I suggested in another post that using a capo can be disorienting and confusing because there are so many different configurations. In this post I suggest a way to limit and make sense of the capo.
My first and most important suggestion is to limit your use of the capo to just two shapes: the open G-shape and the open-D shape.
What can you do with these shapes?
Using just the G and D shapes
Using the G-shape you can stay within the first 5 frets and still get to C:
G0. Open – G(I)-C(IV)-D(V)
G1. Fret 1 – G# – C# – D# (Ab-Db-Eb)
G2. Fret 2 – A – D – E
G3. Fret 3 – A# – B# – F (Bb-C-F)
G4. Fret 4 – B – E – F# (B-E-Gb)
G5. Fret 5 – C – F – G
G6. Fret 6 – C# – F# – G# (Db-Gb-Ab)
D0. Open – D – G – A
D1. Fret 1 – D# – G# – A# (Eb-Ab-Bb)
D2. Fret 2 – E – A – B
D3. Fret 3 – F – Bb – C
D4. Fret 4 – F# – B – C# (Gb-B-Db)
This chart shows how you can play the most commonly used chords in all keys (all 12) by using the capo with just two shapes (G and D), while staying fairly close to the nut. That should eliminate a lot of guess work.
But you can still do better.
When you look it this way you should realize that you really need very few of these combinations. Many of these can be played in the open position, and most of the others are keys you will probably never play in.
I’ll leave you to figure out which keys these would be, but I would suspect there are not a lot of keys you need a capo for.
This suggests that spending a lot of time worrying about capo positions is not worth it. You would be better off to spend the time learning how to play barre chords and make the problems with, for example, F and Bb go away.
Other times you prefer using a capo
There may still be times where you will want to use a capo. For instance, you may like the sound of a particular shape played up the neck (listen to the Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun” for a well-known example of this.)
The other situation is where you come across one of those odd-ball keys (like C#/Db).
In these cases you need a readily available, easily executable strategy for figuring out where to put your capo.
Here’s a suggested Capo Strategy:
1. First, adopt my first rule: only use two chord shapes with your capo: the two that give you the sound you prefer and cover all the keys you’re likely to play in. Here I have suggested G-open and D-open.
2. Understand where the roots of these shapes are found. This will tell you where to put the capo.
For example, the G-shape root is on the G-string at the fret where you put the capo.
The D-shape root is on the B-string 3 frets above where you place the capo.
When figuring out the key of the song use this “root information” found in the previous point. That means, look on the G string or on the B string. Don’t peck around on the rest of the strings.
Even if you don’t spend any time memorizing specific locations the information in the two previous points will tell you where to put the capo and what shape to use.
For example, say you find the root not of a song on the B string at fret 4. According to our rule you should put your capo three frets lower at fret 1. Then play with D-shape chords. You’ll be playing in Eb, but whether you realize that or not doesn’t matter.
Another example: say you decide the root is at G4. Put the capo on the 4th fret and use G-shape (open) chords. You will actually be playing 4 frets (2 full tones) above G. That’s B.
Theses examples should help you see the importance of limiting your shapes to these two, and also of limiting your “root pecking” to just the G and B strings.
And that’s all there is to it!