© 2015 by Gary Lee Joyner
A former participant in my guitar classes at Blue Bear School of Music, San Francisco, who is now a geographically distant friend recently asked my impression of guitar capos. Here's his question followed by my response. By the way, his name is also Gary.
Gary, What are your thoughts on capos?
Playing guitars with a friend, he was of the view that with acoustic guitars,
we should play in first position. I occasionally capo for singing.
My first thought is how good you are at
bringing up interesting topics.
I love thinking about capos. I have led
lots of workshops about capoing, often under the title “This Isn’t Your
And I like bringing different ideas
together…to expand ways of thinking.
For example, in a tangential way one
might compare capos to the movable frets of a sitar. Similarities, differences,
parallels? Fun to think about.
Or…since capos are in fact simply
clamps they might be compared to clamps in a workshop…or in surgery. Holding
something together…keeping something at bay…musical sound as glue or blood
Or…more directly…capo usage can be
compared to a transposing instrument. One can play and think in C while
actually sounding in Eb by capoing at III. This tidy benefit led to guitarists
being seen as poor musicians when they had trouble communicating with other
musicians. A pianist isn’t impressed when you say “I don’t know, I’m playing in
C” when he/she is hearing Eb.
These days I encourage people to think
in terms of the key they are actually sounding with a capo in the mix…rather
than the forms they are playing. It’s really not that hard. A thorough,
accurate understanding of the CAGED concept is all it takes. Sadly, talk about
CAGED tends to be ill-informed, not thought through, or polluted by fear and/or
arrogance. For starters, calling CAGED a “system” leads to confusion.
The term “system” can be conceived in a
couple of significantly different ways. I suspect that people hear “CAGED
system” and misunderstand it to be a proscribed methodical approach to
something, similar to the “Stanislavski System” of acting or “the 12-tone
compositional system”. It may be less confusing and even useful if one compares
the CAGED “system” to a plumbing system, a matrix. An understanding of an inevitable
structure can help one function. But you don’t need to know about it to turn on
the faucet. Musical sound as water...
But I digress. Picking up where I left
off about capos…
A curious thing is that sitar playing
or building a birdhouse in a woodshop or vascular surgery or Eb alto saxophones
don’t arouse the dogmatism, argumentation, arrogance, or misconceptions that the
proposition of capos arouses.
Here’s the deal. If you never use open
strings when you are playing guitar a capo won’t be of any use to you.
Actually, that’s not even true. Let’s say it won’t be of musical use to you. There can be physical applications. For
example, if you are training yourself to play something with wide stretches in
the fretting hand it can be helpful to capo at V or so and slowly work down
over time as you become more limber. Another example of a purely physical
application—a capo can make the action feel “lower”…that is, the rise of the
string above the fingerboard is higher off the nut than it is over a fret. In
another way, a purely sound-related application can be demonstrated by playing “Here
Comes the Sun” in the key of D without a capo and then playing it with the same
chord forms, but capoed at VII (which means you are actually sounding in the
key of A). The sonic/timbral difference is immediately clear. You were playing
on a “big” guitar with long strings. Now you’re playing on a “little” guitar
with much shorter strings.
But strictly speaking, if you don’t
utilize open strings a capo won’t be of any direct musical use. And that
musical use is essentially transposition. Jazz guitarists don’t seem to
gravitate toward capos. It’s not because they are more highly evolved human
beings. They just don’t tend to use open strings. Using a capo with awareness
of true keys and musical effects is very sophisticated in itself. A grounding
in transposition is a great place to start.
(Ironically, Peter Einhorn, a jazz
guitarist, has developed one of the most brilliant partial capos on the market.
See next paragraph.)
Here’s a related topic that has excited
me for a bunch of years now—partial capoing. This has to do with capoing only
selected strings, often at different frets using multiple capos. (The sitar
analogy becomes even more apt.) This can be approached simply or deeply. There
are a number of partial capos on the market that offer a place to begin. I
customized a couple dozen different variations for myself before Peter Einhorn
created his universally applicable Spider Capo. Shubb Capos are particularly
amenable to the alterations I experimented with on my own. I still use a bunch
Depending on your guitar neck, it might
work to begin by simply flipping a standard Kyser capo over to simulate both
Esus and A partial capos. The piece that was on the back of the neck is now on
the front. Or you can simulate Drop D tuning by clamping your Kyser from below
and leaving string 6 open.
Confusion has entered the scene because
partial capo manufacturers advertise partial capos as quick ways to altered
tunings. This is wildly inaccurate. Standard tuning, altered tunings, and
partial capoing are three separate and distinct approaches. Each one is a
completely different entity—evidenced by people like David Wilcox, and myself, who
have combined altered tunings with partial capoing to create yet another
playing environment. But the beauty of basic partial capo usage, i.e. a partial capo used with standard tuning, is that you still have all your familiar chord forms while the “open” strings offer wonderful new combinations of sound that can be surprisingly and happily disorienting.
(There are many topics touched on above
that need meta-hyperlinks because they each open entire new cans of worms. Pomo
guitar ruminations. No time now.)
A final thought. The idea “he was of
the view that with acoustic guitars, we should play in first position” really
has me scratching my head. I operate with the idea that “shoulds” and rules
don’t serve art/creativity…preferring to think in terms of what is useful in
pursuit of a desired result. Any rule is useful only for achieving and/or avoiding
what the rule is about. If you want the opposite effect the rule needs to be
reversed. The “rule” your friend mentioned strikes me as particularly
ill-considered and self-limiting. Acoustic guitars sound wonderful in first
position, but a lot of fine music wouldn’t be achieved if we limited ourselves
to that area. Maybe there was an implied intent that I’m missing…
A final-final thought. I once heard a
drummer interviewed about working with saxophonist Wayne Shorter. They were
dealing with some predictably difficult music, and she was having a hard time
with it. Really freezing up. Starting to cry. She said that Shorter stopped
everything, took her to another room, and gently said, “Relax. It’s only