think about it, all that is happening is all the notes are moving up three frets (eg: the open E string now becomes G). So when we move all the notes in a chord up, the chord name changes.
Many beginners struggle understanding this concept so if you have trouble understanding this write down all the notes in the chord Em then move all notes up three frets. Write down all the new notes and think about what chord that would become.
So if we keep the capo on the third fret and this time play an Am open chord, what would the new chord be called?
If you are not sure, start off on the open A string and count up three frets. What fret do you land on? C? So if you move the root note up from A to C on a minor chord, what chord do you end up with? Cm.
Here’s another example:
If we place a capo on the sixth fret and play a C Major open chord, what will the new chord be called?
To work it out, find the root note of C Major. The root note is the third fret on the fifth string. Now find the root note for the new chord. The root note for the new chord is F# (or Gb depending on how you look at it) which is the ninth fret on the fifth string. So the new chord is F# Major (or Gb Major).
If you understand how this works, great but if you don’t then don’t stress. After you have a play around with this it will start to make sense. Work through these examples and see if you can figure out what the chord names are with the capo on. If you already have a capo, try playing the chords in the examples and it should make the learning easier.
1. Play a E Major chord shape with a capo on the seventh fret.
2. Play a D Minor chord shape with a capo on the second fret.
3. Play a G Major chord shape with a capo on the sixth fret.
4. Play a Asus2 chord shape with a capo on the fourth fret.
Write down what you think the chords are called before looking at the answers below to make sure you understand how the new chords work. (Answers at the end of the lesson)
Whats so special about all this?
At first glance this may not sound that exciting. But how many basic open chords do you know right now? If you have the Essential Chords Pack you may know all 50. But when you play with a capo every time you put a capo on a fret you effectively have a new set of 50 chords. So after playing around with the capo you have a choice of hundreds of new chords without learning any new shapes. That’s a lot of chords to choose from.
Think about it another way – how many open chords based on F# do you know? Or how many open chords based on Db? Or A#?
The problem with open chords is they are great for certain root notes such as E, A, D but don’t give many useful chords for C#, A#, Db etc. Playing with a capo overcomes this problem and gives you options for all root notes depending on where you place the capo.
So now if you write chord progressions using the chords Am C G and you feel it needs a slightly different sound, have a go playing the same progression with a capo. Playing the same chord shapes with a capo on the fourth fret will give you the chords C#m E B which might be enough to give your song a fresh sound.
The next step – Barre Chords
Barre chords are the next step after you understand playing with a capo. The problem with a capo is it’s pretty hard to change it up and down mid-song. Barre chords let you play almost the same thing without limiting you to one place on the neck. So play around with a capo to learn this concept then when you feel comfortable figuring out the new chord names, have a go learning barre chords.
Example answers: 1: B Major, 2: E Minor, 3: C# Major, 4: C#sus2