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When people think of a capo, they most likely think of a singer-songwriter or folk musician with an acoustic guitar.
But what about those who play electric only? Can you use a capo on an electric guitar?
You absolutely can use a capo on any guitar, whether acoustic or electric. That’s because the basic function of a capo — to allow a player to quickly transpose a song to a different key — can be useful not just on any guitar, but pretty much any stringed instrument.
Let’s look at how a capo works, why people use them, why some people mistakenly look down on them, and whether electric guitar players should give a capo a try.
What Does A Capo Do?
Before we get too much further, let’s make sure everyone understands what a capo is and how it works.
In its most basic form, a capo is a bar that a guitar player can attach to the neck of the instrument to effectively shorten the strings, this raising the pitch of the instrument. Playing familiar chord shapes then sound higher, thus changing the key of the song.
The idea likely started hundreds of years ago on fretless stringed instruments like the violin and viola, but the first guitar capo seems to have been patented in 1850 by James Ashborn, a Connecticut luthier.
Where earlier capos had been little more than a yoke to hold the strings, Ashborn’s design used a wooden cylinder behind the neck and used a thumbscrew to tighten down a metal bar.
Being able to tighten down the capo is essential, because it’s the pressure with which the capo squeezes the strings against the fret board that makes it work. Just like using your index finger for a barre chord, the capo sits just behind a fret and when installed properly, each string can be played clearly.
Capos today come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Some are just a solid bar that is secured to the neck with a moveable elastic band, while others use a more complex spring mechanism that makes them easier to take on and off, as well as easier to move to different parts of the neck.
Why Do People Use A Capo?
One thing you’ll read again and again online is that using a capo is “cheating.” That’s a ridiculous sentiment for a lot of reasons.
First, there is no cheating when it comes to playing guitar, because it isn’t a contest and there isn’t a rule book.
This isn’t the mythical fiddle duel between Johnny and the Devil, nor is it Ralph Macchio facing off against Steve Vai at the end of the 1986 blues movie “Crossroads.”
Second, there are plenty of reasons to use a capo. When people talk about cheating, they’re usually talking about players who know just a handful of chords and use a capo to change keys rather than learning new chords.
That can be a fair criticism, but everyone gets to play guitar how they want to. Besides, that isn’t the only reason to use a capo.
One really good reason is to change keys while still keeping the same basic sound of the song. That means playing the same basic chord voicings, because you can tell the difference between a fretted string and a string that’s open or being shortened with a capo.
A good example for electric guitar would be playing a riff or intro to a song but wanting to change the key. A capo allows you to transpose that riff and get the same basic timbre without learning a completely new set of fingerings.
Another reason to use a capo is in a band setting. Depending on the lineup, including the range of the vocalists and what kind of other instruments are involved, you might find yourself needing to change keys for multiple songs.
A capo makes that easier than transposing chords on the fly. While a competent guitarist should be able to make those transpositions, it isn’t always quite so easy, and when you’re dealing with changing keys for multiple songs, a capo makes the process much easier.
Besides, if you’re trying to get the right sound for a sound, sometimes just moving barre chords up and down the neck won’t sound right.
The final advantage in a band setting is if you’re playing with a new group of people or if you’re rehearsing a song together for the first time. Say, for example, the vocalist is having trouble with the key the song is originally in.
Using a capo to transpose the song lets you quickly switch from one key to another, even during the same song if needed, while playing the same chord shapes. Once you settle on a key, you can transpose the chords if you want to, but using a capo makes the entire process much faster during the rehearsal or learning process.
Do You Need A Capo For Electric Guitar?
As I noted at the start, people think of capos as belonging on acoustic guitars, but really, they’re useful on any kind of guitar.
One possible reason that people don’t think about using a capo on electric guitar is that electrics are often associated with two or three string power chords or barre chords, which can make a capo unnecessary.
After all, in a barre chord your fretting hand index finger works much like a capo does.
And once you understand the way you can use the two basic barre chord shapes up and down the neck, it does become much, much easier to transpose songs on the fly.
But, as I noted above, there is a clearly different tone between a string that is held down by a finger and an open string. A string that’s held down by a capo sounds much closer to the latter, making it a good choice when you’re transposing something that used a lot of open strings to get its sound.
This video looks at the differences between transposing chords and using a capo.
While there are a lot of people on the internet who are eager to say that using a capo means you don’t know how to play the guitar properly, we can see that is total nonsense, and, in reality, nearly every kind of guitarist can probably find a use for a capo.
While experienced players should be able to transpose songs without too much trouble, there can be a lot more to playing a song than the individual chords. Getting the right sound with a riff might mean playing some strings open, for example, and a capo offers a sound much more similar to an open string than a fretted one.
What some players online derisively call a crutch is, in reality, a tool that can make changing keys much faster, allowing a player to keep in tune with a vocalist or band much more easily than mentally transposing a song on the fly.
And that is something you can use no matter whether you play acoustic guitar, electric guitar, or both.
I’ve been a musician, particularly a guitarist, for more than 25 years. I love writing about guitars, gear, recording, music in general and more.