The question is why would you use a guitar capo on your acoustic guitar. Then you can ask ‘What is the best acoustic guitar capo?’, because the answer will not be the same for everyone. I can tell you that it is not just about price. It does matter where and when you will use it. In this article I am going to talk about:
- Why you would want to use a capo
- Key features to look for in an acoustic guitar capo
- How to use a guitar capo
- Types of Capo
Why would you want to use a capo?
When I first learned to play guitar at the age of 9, my fingers weren’t fully grown yet and my father taught me 3 chords, A, D and E. Lots of songs only had 3 chords so that was fine.
When I got to 10, I found other kids to play guitar and sing with. I had a problem when they were playing in keys other than A, C and G which I had learned by then. Keeping up was difficult. One of them introduced me to an elastic capo. It was cheap and I found I could play in different keys, just by placing the capo on a different fret as though I was playing bar chords.
Now it didn’t matter what key they were playing in. That became even more useful when I played in my high school band, because a lot of the music was in keys like Bb and Eb (for the brass instruments) which are not easy to play, especially for a learner. The same applies when you are trying to play along with a recording. If you don’t know a lot of chords an acoustic guitar capo means you can still play along.
I also found that if I was playing with other people, they might not be able to sing in a key I was comfortable with. I had to be able to play in the key that best suited their voice range. A capo solved that problem for me. It’s also great if you want to jam with someone and explore harmonies, where one guitar uses a capo and the other doesn’t.
Later I was to discover many more reasons to use a capo. For example in my song Only Memories Survive, I wanted to have a sound that was somewhere between a guitar and a mandolin, as you can hear on this YouTube video. I used the chord shapes as if I was playing in C, with the capo on the 5th fret, which effectively changed the key to F.
Key Features to look for in an acoustic guitar capo
Probably the most important one is that it applies even pressure across all the strings. If it doesn’t, it can introduce a very unprofessional buzzing noise, like the embarrassing one you might make when you are still gaining strength to play good bar chords. The best capos will allow you to adjust how they sit on the guitar neck. You should note that not all guitars have a dead flat neck, some are designed with to a bow in them.
You will probably not want to use the same capo for nylon strings, or classical guitar as you would on a steel string guitar. On a nylon string guitar, the best acoustic guitar capo doesn’t need to push down on the strings with much pressure and in fact one that has a lot of pressure could even damage the neck of your guitar (especially if it is a good one, made with light timber). On the other hand, if you use a capo designed for a classical guitar on a guitar with steel strings, it is quite possible that the strings will carve grooves in the bar which holds the strings down. That will mean that you will have to replace it!
If you are playing for an audience, you will not be using the capo, or at least playing with it in the same key for each song. That would sound boring because every song would seem similar to the last one. You need to be able to adjust what fret you have it on, and be able to put it on, and take it off quickly and quietly. You may have noticed that a lot of people place the capo on the head stock of the guitar when they aren’t using it. That’s a very handy feature. You can’t do that with a lot of capos. I have misplaced a few over the years because I put them down and then forgot them.
Another factor that is really important, especially if you are buying an acoustic guitar capo online or in a music shop when you don’t have your guitar with you. Guitar necks come in all shapes and sizes. Some like classical and some jazz guitars have quite wide necks, while others can be quite narrow. The last thing you want is a guitar capo that doesn’t fit properly. If the capo is too small, there is an added risk that it can damage the neck of your guitar because the frame of the capo will be sitting hard against the sides of the neck.
How to use a guitar capo.
The first thing to understand is what key you are going to play in. Each fret on your guitar takes the sound of the note or chords up one tone. So if you were playing in the shape of an E chord and put the capo on the first fret and play the same chord shapes, you would now be playing in F. Move the capo up two more slots to the 3rd fret and play with the same shapes, you will now be playing in G.
There is a simple trick I used to use when I was jamming with other people and didn’t know what key they were playing in. All I had to do was find the main note or tonic of the scale (most songs start and end on that note) by running my finger up the bottom E string. Which ever note that was, was probably the key I wanted. Then depending on the chord shapes I wanted to use, I could count my way up the frets and work out where to put the capo and hey presto, I was able to play along, even if it was in a key and I didn’t know the chord shapes someone else was using.
If you have a good quality guitar that has accurate fret placement, then I recommend tuning the guitar properly before you put the capo on. If the pitch of the frets is not perfect and perfection is not guaranteed even in some expensive guitars, you might tune the guitar with the capo on. You may also want to re tune the guitar when you take it off, because it has applied pressure on the strings and they may have stretched a little. As someone who used to have perfect pitch, there is nothing worse for the educated audience if your guitar is slightly out of tune.
Types of Capo
There are many types of capo and while the topic of this article is about the best capo for acoustic guitar people have different preferences and whilst some people might argue that a G7th or a Shubb Deluxe is the best, it really does come down to a balance of budget and personal preference. Personally I have several capos.
I even have a few unique capos like the Spider Capo which allows you to select one or more individual strings, rather than all of them at once. This is wonderful for improvising or playing with open tunings without having to re tune your guitar. Another type which is popular with people looking for some variety in their style of playing, or a way to come up with new sound ideas is one that covers the bottom or top 3 strings. And no, that would not be the same capo, because one of the factors you want to consider is the way the capo sits in relation to your left or finger stopping hand (the opposite one to the one you strum with), because the mechanism can get in your way when shaping chords.
There are cheap capos and expensive capos. You might start with cheap ones and then based on your needs and experience, but a word to the wise. If you are performing, whether it is at a folk club, an open mike or in some other public setting, you can’t afford to have gear failure. Last year I bought a cheap imitation of a Spider Capo from a Chinese web site. I used it twice and it snapped when I was screwing it in place. I contacted the supplier and their response was that because I had used it, they could no longer cover it by warranty. My great deal wasn’t so great after all.
So what is the best acoustic guitar capo? I’m afraid I have to say that there is no simple answer. Lots of people have opinions and preferences, but it will come down to what is the best fit for your purpose. In this article I discussed why you would want to use a capo. It might be that you are a beginner or intermediate level guitar player and a capo gives you more flexibility. It could be that you are looking for a particular type of sound. I gave you the example of wanting my guitar to sound a bit like a mandolin in one song. A capo makes the guitar more versatile. Not that you shouldn’t have more guitars, but that’s another story.
I wrote about key features to look out for. Even the ‘best’ capos come in all shapes and sizes. The most important of all is that every note on your specific guitar, at whichever fret level you want to play, plays crisp, clean and in tune. Depending on when and where you are using it, you may want to put it on, adjust it, or take it off again quickly without damaging your guitar or the strings, and without distracting your audience.
A key factor in how you use your capo is in understanding the key you want to play in, even if you don’t know its name. It can make you more versatile whether you are a learner or have been playing for years.
There are many types of capo and I haven’t covered them all. Very important considerations are whether you have a steel string or classical acoustic guitar and how wide the neck is. As your playing gets more sophisticated you will probably gather a range of capos, especially if, like me, you end up with several guitars.
I hope you found this article useful and welcome any comments or questions.