If you are a beginning guitar player or trying to adjust to your vocal range or another musician’s abilities, a capo is highly useful. But if you are new to them, using a capo may feel intimidating. For example, should you tune a guitar before or after you clamp on the capo, or does it even matter?
You can tune a guitar with a capo on, but it is not recommended. Since standard tuning relies on adjusting the open strings, tuning with a capo on, which alters their pitch, is redundant. However, if your capo does not produce the correct pitches, tuning again with it on would not hurt.
Read on to learn more about capos and how they affect your guitar.
What Is a Capo?
Source: Fretjam: Using a Guitar Capo
A capo is a standard accessory of any string instrument, including the guitar. The tool, whose name stems from the Italian term for ‘head,’ is a pin that clamps on to the neck of a fretted string instrument.
Capos shorten strings, which results in higher tension, and in turn, raises the pitch. They usually clamp across the whole neck. However, they can get partially fastened to the neck.
In other words, a capo can be a beginner’s tool to make complex chords more accessible or an expert’s tool to change the timbre of their instrument.
So, how does a capo work? To understand this, I need to tell you about the nut, an often overlooked but essential part of your guitar. The nut is right below your guitar’s headstock and above its fretboard. This piece, usually made of metal, plastic, or bone, serves two purposes.
First, the nut is where a string’s vibration terminates. Secondly, the grooves in a nut keep the strings in place, so their pitch does not unintentionally change.
Think of the capo like a second nut. Where you position it determines the pitch and timbre of the instrument. However, a capo is not a substitute since the nut maintains the strings’ lateral positions. In sum, the capo and the nut complement each other rather than work separately.
However, capos have their limits. Their function is to change the pitch of open strings, not fretted ones. In other words, capos shift the pitch of notes that get played without any fingers touching the fretboard.
Since fretted notes result from your finger’s tension on the fret, not the capo, their pitch remains the same. Another point of note is that changing the capo placement will adjust the instrument’s sound, reflecting a shorter-scaled instrument’s tone.
There are different styles of capos out there that attach just behind a fret in various ways. Most capos hold the strings down with a rubber-covered bar, then get fastened via a fabric strap, spring, screw, or cam-operated clamp.
Recently, the partial capo got introduced to string instruments. This variation does not wholly circle the neck, which means it can pin down a selected number of strings rather than all six. Partial capos open up many tonal possibilities without retuning the guitar.
Are capos often used? It depends on the genre of music. Classical and jazz music hardly relies on capos. However, they are standard in blues, flamenco, folk, and transitional Irish music. Furthermore, many rock and pop stars use capos, including George Harrison, Bruce Springsteen, and Paul Simon.
How To Tune a Guitar: A Review
There’s a good chance you know how to tune a guitar, considering you are here. But for the sake of our question, let’s review the basics of tuning.
The short answer for how to tune a guitar is this: the guitar player tightens and loosens the strings using the tuning keys to correctly adjust the instrument.
Turning the key away from you tightens the string and raises the pitch. Conversely, turning the key towards you loosens the string and lowers the pitch.
One can tune a guitar to match multiple desired scales and aesthetics. However, the most common is standard tuning.
There are six strings on a guitar, numbered 1 through six in descending order. In standard tuning, when played open, strings 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, and 1 should correspond to the pitches E, A, D, G, B, and E, respectively. For example, when you play the bottom string without pressing down any frets, you should hear E.
There are a couple of different ways one can accomplish standard tuning:
Tuning With a Chromatic or Pitch Tuner
Chromatic tuning is considered the most reliable.
There are smart apps that perform this function and electronic chromatic tuners you can purchase separately.
Chromatic tuners hear the note you are playing and tell you how close you are to the desired tuned pitch. On the other hand, pitch tuners (i.e., pitch pipes or tuning forks) playback the desired pitch, so you hear how close you are.
Tuning a Guitar Without a Pitch Tuner (or to Itself)
This method is handy when you have no tuner available or are looking for a quick, decent fix. When tuning to yourself, you tune open strings to match the pitch of fretted notes. The order is as follows:
- Hold down the fifth fret on the sixth string. This note is a fretted A on the E string. Tune the open fifth string, or A string, to match the pitch of the fretted A.
- Tune your open D string to the fifth fret of the A string.
- Tune your open G string to the fifth fret of the D string.
- Tune your open B string to the fourth fret of the G string.
- Tune your open E strings to the fifth fret of the B string.
In this case, all of the open strings will be at the correct pitch interval from each other.
Tuning a Guitar to a Keyboard
Tuning a guitar to a keyboard is like tuning it to a pitch tuner. In this case, you would tune the low E string to two octaves below middle C. From there, you either tune the guitar to itself or the corresponding keys going up the keyboard.
Tuning a Guitar With a Capo On
Trying to accomplish standard tuning with a capo on your guitar is a little counterintuitive. After all, wouldn’t it be easier to tune the guitar first and then place your capo accordingly? However, tuning can change when a capo is engaged and disengaged with the neck of the guitar. In this case, it may be useful to tune the guitar again once the capo is on to ensure your open strings have the desired sound. Keep in mind: capos do not affect fretted notes.
When tuning with a capo on, you must account for the effects of the capo. You should listen for changes in pitch respective to the capo’s placement. Each fret up raises the pitch by one half-step (or semitone).
In other words, if you place the capo on the first fret, your open strings (E, A, D, G, B, E) should play F, A#, D#, G#, C, and F. Raise the capo to the second fret, and the open strings should play F#, B, E, A, C#, F# (a whole step above E, A, D, G, B, and E).
Here is a chart for reference:
Source: Fretjam: Using a Guitar Capo
In short, since capos adjust the pitch of the open strings on your guitar, trying to achieve standard tuning with one doesn’t make sense.
However, if you find that the capo does not affect your open strings correctly, it may be worth tuning with it placed on to work out any discrepancies.
The musician needs to understand how the capo affects their guitar and how to use it properly.