A Capo (short for the Italian word “capotasto”, which means head of the fretboard) is device that allows you to raise the pitch of a stringed instrument. If you put a Capo on at the 1st Fret then the key of E become the Key of F. Throw a capon on at the 4th Fret and the key of G become the key of B.
The joke is that worship leaders tend to use them so they can play “in G” no matter what key they are really playing in. There is some truth to that however. Let’s look at why Capo’s are used. What there Pros are. What their challenges are. Lastly we’ll look at what their drawbacks are.
Why Use a Capo?
I can think of many reasons someone would use a capo in a worship setting but lets look at a few:
Piano: The piano and guitar are the ying and yang of worship music. Both very versatile, both very common, but both in opposition as far as rhythm, range, timbre, etc. Have you ever had a piano player lead a song in G Flat minor? or C# Major? Those aren’t really common keys for guitar players, but throw a Capo on at the 1st Fret and and C# Major become C and gets a whole lot easier.
Vocals: The key of F works well for my vocal range. My fingers however are not fond of B Flat which is the II chord in that key. I will often use a Capo on 3rd Fret and play in D instead. I read an interview with a session guitar player who didn’t like B Flat either but found a lot of lady singers did well with it so he would use a capo on 1st fret and play in A.
2nd Guitar: Generally speaking, unless you are going for a “chorused” or “overdubbed” sound, you don’t want or need two guitars doing the exact same thing. When I’m playing 2nd or lead guitar I will often use a capo. The song is in G? Then I’ll put the capo on 5th fret and do lead work in G. D? Then I’ll go with 2nd Fret. The same chords played, just with different voicings to clear up the sound and give it a little more flavor.
Alternate Tuning: I’ve done this in the past and seen others do it as well, but tune your guitar either half a step, or a full step down (E would become D, etc). You could then play in a lower tuning (works great for men’s meetings) and put the capon on 2nd fret to be in the normal tuning when playing with a band. I’ve also heard some guys say they like how the strings sound a little looser with the capo on, but that’s a matter of opinion. Also, you can get a “drop D” capo that doesn’t cover the low E string, and use two capos to create the “drop D” tuning but in the key of A# or Eb.
What Are The Pros? Why do it?
I’m sure there are more but for me, flexibility, and versatility sum up all the reasons listed above
What Are The Challenges?
-Transposition. I don’t think you can use a capo effectively in a worship setting without being able to transpose chord charts in your head. I can see a chart for a song in E, G, or F and play it in D, I can play D in C, etc without having to write down corrections. This takes some practice and effort.
-Song charts. The rookie mistake is to use a capo but not update the charts. If you are playing D but the Song is in E, the bass player, piano, strings and 2nd guitar all need the right chords and it’s honestly rude to expect them to write in the changes on the fly or to have the ability to transpose in their head.
What Are The Cons?
There are three cons with using a capo as far as I’m concerned.
-The Long Term Loss: In the short term a capo can cover for chords and keys you aren’t familiar with or don’t like. But what about the long term. Will you allow this to limit your growth as a guitar player? I recently played electric guitar in a set lead by piano. I decided to no use a capo as much as possible and found that forcing myself to use awkward chords produced better sounds than the capo would and stretched me as a player. Both good things.
-Thinner sound: If you put a capo higher up you get a higher, “thinner” sound. That’s good if you’re part of a full band. But I’ve seen people lead worship by themselves with capo up too high. It’s a personal opinion but they lost the fullness of their guitar sound and that effects the overall feel of the music.
-Flow: One of the biggest killers of “flow” in a worship set is the over use of capo. I’ve seen sets where the leaders (awkwardly) changed capo settings 4 times in a 5 song set. When I put a set together, I try to keep the changes down and group songs with or without a capo together, so the 1st 2 songs maybe without and the last 3 with or something like that.
Give It A Try
A capo is a great tool and something worthy of being explored and used by worship leaders and the casual guitarist a like.