Capo, from the Italian capotasto, refers to both a playing technique and the modern device that makes it easier. The playing technique, also referred to as the French “barre” method, uses the pointer finger to stop the strings on a fret, raising their pitch. A capo is a clamp device that performs the same task.
Often, a capo is used to transpose a song up a whole or half-step. This helps to accommodate a singer’s range when a guitarist provides the accompaniment. It can also make the fingering of certain chords easier.
Guitarists can use a variety of capo techniques to alter the mood of their playing, including the partial capo, which clamps and changes the playing length of just a few strings. (It’s also possible to use a regular capo for some partial techniques, if it’s attached so that it misses one or more strings.)
One style of partial capoing sounds similar to Drop D tuning (when the lowest string, E, is dropped a whole step to D). For this sound, capo all strings but the lowest, and play most chords as you normally would. You’ll notice that chords that use the sixth string will sound different because that string will be a whole step lower compared with standard tuning intervals.
If you want to try other options, capos like the Shubb C7B provide an excellent starting place. Placing the partial capo over the ADG strings produces a sound similar to DADGAD tuning. Many guitarists refer to this technique as “artificial DADGAD.”
The drone of the open lowest string, which provides a sound reminiscent of Celtic music, characterizes DADGAD tuning. Using a partial capo without retuning the strings, the notes are EBEABE—the same intervals and mood as DADGAD, but transposed up a whole step.
One inventive contraption, the Third Hand Capo, has six individually adjustable rubber pads, and allows the guitarist to capo any combination of strings on a fret, making the possibilities seem almost endless.
It’s important that a capo evenly distributes pressure along each fret, especially if the back of your guitar’s neck is curved. This prevents buzzing from strings that aren’t held tight, and ensures that strings aren’t pulled out of tune by a capo with too strong of a clamping mechanism.
Bring your guitar with you when shopping for a capo so you can try it. Experiment with different tunes and be sure to check that the rubber on the capo is sufficient to protect the finish on the guitar’s neck.
Clutch capos can work efficiently up to the 11th fret. They have no extra levers to get in the way, do not pull strings out of tune, can be adjusted in tiny increments, and are quick and easy to adjust with one hand. However, they can be more expensive, priced around $40.
Lever capos use a spring-operated mechanism and can be removed quickly and easily with one hand. However, that same mechanism can give them too much strength and cause them to pull strings out of tune. Applying the capo close to the fret may reduce this problem. Lever capos can move, or even come off, if they’re knocked during an intense jam session, so be sure to place them securely.
Partial capos often use the same design as lever capos, but only fret a portion of the strings. This provides even more versatility, and allows players to fret the open strings below a capo. You can also add another capo above it for even more tuning techniques.