How to Simplify Chords by Using a Capo

01
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Chord Changes Based on Capo Use

musical alphabet capo
count backwards on the musical alphabet to figure out simpler ways to play difficult chord progressions.

Most guitarists have, at one point or another, used a guitar capo. Although guitarists use capos for several reasons, we're going to look at how to use a capo to come up with simpler chords for a song, without changing its key.

Using a Capo to Make Difficult Chords Simpler

Because of the way a guitar is tuned, there are a number of keys that are easy for guitarists to play in. Many pop, rock, and country songs are written in the key of E, A, C, or G - probably because they were written on guitar.

These same keys are not necessarily easy for other instruments - horn players have a very tough time playing in the key of E, for example. For this reason, songs prominently featuring horns are often written in keys like F, B♭ or E♭. In other situations, a singer's vocal range will dictate the key of a song - if their voice sounds best in G♭, then everyone will be playing in G♭. In these cases, a capo can be a good friend to a guitarist.

Using a Capo to Make Difficult Chords Simpler

All you need to figure this out is a working knowledge of the 12 tones in the musical alphabet (A B♭ B C...) appearing in the image above. The concept is simple:

As you move your capo up a fret on the guitar, the root of each chord you play should drop by one-half step (one fret).

Let's illustrate this in the following example. Here is a sample chord progression:

B♭min  -  A♭  -  G♭  -  F

This is a simple chord progression that nevertheless isn't so simple for the beginner guitarist, as it requires a lot of barre chords. We can use a capo, however, to make this task easier.

Step 1 - Place your capo on the 1st fret of the guitar

Step 2 - For each chord, count backward on the musical alphabet by one-half step

Step 3 - Determine your new chord progression

Step 4 - If new progression isn't easier, slide capo up another fret and repeat process

Using the steps above, when we place the capo on the first fret of the instrument, our progression becomes:

Amin  -  G  -  F  -  E

This is a much simpler chord progression to play, and allows for a fuller sound, as you can take advantage of the guitar's open strings. It is important to stress that your Amin chord will sound like a B♭min chord to everyone else, because of your use of the capo.

Using this knowledge, you'll find you can use a capo to play many songs you previously thought were too hard. At first, you may have to take some time to jot down the new chords on a piece of paper before you play them. But, over time, you should be able to do these calculations in real time.

Let's test what you've just learned about capos with the following quizzes.

02
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Capo Quiz: Question #1

musical alphabet
remember: for every fret you raise the capo on the guitar, you'll count backwards one half-step on the musical alphabet to find your new chord.

Below is a simple chord progression that is nevertheless tricky for beginner guitarists to play. By using a capo, we can make these chords much less difficult. Try and figure out an easier way to play the following chords:

Gmin - C - Gmin - C - F

Your goal should be to come up with:

  • the fret the capo should be on
  • the new chords to be played

Use the diagram of the musical alphabet above to help you - remember, for every fret you move the capo up on the guitar neck, each chord in the progression will move down the musical alphabet by one half-step.

03
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Capo Quiz: Answer #1

To jog your memory, here was the question...

Question: how can we make the chord progression below easier to play?

Gmin - C - Gmin - C - F

Answer: By using a capo at the 3rd fret, your new progression will be:

Emin - A - Emin - A - D

How we figured it out: By putting a capo on the 1st fret of the guitar, all our chords dropped by a half-step (F♯min - B - F♯min - B - E). Perhaps a little easier, but not really. So, we moved the capo up to the second fret, and dropped the chords another half-step (Fmin - B♭ - Fmin - B♭ - E♭). Nope. So, we moved the capo up to the third fret, and BINGO! (Emin - A - Emin - A - D)

Ideally, over time, you'll learn to do these calculations in your head, very quickly. Chances are, this first calculation took you a while. Keep trying, and you'll get faster in no time.

04
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Capo Quiz: Question #2

musical alphabet
tip: moving by a "half step" is the same as moving up/down one fret on the guitar, or shifting one position left/right on the musical alphabet above.

Here is another chord progression that could benefit from the use of a capo. Try and figure out an easier way to play the following chords:

B - E - F♯ - G♯min
E - F♯ - B - F♯

Remember, you need to figure out:

  • the fret the capo should be on
  • the new chords to be played

If you're not yet comfortable with the notes in the musical alphabet, use the diagram above to come up with your answer.

05
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Capo Quiz: Answer #2

Here again was the question...

Question: how can we make the chord progression below easier to play?

B - E - F♯ - G♯min
E - F♯ - B - F♯

Answer: There are actually a couple valid answers to this question, but probably the easiest way to play the progression above is by using a capo at the 4th fret, and playing:

G - C - D - Emin
C - D - G - D

Alternately, we could play the progression by putting a capo on the 2nd fret, and playing:

A - D - E - F♯min
D - E - A - E

Both of these progressions work just fine, and both allow a guitarist to take advantage of the warm sound of open strings ringing - something the initial progression didn't provide the opportunity for.

Look for these types of chord progressions - they turn up very frequently - and practice the techniques we've learned, by finding simpler ways of playing the song using a capo. The more you do it, the simpler it will get.